Manno takes first steps in learning how to live like a chimpanzee

More than three years after an Alberta man set out to free a young chimpanzee from an Iraqi zoo near ISIS-held territory, Manno is taking the first steps towards living with his own kind.

It's been four months since Manno arrived at the Ol Pejeta Conservatory in Nanyuki, Kenya, where he was immediately quarantined. On Friday, the four-year-old chimp was released after receiving a clean bill of health.

Wildlife officials moved Manno to the chimpanzee sleeping quarters where it's hoped he'll bond with a 29-year-old female named Akela, and she will take on the role of foster mother and protector.

Caretakers plan to move slowly and carefully so the other chimps don't turn on Manno.

"It's awesome," said Spencer Sekyer, a high school teacher who traveled from Sherwood Park back to Kenya for the latest milestone in Manno's short life.

"Just to see that he's out of quarantine. He's just so bullet proof. He's happy and jumping around; just such a happy little soul.

"He couldn't be in more capable hands. And now the tricky part starts."

Sekyer first fell in love with Manno in December 2013 while volunteering at the Duhok Zoo in Iraqi Kurdistan. The ape was loved and well cared for, said Sekyer.

But he worried it wouldn't end well as the juvenile chimp who loved to play and cuddle grew older, stronger and more aggressive.

Over the next three years, Sekyer and an ever-expanding group of volunteers, including primatologist Jane Goodall's staff, worked hard to relocate Manno from the zoo, 80 kilometres from Mosul.

Finally, last November, the pair reunited and traveled to Manno's new home at the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary.

Since then, Manno has spent his days in isolation, swinging from ropes in a large enclosure and snacking on vegetables, fruits and milk, as his supporters anxiously awaited the test results that would clear the way for his release.

"To go through everything that we went through to get to him to this point, it has taken a lot of people and a lot of love," said Sekyer.

That love was on display again Friday morning as a small crowd gathered for the next chapter in Manno's journey. Excited by all the attention, Manno bounced around his cage, eager to receive rubs and tickles.

As they drove the short distance to Manno's new enclosure, a herd of elephants appeared. "It was almost like they came to greet him," said Sekyer.

Sekyer watched as vets opened the crate and Manno bounded into his sleeping quarters, drawn to the hoots and hollers of chimps he'll soon meet on the other side of the window.

Manno also took some time to groom his old friend Sekyer, picking through his hair and in his ears.

But while he once faced the perils of poachers and the prospect of spending his adult years locked in a tiny cage, it's Manno's own kind that now pose the greatest threat if he's not accepted.

In 2012, the group killed a 10-year-old ape during an introduction.

"That's the real danger point because adult male chimpanzees can be extremely aggressive," said Daniel Stiles, project manager for the Project to End Great Ape Slavery and a key player in Manno's relocation. "Luckily Manno is still quite small so it's very unlikely they will consider him a threat."

Still, his caretakers are not taking chances. Stiles said they'll monitor him closely and the integration will take place over several months.

Manno will start off sleeping in a separate enclosure near Akela, who loves to play with babies and is known for her happy, welcoming ways.

If all goes according to plan, the pair will begin to touch and groom each other. Ideally, Manno's circle of protection will grow as he bonds with Akela's close girlfriends.

"I think the key is having this female really adopt Manno and start to care for him," said Stiles, noting Akela remains close to another chimp named Jane who she also fostered. "He's going to learn how to be a chimpanzee."

Manno's warmth and affectionate ways have already made him a favourite among the humans at Sweetwaters, said Stiles.

"Everyone is really hoping that everything works out because already people have fallen in love with Manno," said Stiles.

"We really, really hope that one day Manno can be running around with the other chimpanzees and just become one of the gang, and enjoy his life as a chimpanzee."                   @andreahuncar