Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Rain rant

Greetings from the RAINforest. It has been RAINING here for the past 5 days or so more than you would expect for the so called 'dry' season.

There was drizzle, there were clouds as far as the eye can see, there were storms with lightning and water coming down in buckets. And one morning the temperature in the forest under the chimp nests plumetted to 13 degrees Celsius. To put it in short - this made some of the most uncomfortable weather conditions I've experienced ever in Africa.

You could get rid of the palms, the exotic birds, the monkeys, the chimps, the noisy insects and frogs, the bad roads and you could be in Nothern Germany in October , for all I know. To make my analogy even more complete, the nearby town of Fort Portal these days seems to host an amount of lovely German tourists that perfectly matches the recent rainfall patterns. So there you go.

Yeah - and I am now having on and off bouts of cold, temperature, some shiverring and nasty reaction to cold water whenever it touches my skin. Hence today I had to skip going to see the chimps. They are very much like us when it comes to the diseases they are susceptible to, only they apparently are less well used to coping with them (no Coldrex and stuff like that, not even a warm blanket, they just have to sit out the cold showers coming down on the forest). Hence it's not just that going to the forest with cold-like symptoms is very bad and umcomfortable for me but I could actually infect the chimps. Something to be avoided.

On the plus side - there's a bit of sunshine today so hopefully I get better quickly.


Saturday, July 15, 2006

At the end of the day...

The sun is setting over the hills and fields not far from the town of Fort Portal. The big mountains in the back are the Rwenzoris. They do bottled mineral water there, apparently.

Looking for feeding signs

For the past few days I haven't been actually watching the chimps. Instead, I spent 4 days with Christopher (C.M.), my field assistant [picture above], searching for feeding signs that indicate the apes have been eating plants on the forest floor.

It might sound a bit of an odd thing to do but it was a thoroughly planned and randomized survey of the forest that aimed to establish how often we would come across chimp feeding signs. In particular, we were searching of THV feeding signs. THV means terrestrial herbaceous vegetation and this category of ape foods roughly includes anything which is a plant, is not too tall to be called a tree and is eaten while the apes travel on the ground. Most of the THV plants are, as their name indicate herbaceous. Some, however have woody stems. These details aside, THV plays a major role in the scientific debate about the differences in the social system of chimpanzees and bonobos. Not much time to go into that now but as a rough guideline: the chimpanzees are said to rely much less on THV foods than bonobos do. Also the bonobos seem to have access to much better THV foods in their moist forests. Which is proposed as a key element that underlies the differences in the social lives of these two closely related apes.

Having spent the last days going up and down through the range of the Kanyawara community looking for THV remains, it does look like the stuff that the chimps here have is nowhere near as nice as what I've seen in the Congo - where bonobos live. How exactly that affects the behaviour of the chimps and the bonobos is yet to be definitively established but some interesting suggestions and contra-suggestions have been made by primatologists. Again - not much time now to go into all this in detail...

Back to our census. We had to do ten 100 m each - transects in 3 areas, or a total of 30 transects. By definition a transect has to be done in a straight line and in places this was really, really irritaing thing to do. The thing about randomization is, that it's randon. So you have no control over where you will do your transects. As a consequence we (mostly my field assistant, C.M., really) had hack our way through dense undergrowth in quite a few places. As a side effect C.M. suffered lots of ant bites, while he was going infront of me, cutting the path. I was lucky to just get a few of those nasty little insects on my neck, under my shirt and in some other places I am not going to specify.

The good news is that we're done, as of yesterday. One part of my work here in Kibale is finished and even though, it's just a tiny bit of my 'to-do-list' it still feels surprisingly nice. Considering the lack of power and shower water (cold one, at that) in camp and the irritating moments when I fight with the special padlockon the door of Chimp House at base, in very early morning hours, not being able to get into the room where our filtered water is stored, things here are still going quite good.

Oh, there was the thing with the nasty scratchy plants today which got my arms to burn and itch horrendously and losing the chimps at one point and then getting lost for about an hour or more in the logged area of the forest...But I'd rather not talk about this now.

Will try to upload some more photos now.

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 – www.ngambaisland.org

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Lazy chimps


Yesterday we didnt have to walk a long way to get to the chimps. They were about half an hour away from camp. While usually they would stir from their nests around 6.30 or so, they didnt do so this time. We had a long nap before anything happened at about 7.30 when some of the animals moved off in search of breakfast.

It didn't take them long to find some food. After less than 5 mins of walking on the ground the party which we un-nested arrived at a large Pseudospondias tree, which was loaded with fruit. Most of it wasn't ripe yet but there was enough purple drupes in the canopy to keep the chimpanzees chomping away for a good hour or so.

The tree was so large that according to our field assistants there were some 26 individuals above our heads. Most of the time they would be feeding, sometimes breaking off small branches with a load of fruit on them, then pick off the several ripe ones and chuck the rest of the green fruit down to the ground. Which apart from presenting us with the possibility of mild head injuries, was also a rather wasteful way to harvest the fruiting trees.

The week before the congress, Kilimi was the female getting all the attention - she was fully swollen then and all the males were keen to cop off with her. Now, though, Kilimi's swelling was notably losing its appeal. Even to my eyes it appeared a bit past its prime - the skin was not as taught as it used to be and it has also lost some of its shine.

It was Wangari (small eyes, big ears, a bit dopy look) who was the centre of attention for all the ever-horny males on this day. Even one of the juveniles managed to copulate with her and then several adults took their turn as well. And that was even before they went up the Pseudospondias tree for breakfast.


After some eating in the canopy, most of the chimps descended to the ground. They layed down, some of them scratching, some of them snoozing, some of them playing with infants. And that was it. They didnt move from that spot until about noon. Which gave me and Kyleb- another graduate student here - enough time to have a bit of catch-up sleep, too.

Tomorrow am going out again to the forest and may be another blog update will come later in the week or next week.


Monday, July 03, 2006

Ian back in the US

After a long but smooth journey, I'm now back in my living room in Massachusetts. I've heard that there have been lots of complaints about my poor blogging effort, and I apologize for that. Didn't Alex do a great job, though?

It was a fantastic trip from beginning to end. The "chimping" was great, largely because there was lots of Uvariopsis congensis, a favorite fruit that results in large chimp parties. The chimps were usually about an hour away from camp, so we had some very early mornings, but it was worth it. Once I had dragged myself out of bed, I enjoyed the quiet cool trek through the forest to the nests. We would lie under them for 45 minutes or so, waiting for the chimps to wake up. It's amazing to see and hear the forest slowly waking up.

After leaving Kibale, we attended the huge International Primatological Society conference, which Alex has described perfectly.

Anyway, I'm feeling a little jet-lagged at the moment, so I'll sign off. But, I will write up a couple of stories and post some pics in the next couple of days. I promise.


Sunday, July 02, 2006

Going back to Kibale

Been stuck in Kampala for two days now, courtesy of those lovely people in Bank of America, who once again decided to block my bank account. They thought it’s a bit weird that I am making large withdrawals with my debit card from some funny place in the world, they most likely can’t even place on the map. Even though, that before leaving the US I mentioned in detail my travel plans for the year – with dates and places where I will be using my card to make withdrawals. After speaking for more than half an hour to several robots and not less than half a dozen people from different departments (all of whom seemed to be interested in my date of birth, names, middle initial and all sorts of other tedious details) I finally regained control of my bank account. Which means that tomorrow when businesses open I will be able to make the arrangements I couldn’t do on Saturday and get on the bus going west towards Kibale Forest.

On the plus side of this slight delay – I am now in a place called Backpackers in Kampala – which, even though the rooms are plugless and they don’t give you towels, is like paradise. Especially compared to the ‘guest house’ that we had to stay last night – that had architectural features typical of prison buildings I’ve seen in Mafia films and a clientele to match. Backpackers, on the other side – is remarkably well kept, has a bar that is open till 1.30 am, a pool table (even though I don’t play pool, it’s nice to know that it’s there), a variety of outdoor seating facilities, really hot showers, delicious food, Internet connection and bikini-clad blond English girls sunbathing on the lawns, rubbing lotion onto one another, and running around doing aerobics later on in the afternoon. Oh, there are some vervet monkeys here, too.


The big primate congress

Over the last week the most massive gathering of primatologists (over 700 people) took place in a very posh hotel on the shore of Lake Victoria – the 21st Congress of the International Primatological Society. This was the reason I left the forest for a week and indulged in power-point extravaganza of monkeys and apes. From lemurs to chimps, from territorial aggression to mother-infant relations, from evolutionary history of primate lineages to the gloom of the bush-meat trade - very few topics related in any way to our closest relatives were left uncovered. With presentations by so many researchers going on simultaneously in different halls of the hotel, deciding which talks to attend was not easy.

Just to give you an impression, here is a random list of some of the highlights of the week:

- Attending a talk that included showing of some uncensored orangutan porn.
- Watching a researcher gyrate her hips with arms above her head, while pretending to be a slow loris making a cobra impersonation (a kind of defense mechanism against predators).
- Passing through two metal detectors on the way into the hotel for the opening ceremony of the Congress to see the President of Uganda give a welcoming speech. Now I know Uganda is one of the very few countries in the world that can boast with having the Equator pass through it. Apparently, it is also similar in some respect to Ecuador. But otherwise unique. Which is true in so many ways…
- Jane Goodall giving a talk and made loud chimpanzee vocalizations in front of the entire congress audience (to which all the primatologists in the audience were asked to reply with the characteristic vocalizations of whichever primate they happened to study).
- Studying the response of various speakers to sudden power cuts which would persistently disrupt their power-point presentations and spice things up a bit.
- Watching footage, showing the methods that the people of Madagascar use to catch bush-meat, which in their case consisted mainly of different species of lemurs. One of the sequences followed a hunter in the rainforest, arriving at his trap and finding a lemur caught in it, still alive and struggling. The hunter started hitting the animal with his machete repeatedly over the head. The animal struggled to free itself frantically. Which led to it receiving more and more blows with the machete until finally it stopped squeaking. Sad but true. That is how a great number of people acquire a significant part of their diet not just in Madagascar but in many other places, as well.
- Last but not least: voting in the Hottest Primatologist at the Congress Poll - an unofficial and rather subjective survey, carried out by a colleague of mine. There were four separate categories for which you could nominate people, that you thought are hot and then vote for all the nominated ones. The categories were split by sex and by age – male/female & under/over 35 years old. I believe, some of the categories were highly contested right up until the end of the last day of the Congress. But more about that later. May be…


More forest pics from Kibale

Ian with Solomon gawping at a chimpanzee.

An arboreal chimp (of Ian).

A chimp

One of Ian's photos. Can't really remember who was this chimp but obviously, it's one of the males.


Finally some good-speed Internet. Now in Kampala . This is a photo from a week or two ago in Kibale forest. Me (Alex) and Solomon somewhere in the forest on a road.