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