Sunday, May 14, 2006

Latest from Zarin in Budongo: 9 May

Hello all,

Since my last email, I have received a few comments indicating that my emails have grossed out a few people what with the eating termites and all, so I thought I would send a safe email today that includes a few not-at-all-disgusting photos and anecdotes. However, in the next few weeks we will be digging up 3 buried chimp corpses here at camp and so I'm warning everyone in advance that things will be returning to grossness as usual next time around.

First let me say that I appreciate all of your concerns over my little rat problem. I am very happy to report that little Finny has not returned to my room, although there are now some suspicious noises coming from the kitchen at night. While this should probably concern me more than him/her being in my room, I have found that my tolerance for rats, cockroaches and other disgusting things has greatly increased, especially where food is concerned. For example, I am pretty sure that in normal circumstances, if a cookie falls on the forest floor, the 5 second rule should not apply - but when you're living off beans and rice, and a COOKIE falls on the floor, well there isn't much of a choice in the matter, is there?

Ok on to the photos. The first photo (camp2.jpg) is of our camp. You can see the banda which is where we relax especially when it's either too hot to sit in the sun or raining too hard to run to your room. In the background is o

ne of 2 houses that contain bedrooms and offices. This particular building also contains the most important room at camp, the kitchen. We have to keep all the doors shut with latches because (as some of you will remember from the last time I was here) we have a small but significant baboon problem. Some people think it's petty, but I have never forgiven that baboon for stealing my doughnut. (Interestingly, the paw prints are still on the kitchen wall rom that particular incident.) Recently the baboons stole a whole bag of flour and then wandered around camp the next day with white faces.

The second photo (geresomu.jpg) is of my field assistant Geresomu (pronounced Ger-shom). He is the head chimpanzee field assistant h

ere and has been working at the Budongo Forest Project since we started almost 16 years ago. He is incredibly knowledgeable about the chimps and the forest and like Monday (my old field assistant), he really enjoys beef jerky. He was in some sort of military school when he was younger and likes to march, instead of walk through the forest and he also likes to describe the different ways of killing people with machetes. Not sure what they teach in military school here, but it sounds rough.

And now, of course, the chimp photos. The first photo (grooming.jpg) is of some of our adult males (including Musa, Bwoba, Tinka, and Nick) grooming eachother.

The next picture (chimp_camp2.jpg - below) was taken about 20 metres from camp when the chimps were enjoying the mangoes that grow right by our house. They eat the mangoes when they are unripe, probably because if they waited for them to ripen, the baboons would eat them. Of course this means no mangoes for us either, which is not at all surprising considering a chimp can eat about 25-50 mangoes in one sitting.

The last picture is a close-up of one of our oldest chimps, Maani (who also happens to be everyone's favourite chimp on account of his thoroughly pleasant disposition.) Hopefully from these photos you can see how easy it can be to distinguish individuals from one another especially when they are on the ground. Up in a tree, it's a different story - but that is why we have excellent field assistants to help us out.

I thought I would leave you today with some Ugandan urban legends - although it is probably better to say Ugandan rural legends - as told to us by our excellent field assistants. My favourite involves cannibals that live in the nearby Bugomo Forest. Apparently these cannibals use special herbs to bring corpses to life and then they eat the corpses. But you're not allowed to talk to the corpses otherwise you will have to follow them wherever they want to go and presumably you won't be able to eat them then. A particular field assistant claims to have seen a coffin walking down the road when he was in this forest - but I have recently discovered that this same field assistant believes that movies are real and asked one researcher here if there were really green people living in the world and asked me if Arnold Schwarzeneger was really a robot – so I'm not sure if I believe the coffin story. Some of the other stories we were told involve snakes, most importantly the puff adder. Apparently, the ridiculously lethal puff adder will not bite you unless it is lying on its back and is completely docile if it is right side up. All the field assistants know someone who knows someone who sat on a puff adder when it was right side up and it didn't do anything at all. Also, you can kick a puff adder 5 times and it will only bite you on the 6th kick. Again, they all know someone who knows someone who kicked a puff adder 5 times and is perfectly fine, but none of them have ever witnessed this behavior nor have they tried it themselves. Now here's my problem with this: how exactly do you know that someone hasn't come along right before you and kicked that puff adder 5 times and you're the unlikely schmuck you kicks it that 6th time? As I tell the field assistants, I am not particularly interested in testing any of these theories and if I see a puff adder anywhere - I'm just going to leave it alone regardless of it being right side up, upside down or sideways.

Speaking of snakes, I am happy to report that I have seen my first snake on this trip and survived- actually I only kind of saw it. I was walking with some of the field assistants in a particularly dense part of the forest when we came across a hidden stash of illegally logged mahogany. Well we were so interested in these planks of wood that we didn't hear or see the also ridiculously lethal cobra above our heads....ok let's just wait for my mother to regain consciousness....anyways, I only heard the field assistants scream and then run away and saw something black moving in the trees and then I started screaming and flailing my arms about and tried to run away except that I got tangled in some vines. Luckily all my screaming and arm flailing must have scared the snake away because obviously nothing happened to anyone. In the future, I'm not sure this is the best strategy to use if faced with a poisonous snake, but I just got wrapped up in the moment. Well that's another installment of a day in the life of a chimp researcher in Uganda. I hope everyone is doing well and enjoying the nice weather that must finally be upon you. And if you ever want to come visit and check out the corpse eating cannibals, let me know...I'll be here until March 2007!

Love Zarin

Read Zarin's older postings on our Harvard website.