Travels through Borneo, Uganda and Tanzania............................Ramdas Iyer
In the next few weeks I will be on a journey to Galapagos where Charles Darwin laid rest to his Theory of Evolution. As a son of a Zoologist, evolution was a much discussed subject around me. Before discussing my travels in search of the great apes, I wish to dedicate a few paragraphs to Louis Leakey, the father of Paleoanthropology. The first hominid ( Apes and Humans) skeleton was discovered in 1913 by a German scientist Hans Reck in German East Africa. With the end WWI (1914-1918), the Leage of Nations mandated that German East Africa needs to be transferred to Britain and regained its original name, Tanganyika. Louis Leakey, who was born in British East Africa (Kenya) was a paleoanthropologist and archaeologist whose work was important in establishing human evolutionary development in Africa, particularly through his discoveries in the Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania.
He continued the work of Hans Resk whom he met in Berlin in 1929 and started his expedition in 1931 and subsequently unearthed several early human fossils ; Homo habilis (1.9 million years ago), Homo erectus (1.2 million-700,000 years ago) and Homo sapiens( 17000 years ago), in 3 decades of work at Olduvai Gorge. I visited Olduvai Gorge in 2013 while on a photographic Safari to Tanzania.
It was indeed a pilgrimage of sorts for me since I have been following the work of the Leakeys ( his wife Mary and son Richard are also renowned scientists) for quite a few years. Their son Richard Leakey is credited with the discovery of a 160000 year fossil of a Homo sapiens in Kenya. It was the oldest of the species found at that time and was the first contemporaneous with Homo neanderthalensis, found in Europe. This find confirmed that these two species of Hominids lived at the same time.
Richard Leakey had an illustrious career culminating as the Director of Kenyan Wildlife. He was lauded world over for saving the elephant in 1980s by issuing a shoot at sight order on poachers. I had the privilege of attending his lecture in The Smithsonian Institution in DC in 1986.
One of Louis's greatest legacies stems from his role in fostering field research of primates in their natural habitats, which he understood as key to unraveling the mysteries of human evolution. He personally chose three female researchers, Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas, calling them The Trimates. Each went on to become an important scholar in the field of primatology. Leakey also encouraged and supported many other Ph.D. candidates, most notably from Cambridge University.
The introduction of Louis Leakey in this article is critical to my travels. His prescience on the evolution of humans ultimately resulted in my seeing all the great apes.
In the past few years, no time and expense was spared by me to see the great Apes. I have always been interested in Primates and in the course of my travels through Asia and Africa these past couple of years, I not only marvelled at our distant cousins but also visited sites that were critical in the understanding of the emergence of man from Apes.
Apes live in the green equatorial belt that straddles Africa and Asia. The Gorillas primarily live in three countries on either side of the Congo River; Uganda and Rwanda are home to the Highland Gorilla while Congo is home to the Lowland Gorilla. It was in the volcanic mountains of Virunga, bordering Rwanda and the then Belgian Congo, where Dian Fossey,the American primatologist studied the mountain gorilla for 17 years beginning in 1967. Her life is depicted in the movie" Gorillas in the mist", a moving and fascinating film starring Sigourney Weaver.
Fossey made discoveries about gorillas including how females transfer from group to group over the decades, gorilla vocalization, hierarchies and social relationships among groups, rare infanticide, gorilla diet, and how gorillas recycle nutrients.
Mountain gorillas are one of the most endangered animals in the world today. Scientists estimate that there are about 600 Mountain gorillas, living in two populations of about 300 individuals each and separated by about 20 miles. There is only 285 square miles of high-elevation rain forest in the whole world, which is in east-central Africa, and the gorillas’ natural habitat. These gorillas are highly endangered due to habitat loss, but also to poaching and war. There are no mountain gorillas in captivity. In the 1960s and 1970s, mountain gorillas were captured in order to begin a population of them in captive facilities. They have never survived in captivity.
I visited the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (a World Heritage Site) in 2014. It is located in southwestern Uganda in East Africa. The park is situated in Uganda near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda and next to the Virunga National Park on the edge of the Albertine Rift. It comprises 331 square kilometers (128 sq mi) of jungle forests and contains both montane and lowland forest and is accessible only on foot. Advance permits are needed at the cost of $700 per day. At this park there are 7 groups of habituated gorillas that are approachable by humans each with populations ranging from 8 to 16 individuals. The permits allow a maximum of 12 people per group to trek through the park. The 12 people in our group were supported by 12 porters, 2 advanced trackers and 2 armed forest rangers. The park's elevation ranges from 300o ft to 5400 ft with no trails. One has to penetrate by hacking through vines in an undulating terrain, where reasonable physical fitness is expected of visitors.
After 3.5 hours of trekking, through thick vines and vegetation sometimes at 30 degree inclines we spotted two females, an infant and three siblings waiting nervously for their Silver backed alpha male leader, who had gone away to fight another male. In such instances, the male can get killed followed by the group being taken over by a new younger male that has left its group to start one of its own. While this is a natural process amongst gorillas, it nevertheless leaves the group traumatized. Our trackers finally located the male in a steep area of the forest which we reached under great effort. It must be noted that only one hour of contact and observation with after the first sighting is allowed . The sight of the 350 lb alpha male in his majesty and gentleness is a moment one cannot easily forget. The rest of its family joined in but the vegetation was too thick to see them all together. The entire trek took 7.5 hours; heavy rain or our inability to locate them would have been a great loss for me.
Jane Goodall's pioneering work on the behavior of chimpanzees have enabled us to appreciate the human like qualities of our closest DNA relative with 99% similarity. Goodall’s work was in the Gombe stream area of western Tanzania, even today a remote corner bordering Uganda. As an ardent follower of Jane Goodall’s work, I desperately wanted to visit Gombe during my trip to Tanzania 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 to visit Kibale in 2014 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.
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 at 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 in Gombe stream and DianFossey with the Gorillas in Volcanoes Park, Rwanda. Akin to the gorillas in Bwindi, one can track chimpanzees in their natural habitat. For 600 USD per day one can spend 12 hrs.with them : 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. 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.
The trip to Uganda was successful and fulfilling but left in me a yearning to see the Orangutan. I ventured into Tanjung Puting National park, in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia in December 2014 to see them in their natural habitat. Tanjung Puting National Park is the largest and most diverse protected example of the extensive coastal tropical heath and peat swamp forest, which used to cover much of southern Borneo. The area was originally declared as a game reserve in 1935 and it became a national park in 1982. The park has over 800 different species of plants, over 220 bird species and nine primate species including the endangered orangutan and endangered proboscis monkey.
The park is home to more than 4,000 orangutans making it one of the largest populations in Borneo. Birute Galdikas pioneered the study of the orangutan, an intelligent great ape with long arms and spectacular red hair, native to parts of Indonesia and Malaysia. Determined to enter and open wide the world of the elusive red ape, Galdikas convinced Leakey to help orchestrate her endeavor, despite his initial reservations. In 1971, Galdikas arrived in Tanjung Puting Reserve, in Indonesian Borneo. Galdikas thus become the third of a trio of women hand-picked by Leakey to study mankind's nearest relatives, the other great apes, in their natural habitat. Leakey and the National Geographic Society helped Galdikas initially set up her research camp to conduct field study on orangutans in Borneo. Before Leakey's fortuitous decision to appoint Galdikas as the third Trimate, the orangutan was much less understood than the African great apes. Galdikas went on to further burnish Leakey's legacy by greatly expanding scientific knowledge of orangutan behavior, habitat and diet.
When she arrived in Borneo, Galdikas settled into a primitive bark and thatch hut, at a site she dubbed Camp Leakey, near the edge of the Java Sea. Once there, she encountered numerous poachers, legions of leeches, and swarms of carnivorous insects. Yet she persevered through many travails, remaining there for over 30 years while becoming an outspoken advocate for orangutans and the preservation of their rainforest habitat, which is rapidly being devastated by loggers, palm oil plantations, gold miners, and unnatural conflagrations.
Unlike in Africa, the coastal swamp forests of Borneo are often flooded and one needs to go by boat to reach the Orangutans. Camp Leakey is 25 km by boat from the nearest town. While it possible to do a day trip into the Camp, travelers such as myself live on a houseboat with basic facilities. It is almost impossible to spot an Orangutan unless many days are spent along the riverbanks where the animals come to drink water. Thanks to Camp Leakey which was operated as a release station for captive orangutans until 1985, three generations of wild and semi wild animals are present in its environs throughout the year. While all the animals near camp Leakey live a wild existence, they are however fed a nutritional supplement of fruits during the lean fruit bearing months to ensure that the babies get enough nutrition. Around 10 different animals arrive each day at the three different feeding stations along the river. This program may be stopped in a few years as efforts to make Tanjung Puting fully wild are underway.
The jungle is full of Proboscis monkeys, which is endemic to Borneo. Hundreds of them can be observed along the waterways. One can see an occasional orangutan through the woods but it is almost impossible to photograph them given the density of the forest. My luck prevailed when a mother with its young was approaching the river in a relatively open spot. The time spent observing them and photographing them was a special moment in my annals of wild life photography.
Orangutans are solitary animals. However mothers nurse their young till they are 6 and the young females will always be near the mother for 20 years. Spending three days near Camp Leakey, I observed various individuals, young males and females, and many mothers with their young. Unfortunately the two alpha males that hold the territory near Camp Leakey were foraging inside the forest and not to be seen.
I was also fortunate to see the magnificent Mueller' Gibbon near the Camp. There are five types of ape. Four are considered "great." The fifth is the gibbon. Greatness in apes is largely a matter of size, and the gibbon, maxing out at 30 pounds, doesn't make the cut. To primatologists, it is known instead as the "lesser ape". Gibbons may be small, but they bear all the requisites of ape hood: large brains, no tail, and rotary shoulder blades. Like orangutans, they populate Southeast Asia.
Gibbons are masters of their primary mode of locomotion, brachiation, swinging from branch to branch for distances of up to 15 m (50 ft), at speeds as high as 55 km/h (34 mph). The gibbons' ball-and-socket joints allow them unmatched speed and accuracy when swinging through trees. Nonetheless, their mode of transportation can lead to hazards when a branch breaks or a hand slips, and researchers estimate that the majority of gibbons suffer bone fractures one or more times during their lifetimes. They are the fastest and most agile of all tree-dwelling, non-flying mammals. The IUCN currently recognizes fifteen gibbon species, all but one listed as either endangered or critically endangered. Habitat loss from logging and fires place the most stress on current population levels.
In 2014 between my travels through Borneo and Uganda, I was able to see the Great Apes and the lesser ape. It is interesting to note that there are only two species of each of the great apes( except man Homo sapiens),eastern Gorilla (gorilla.gorilla) and western Gorilla (gorilla.berengui), Chimpanzee(pan troglodytes) and Bonobos( pan paniscus), the Bornean Orangutan (pongo pygmaeus) and the Sumatran Orangutan (pongo abilii). The Gibbons consist of 15 species and is the only lesser ape.
While on a trip to Addis Ababa in 2007, I ensured that I visited the National Museum where the oldest and most famous skeletal fossil 'Lucy' (Australopithecus afrensis) is displayed.
I also had the good fortune to visit the Sterkfontien caves near Johannesburg in 2012, where the Australopithecus africanus was discovered. This is a much celebrated species since it was tree dwelling with ape like limbs but with a much larger cranial capacity as seen in homo erectus and other future species.
While in Indonesia in Dec 2014, I visited Flores Island home to Homo floresiensis, a new hominid discovered in 2004. The remains were discovered by an Australian-Indonesian team of archaeologists in Liang Bua caves, who were looking for evidence of the original human migration of H. sapiens from Asia to Australia. They were not expecting to find a new species. They were surprised at the discovery of a nearly complete skeleton of a hominin. Excavations done after that found seven more skeletons, dating from 38,000 to 13,000 years ago.
It was my bad luck that while just 14 km away from the Liang Bua, severe rains caused a mudslide that prevented vehicular movement. It will be interesting to note that the H.floresiensis lived as a contemporary of modern man and the Neanderthal man thus having three human species inhabit earth at the same time about 20,000 years ago.
In conclusion, I would like to reflect on my journey in seeking knowledge about human evolution. The various fields of Primatology, Archeology and Paleo-anthropology come together in providing a picture of how we evolved from non-ape primates to Great apes and branched out into other species of hominids. The study of non human primate behavior has helped us understand our own species behavior. The joy derived from watching them in their natural habitat is something everyone who has as interest in this field must pursue. The End.
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Univ. of California, Berkeley/ Sumatran Orangutan Society/Orangutan.org/Wikipedia