Observing our nearest relatives in close proximity........................Ramdas Iyer
Chimpanzees, our nearest primate relatives have been a fascination for most of us. These amazing creatures were studied by Jane Goodall in the 60's at the insistence of Louis Leakey, who had unearthed the first hominid fossils, as a path to understanding the development and evolution of man. I had recently visited the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania where the first erect hominids, Homo habilis (1.9 million years ago) were unearthed by the Leakeys, Mary and Richard in the 1930s. Her pioneering work on the behaviour of chimpanzees have enabled us to appreciate the human like qualities of our closest DNA relative at 99% similarity. Goodall’s work was in the Gombe stream area of western Tanzania, even today a remote corner bordering Uganda. As a National Geographic subscriber since 1971 and a follower of Jane Goodall’s work, I desperately wanted to visit Gombe during my trip to TZ in 2013. But one had to take a chartered plane which only flew twice a week making it both very expensive and time consuming.
Instead I chose Kibale in Uganda which is a vast tropical rainforest over 700 sq.km in area at an altitude ranging from 3000-4500 ft. which runs into Queen Elizabeth National park, Uganda ( creating a 180 Km long Wildlife corridor) a much celebrated but much poached national park. Why Kibale?
Kibale National Forest has one of the highest diversity and concentration of primates in Africa. It is home to a large number of endangered chimpanzees, as well as the red colobus monkey and the rare L'Hoest’s monkey. The park is also home to over 325 species of birds, 13 species of primates, a total of a[/left]t least 60 other species of mammals, and over 250 tree species. The predominant ecosystem in Kibale is moist evergreen and semi-deciduous forest.)
Since the 1960s a team of Japanese scientists have been habituating chimpanzees to human presence at Kibale national park. In Serengeti, the animals are used to the safari vehicles and are as such “habituated” to their presence. In the tropical rain forest it is not possible. So scientists spend time and in the case of Kibale, up to 6 years to make some of the chimpanzee groups get accustomed to the presence of human beings. Jane Goodall was the first to do so (except if you think Tarzan was real) in Gombe stream and Diane Fossey with the Gorillas in Volcanoes Park, Rwanda. Akin to the gorillas in Bwindi, one can track chimpanzees in their natural habitat. For 600usd per day one can spend 12 hrs. : From the time they wake up till the time they build new nests and sleep. For $150 one can insert himself into the forest and catch them for an hour, either at 8:00AM or 2:00PM. Since chimps can be found in 19 African countries, they are not as exclusive as the gorillas. But this is the only place that I know of where there is a formal wildlife tracking program available, in a classical moist hardwood equatorial rainforest.
Kibale is 325 KM/ 6 hrs. from Kampala with the last hour on dirt roads leading to one of the most lush and beautiful forests in central Uganda. The community, Batooroo and Balinga tribes surrounding the park were once notorious for killing chimps for bush meat, but today
readily endorse international Eco tourism that supports local infrastructure. We, Pushpa and I, arrived at Chimps nest lodge by 6:00 pm and heard loud chattering noises from chimpanzees in the forest around us along with the sounds of grey cheeked Mangabeys and red Colobus monkeys. The air was cool, the surroundings forested and the noises classical Africa. Each cottage had solar lights, Eco toilets and a wood burning stove for hot water.We did night walks to spot Bush babies and Ganet cats and day walks around the camp for photographing primates. This gave me a chance to photograph non chimpanzee primates which I would otherwise not be doing once inside the national park.
Chimpanzees are members of the family Hominidae, along with gorillas, humans, and orangutans. Chimpanzees split from the human branch of the family about four to six million years ago. Chimpanzees are the closest living relatives to humans, being members of the tribe Hominini (along with extinct species of subtribe Hominina). The male common chimp stands up to 5.6 ft high and weighs as much as 150lbs; the female is somewhat smaller.They typically live 40 years in the wild and about 60 in captivity. The common chimp’s long arms, when extended, span one and a half times the body’s height. A chimpanzee's arms are longer than its legs. Chimpanzees usually knuckle-walk, or walk on all fours, clenching their fists and supporting themselves on the knuckles thereof. Both the common chimpanzee and bonobo can walk upright on two legs when carrying objects with their hands and arms. The coat is dark; the face, fingers, palms of the hands, and soles of the feet, hairless; the chimp, tailless. The exposed skin of the face, hands and feet varies from pink to very dark in both species but is generally lighter in younger individuals, darkening as maturity is reached. Chimpanzee testicles are unusually large for their body size, with a combined weight of about 4 oz. (110 g) compared to a gorilla's 1 oz. (28 g) or a human's 1.5 ounces (43 g). This relatively great size is generally attributed to sperm competition due to the polyandrous nature of their mating behavior.
Our group of 4, led by an UWA( Ugandan Wildlife Authority) tracker started trekking into the forest crossing small streams, gigantic root systems, thick shrubbery and enormous old growth trees with moss on them. Within 45 min of trekking we came upon a large group of chimps, about 16 in all scattered in high branches on several trees. They are not calm animals, but constantly swing, jump, chatter and create a pandemonium especially after spotting us. The photographer in me was completely flabbergasted by multiple imagery, obstructions by foliage, poor lighting, loud sounds and fast movements. While my eyes caught them all around finding them in my scope was impossible. The chimps started moving and our tracker led us further into the forest where finally some of the members had settled on the ground. I soon determined that the only way to photograph them in such low light is to focus on just one animal at a time. As you can see in my images soon to be presented, they were squatting like humans looking at the sky , pondering over their next meal, sometime arms folded in deep reservation and at other times seriously concentrating on chewing fig fruits and other hard seeds. This group according to our tracker had over 150 members which broke up at day break into 5 or 6 extended troops in order to avoid competition for food. Occasionally these groups intersect with other foraging groups often resulting in loud attacks, scare tactics and sometimes maiming and killing rival members.
After an exciting first day (one hour of observation only) we asked to enroll in the next day’s trek. With great difficulty we arranged for an overflow trek at noon, just the two of us with a tracker. This day the offerings were fantastic. By now skilled at low light Chimpanzee photography, I found opportunities to approach them at very close quarters. 25 feet is recommended, 6 feet was all that separated an adult chimpanzee and us, which could easily maim and injure an onlooker in a horrible fashion. In one situation we observed a 30 year old male chewing fruit and leaves, spitting the pulp in its palms and rubbing it on a deep cut in its leg. Several minutes later we were blessed with a scene that even our tracker claimed to be rare. A serene looking young mother holding her 2 month old baby in its arms was sitting on a log with the right amount of light streaking on her. I snapped 20 plus pictures with every movement of the baby in its arms with the session culminating with with the mother and baby directly at me. It was a Hallelujah! moment.
After spending slightly more than an hour with these magnificent animals and while on the way out of the forest we were treated by a chimpanzee drumming the buttress of a strangler fig tree. Chimpanzees are extremely expressive in their communications with each other. They use hand gestures, facial expressions, they touch, hold hands and kiss. They drum on trees, make pant-hoots and loud calls often heard 3km away to indicate their presence and inform of ample food sources.
In conclusion, I wish to discuss the future of these lovely animals. There are thought to be about 175,000 chimpanzees remaining in the wild. Even though this sounds like a large number, many of these animals live in fragmented remnant populations that are separated from other chimpanzees by areas that are heavily cultivated. The chimpanzee is officially classified as an endangered species and protected by international law under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Habitat loss and commercial hunting for bush meat has become the most significant immediate threat to the future of chimpanzees in the wild. The demand from consumers in wealthy countries for tropical hardwoods means the west and central African forest habitat, that is home to wild chimpanzees is being destroyed at an alarming rate. Often whole chimpanzee families are butchered, leaving behind infants that are later exported to zoos and medical institutions or sold as exotic pets. Heavily traumatized, these infants are occasionally intercepted in transit by government authorities, whereupon sanctuaries are called upon to provide refuge. It is estimated that only one in four chimpanzees survive being taken from the wild as most die from disease, malnutrition and dehydration.
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Sources: The Godall Institute, Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Wikipedia, National Geographic Society