Wild chimpanzees

I could tell you that my favorite moment yesterday was watching Steve, his head lathered up in the shower of our guest cottage, singing (to the tune from South Pacific), “I’m gonna wash that chimp pee outta my hair, I’m gonna wash that chimp pee outta my hair, I’m gonna wash that chimp pee outta my hair, and send it down the drain!” But I’d be lying. It was only one highlight of many.

I understand that chimpanzees live in 6 of Uganda’s 10 national parks, but the one where Steve got his head peed on was Kibale. It boasts having one of the densest concentrations of primates in the world — not only chimps but a dozen or so other species. Moreover, our chimp-tracking guide, Bosco, made the case that Kibale provides the best opportunity in the world to interact with wild chimps. Some 1450 individuals (living in 13 areas) were counted in the last census three and a half years ago. One of the groups, containing about 120 animals, has been habituated to humans for years. As a result, 90% of the time, chimp-trackers wind up seeing what they came for.

We arrived at the park headquarters around 8. I was already in an exultant mood, thrilled to be in my first true African rainforest. It wasn’t at all steamy and jungly. It had rained in the night, and a cool mist continued to drizzle down. Along with a dozen or so other tourists, we assembled for a briefing by Bosco. Among other safety tips, he warned us not to make noises imitating the chimps. We might inadvertently make the wrong call, with negative consequences

One factor working against us was the rain, he said. Like people, chimps prefer not to sit on wet ground. But we would try our best to get as close as possible. We split into three smaller groups, and i felt happy to be in the one led by Bosco, who exuded a calm confidence.

Then we were off! We drove on little more than trails, and Bosco explained that chimp-tracking begins by trying to pinpoint where they’ve been heard. Chimpanzees are a raucous crew, and their vocalizations carry far. We stopped at one place where Bosco gathered information, then we pushed on, into an area of the rainforest where the trees at the top of the canopy reached at least 80-100 feet tall. In a clearing, we all got out, and the vehicles disappeared, taking their diesel clatter with them. In the ensuing relative silence, we listened to the insect chatter and bird calls.

And then — a hooting. Bosco motioned us down the road. He pointed to a dark shape, high overhead. It took a minute or two, but gradually, the simian form emerged. Branches shook, an arm emerged. And then more hooting, unmistakable, hair-raising. Screams, more hoots, movement.

Of all the things we saw over the course of the next two hours, nothing surprised me more than the way chimpanzees sound in the forest. The screams are the wild, deranged noises only emitted by insane humans, but there are so many other noises: hoots and whoops and booming grunts that I would have thought required electronics to achieve such amplification. The cacophony sends a clear message: these guys live near the top of the food chain. (Their only predators are the park’s leopards and an occasional lucky eagle.)

When the chimps moved, we moved, bushwacking through the undergrowth and pausing periodically to observe one thing or another overhead. We watched the apes feeding on berries, then saw a female breaking off branches, high above, to swiftly make her day nest. Bosco explained that each chimp makes a night nest too, typically making a new set of both every day (or else relining an pre-existing one.) A few minutes later, he made a comment about a chimp’s erection. “You can see his erection?” I exclaimed, incredulous. (I couldn’t see the whole damned animal, let alone his diminutive sexual member.)

But most of the fellows overhead had erections, according to Bosco, who also pointed out the reason: a female whose swollen volva so obviously invited attention that even I could see it, 200 feet away. One set of the tourists were able to watch this gal and one of the males copulate. But I missed that (easy enough; the whole interaction lasting only about 6 seconds). If short, sex for the chimpanzee ladies is frequent. They can mate up to 20 times a day. Because of the possibility of getting lucky, the males were lingering up in the trees, Bosco told us. We settled in to try and wait them out, and it was during this interval that the dousings with chimp pee occurred.

Finallly the troupe clambered down, some of the males no more than 20 feet away. We hustled after them, hoping they would finally stop to chill out on the ground, ignoring us (as apparently they commonly do around tourists.) This never happened, though, and Bosco finally announced that we needed to head back to our vehicles. Rather than feeling disappointed, I was grateful to have come as close and see as much as we had.

It was only noon. We drove to a lodge for lunch, then continued on to 3-plus hour guided hike around a swamp that’s part of an inspiring community-development project. Steve and I loved it, and ordinarily I’d be happy to report the details in depth.

But the chimp-tracking was one of the most exciting natural adventures I’ve ever head, and I’ve run on about it too much already. I can’t imagine how the gorilla-tracking will compare. But that’s 2 and a half days away. Between now and then Steve and I have another mission that promises to be both challenging and fascinating, in other ways.




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