Friday, July 07, 2006

Retro-blog from Ian

Since Alex has done such a great job describing life in the field, I thought I’d describe my recent “chimp walk” on Ngamba Island sanctuary.

The sanctuary is located on a 100 acre island in Lake Victoria, a mile or two from shore. I was there for a pre-conference workshop on chimpanzee cooperation, and got a chance to accompany the younger chimps on a walk in the forest. Most of the individuals there are victims of the bushmeat trade, and were confiscated from markets or primitive zoos. Many of them arrived on the island when they were very young, and needed to be taught how to live in the forest. At night, all 39 chimps sleep in hammocks in an indoor enclosure, but spend the entire day roaming around the island.

Each morning, 10-12 juveniles, ranging in age from 4 to 12, take a walk with sanctuary staff and visitors who have passed the strict health requirements (for the sake of the chimps). On the day before the walk, I sat down with the resident veterinarian, who reviewed my immunizations, and declared me fit to take the walk. At 7:00, I met up with several other workshop attendees, donned blue coveralls, removed our glasses, and stepped through the gate into the forest.

The walk started almost like a “regular” chimp follow in the wild. We ambled along a trail with several chimps in front and in the vines all around. Then, they started jumping on us! For someone who has been trained to move away from wild chimps when they approach, it was very difficult for me to change my mindset and let them climb on me. But it didn’t take long. I was amazed at how quickly I dropped into chimp mode, playing roughly, slapping, grabbing, laughing, and generally getting the hell beaten out of me. It was a guilty pleasure, something that I imagine that most chimp biologists quietly long to do. When we stopped to rest, I sat and groomed with a little guy, and made sure to look closely at his hands and the details of his face. Then he climbed on my back and we set off again. It was a funny sensation to feel him holding on with 4 hands, two around my neck, and two gripping my waist.

We passed a colony of millions of fruit bats roosting in the trees, then emerged on the lake shore. The forest isn’t big enough to sustain the whole population of chimps, but there are several natural chimp foods that they have learned to forage for. We watched them feeding on some terrestrial cucumber-like fruits for a while, and then escorted them back home. We returned to base with aching backs and drenched in sweat. It was an amazing experience. We left the forest and watched as the adult chimps were released.

Ngamba Island is a fantastic facility, and is absolutely worth a visit. I do recommend spending the night and taking the forest walk, if possible. Check out their website –