Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Internet is really slow here in Fort Portal. Which means that I can't upload any
of the absolutely fabulous photos that Ian and I have from the past few days in
the forest. Will try again from Entebbe where the biggest event in the
primatological world will be held from June 25th or so: the Congress of the
International Primatological Society. Hopefully there will be internet access

Until then we'll have to use words only.

The past two days were intense. You get up at 4.15, have breakfast and get ready
to leave camp at around 5.15 AM. Then you walk for about 40- 60 minutes to
reach the place where the chimps have made their nests for the night. One
colleague of ours (Herman) had described the terrain of Kibale forest as
consisting of 'undulating hills' in one of his research articles. Undulating is
not the phrasing I'd use to describe the hills we have to go up and down before
the crack of dawn, but I suppose you are not really allowed to use swear words
in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

Once you get to the nests of the chimps, though, it gets fun (well, except when
the chimps start going up and down those 'undulating' hills and you have to go
after them). I still can't fully get over the fact that a bunch of wild
animals, that in some places in Africa are terrified of humans, are totally
cool with having people around them at such close distance on a daily basis.
They really don't care.

I started trying to collect some data for my pilot project which basically means
I am trying to follow one chimp from the moment it gets down on the ground to
the moment it goes up a tree again, usually to eat some fruit. The field
assistants are so helpful - they can tell you which chimp is which just by a
casual quick look at it without even using binoculars, sometimes even if the
chimp is sitting with its back on us. If it wasn't for these guys I'd need
probably months and months before I start confidently recognizing the
individual animals.

Have to go soon now, so just a brief highlight from yesterday:
A group of 6 or so chimps resting on a trail, including the top male, Imoso.
Ubrella with her infant was also there. Two males groomed each other
thoroughly, taking turns. Then they stretched they arms up above their heads,
clasping one hand each, using their other hands to carry on grooming - this is
the so called 'hand-clasp grooming', a kind of chimp culture which you can see
among some chimp communities but not others. Having spent last Fall at Harvard
doing a term paper on this behaviour, it was quite nice to see it live about 15
metres in front of me, performed by two largish and very chilled out males.

There is also a picture but that will have to wait.


Sunday, June 11, 2006

Sunday June 11

My first Sunday at Kanyawara. Life at the field station, is shockingly
comfortable. There are showers with running water (cold, though), there is
intermittent electricity in the houses where Ian and I are based. Chimp house
provides very good catering, too. Toast, milk, tea, pasta, resins and pineapple
for desert. There is even a place here at the station of Makerere University
(which is large complex of buildings where we are) where people can watch the
World Cup live on telly! I’m not joking. Right here in Kibale Forest National
Park. About the only thing which is evidently absent is a wireless Internet
connection. But we’ll survive.

Anyway – the chimps. Yesterday I spent my first entire day in the forest,
following wild chimpanzees from dawn to dusk – from the moment they woke up
sneezing in their nests, to the moment when they decided enough is enough,
broke some branches and made beds for the night after a light drizzle.

It’s really weird to be observing chimps like this. My only previous experience
with watching apes in the wild involved really skittish bonobos in the Congo,
which would wake up, emit a piercing and very high-pitched scream on spotting
you under their nests and make sure they leave the area as soon as possible
without giving you any clues as to where exactly they’re planning to go next.
So you felt really chuffed if you managed to watch them for about half an hour
or so while they urinate and defecate on you from high up in the canopy and
then jump from one branch to another before disappearing into the dense and
humid rainforest. This was mostly due to the fact that when I arrived at the
Lui Kotal research site – the bonobos there have been only studied for about 10
months hence they still considered human observers a potentially dangerous

Here at Kanyawara, things could not be more different. The chimpanzees have been
followed by people for nearly 20 years so the animals are pretty much used to
bipeds staring at them through binoculars and taking notes when they eat, move,
have sex, fight, or play. Most of the chimps here for most of the time see
humans from the moment they wake up to the moment they go to sleep in the
evening. A dedicated team of Ugandan field assistants keeps tracking the
Kanyawara chimps on a daily basis throughout the year even when no students or
other researchers are here to work on specific projects. The data that is being
accumulated in this way over the years is an amazing resource that can give you
answers to many questions about the lives of the chimpanzees. And on Saturday,
for the first time – I was able join a team who was doing just that – spending
the day with the chimps and recording their behaviour.

It was a bit daunting, actually. Not because I was left short of breath most of
the time, while trudging up hill after hill, then down into a valley, then up
again, or trying not to get my eyes poked out or my arms slashed by some nasty
horny slicing plants. It was a bit worrying because things in the field look a
bit different from what you imagined it will be when planning your research.
And when you begin a pilot project on which your future academic career might
depend you can’t help but feel a certain level of anxiety bordering on the mild
panic and then going into a depressed staring into the greenness of the
vegetation in front of you. Until the chimps move again – then you have to let
go of your worries and try to run thought the tangle of vegetation so not to
lose the apes.

It was just very surreal to have chimpanzees walk around you, sit down, scratch,
play with little juvenile chimps and almost completely ignore the presence of
the four people who were following them wherever they went. The closest
experience I’ve had to this was walking my dog. Which, comparatively, was
nowhere near as exciting.

In only a day I saw theses apes fight, scream, get excited about fruit, tease
each other, relax on the ground (for quite a long time, actually), climb in the
canopy, choosing fruit, eat soil on the ground.

I also started to recognize some of the individuals. Unfortunately, the ones I
can tell apart most easily from the rest are two chimps which have lost a limb
each in poachers’ snares. Max is young male who has a foot missing. Twig has
lost one of his hands. Surprisingly these chimps would not lag too much behind
the others. They would forage up in the trees or walk on the ground along with
the rest of the party. This kind of sight is a very harsh reminder that even in
one of the few places in Africa where chimpanzees survive, in a protected tract
of forest within a National Park, humans can still be a real menace to the

Friday, June 09, 2006

quick message from fort portal

Alex and I are in Fort Portal now,
and will momentarily be heading
out to Kibale. I'll post more
detailed messages soon.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Just one photo...

I've been uploading some 8 photos for the past half an hour or more at the Internet place at the lovely hotel that we're staying at in Kampala. But when I clicked the publishing button, everything went wrong. All the images were lost somehow and the place is closing in 2 mins. So I will now only manage to upload the image below. Enjoy:

Alex and Ian in a taxi looking for something in Kampala.

Photos from Kampala

So here are a few photos. The Internet at the hotel is excruciatingly slow so the pictures are small and just a few.

Ian & Alex

In Kampala at last

Well, I made it to Uganda and caught up with Ian. It's quite hot here actually, but the wind is nice and cool.

Not much time to write now - sittig in a very high-techy net cafe in Kampala, the capital, so just a few points to make:

1. There is really no Starbucks in Uganda!
2. Boda-bodas (motorbike taxis) can be seriously bad for your health (esp if you're on one of them clutching frantically to the seat, hoping for the best).
3. If you want to buy a fizzy drink in a shop you must bring your own empty bottle.

More of this later.


Ian and Alex in Kampala

June 7, 2006

Today was a long day, but a good one. I arrived in Entebbe last night, and
quickly gathered my bags and got a taxi to the Jane Goodall Institute, where I
was met by Emma, a confused Australian volunteer who had no idea who I was. She
was quite used to unusual guests, so helped me find a mattress and a mosquito
net without many questions. The power was out, so it was all a bit surreal. I
was pretty wiped out after a couple of long flights, separated by a mad dash in
the airport in Amsterdam, thanks to a two hour delay leaving Boston. So, I
crashed almost immediately.

I was woken by honking outside the gate at 6:30. Alex had arrived in a taxi.
After announcing that he was hungry, he dropped off his bags, and headed back
out with the taxi driver to find some food. He returned two hours later, laden
with sandwiches and cakes. By that time, most of the people in the house had
woken up, and I had introduced myself. It turns out that they had actually been
expecting me, which made me feel a little better about intruding.

We spent an hour eating our sandwiches and organizing our gear, and then headed
to Kampala in the taxi. I felt great! I’ve said it so many times before, but
it’s so difficult to describe the feeling of returning to Africa. It felt so
familiar, yet so foreign. I know I’ll never really be a true part of this
culture, but I love being an observer. I couldn’t help smiling when I first saw
a car passing a minivan passing a truck. People everywhere, bikes loaded with
jerry cans of water, goats, deep red soil, woodsmoke, heat and noise.

The drive to Kampala took about an hour. The traffic was horrendous, and it took
quite some time for the taxi driver to maneuver through the crowds of cars,
bicycles, trucks and buses. We suddenly turned off of a busy street into a
narrow alley, and then into an even narrower one. Several guys sitting on the
curb helped guide the driver in, but it would have been a lot more helpful if
they had moved out of the way! A couple of honks of the horn summoned a guard
who opened a big iron gate into a tiny courtyard. It was the back entrance of
the hotel, but it certainly didn’t look like it. But, sure enough, we walked up
a back staircase into a nice lobby, and booked our room. The power was out, but
they assured us that it would come back on soon, and it did.

The rest of the day was spent in search of our research clearance. A slightly
harrowing boda boda (motorcycle taxi) ride took us to the Uganda Wildlife
Authority, where we picked up our permission letters. Everything would have
been smooth except for the fact that we both needed to extend the dates that we
planned to be in the forest. The research officer wanted us to write official
letters requesting these changes, so we decided to come back when his boss was
there to plead our case. We drank a couple of beers and returned two hours
later, and after much begging, managed to get what we wanted. Then we headed
across town to Uganda House, a 13 storey building that housed the Uganda
Commission for Science and Technology, or so we thought. The power was out, so
the elevators weren’t working, and as we dragged ourselves up to the 10th
floor, Alex joked, “They’ve probably moved their offices”. Ha ha. Sure enough,
when we got there, there was a sign saying that UNCST was now in another
building, several blocks away.

By this time, it was getting close to 5:00, so we hustled around trying to find
the new offices. After a couple of false starts, we finally found it, and
submitted our requests for clearance. We’ll return tomorrow.

So, not exactly the glamorous African Experience that many people might expect,
but pretty typical for the start of a field season.