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From the field!

Listen below to the onset of the wet season at Issa!
October 2021

Dear Reader, 

It’s been another month and while I was thinking about a story to tell you, I realised that this time, it won’t be about an animal encounter. Much has recently happened, including an intergroup encounter with a neighbouring (unhabituated) chimpanzee community and Corona (a young female chimpanzee) catching and eating a greater galago all by herself. But when I look back this month, then the most peculiar thing was the feeling of change. Change in our life at the station. Change in the seasons. It seems for everyone things have changed or will change soon.

     Most striking is the change in seasons these days. The clouds linger above us daily now, and one can see how the rain is about to come, building each day until the heavens will open their doors and pour down on us. One of these downpours – if not the first of the season – happened a little more than two weeks ago, while I was in the forest, of course, completely unprepared. It was morning and it felt like one of those hot days where the sweat bees are coming early to feast on you and drive you mad. My  well-practiced response is to flap frenetically with my hands, squeezing their small bodies when I capture them and subsequently get buried under a mountain of their colony mates... as each dead sweat bee attracts a hundred more. It was our luck that the chimpanzees moved around in dense thicket, where we are free of these attacks. But it was a tough morning. The chimpanzee movements seemed chaotic, changing group composition many times and leaving us in desperate search for the individual that we were tracking. We still enjoyed it. Overall, it was a nice, big group, they were vocalising and we were confident that we would keep them until the afternoon shift change.

    It must have been around 9 in the morning when the weather changed. We heard the rumble, the deep echoing roar of the sky when thunder rolls through the clouds. Routinely, we glanced up and the clouds were always far away, but the air was heavy. Maybe it would rain somewhere else. But it took less than 15min to become evident, that we won’t get out of this dry. Our focal chimpanzee for the day, Maua, who likes to stay peripheral of the group, started climbing down from the tree and we followed her to the river. It was then, when the first wet drops fell. It was a very weird feeling – the touch of rain on skin for the first time after 4 months of hot sun. And after 2 months of landscape-wide grass fires that leave only charred trees, charcoal, and ash. Breathing an air which is full of ash mixed with sand. In the dry season stars become blurry and the sun rises red in between a haze of blue. We had already started longing for rain. And so, this rain, these drops, were each a small miracle. It wasn’t supposed to rain today. It was too hot. Too early in the day. And yet, it did. And for a while it was nice. Keeping the insects away, refreshing us and we were still able to follow Maua. But it wasn’t long until the rain became heavier, the drops bigger, and a chilly wind started to blow. We focused on following Maua as she moved on. It is the best thing to do to forget that you’re suddenly cold and the stones become slippery and your clothes heavy while you’re desperately trying to keep up with your focal. But chimpanzees can be quick. And the rain slowed us down. And finally, we lost Maua.

    But just a little later we found her group mates, Kovu Jicho and Kasolya. We were watching them in the grassland, only few trees with no leaves and so no protection from the heavy rain that was now pouring down. Heaven did open its doors and thunder rolled over my head from one side of the valley to the other. We were in the middle of it. Two little, miserable figures with their chimpanzees...all enduring a storm!

    It was then, when I stopped collecting data and took a look around through a curtain of rain. This early rain felt so unreal. “But things are changing” was what I thought. There were only few fires now, the time of those impressive spectacles over and this shower would surely end whatever smoldering remained. Some trees already started to flower and grass began to grow in lush green on a black-white ground. In a few weeks the rain will be here for good. We will run around in our ponchos and slip through the mud and over wet stones instead of crunching on carpets of leaves and red sand. And the big storms will start, storms which light up the whole sky and go on seemingly forever until I see lighting even when I close my eyes.

    The thought made me smile. I love the African sky in a storm. It is a spectacle for sure and full of life. I am  hoping to see it one last time before I leave. The change of seasons is like an ever-returning promise of something new. A beautiful thought that kept me warm, while I was shivering from the sudden cold in my wet clothes. 

Movement in the twinkle of my eye woke me up from my dreamy thoughts and the two females decided to travel onwards. We tried our best to follow them, but it was hopeless. In the rain and with their quick steps, we lost this round yet again and just when the rain slowed down and became a trickle, we were standing alone in the grassland and hoping for any sign of chimpanzee to present itself to us.

    It would take another hour of shivering and waiting until at least the sun showed us mercy and gave us her warmth to dry us before heading back to camp. It was a mixed day for data collection, but a beautiful one that left me feeling grateful of what I have, especially at the prospect of a hot tea waiting for me at the station upon my return!

August 2021

On a very usual, ordinary day of mine, I had an intimate encounter with a pack of African wild dogs. We already knew that there was at least one pack that ranged in the northern parts of the study site.  Parts where we rarely go, because it is far, the chimpanzee community is rarely there, and the distance and topography make it a very challenging walk. But we have camera traps in the area and once in a while we pick-up clips of wild dogs running past. Every time these clips create enormous excitement in the team and we watch the videos over and over again, trying to count the dogs, trying to get a good photograph, musing about their lives in this habitat.

     Early this month now, Mashaka – one of the GMERC field assistants - and I were on chimpanzee duty in the morning. As usual we rose early and ventured for a little more than an hour to the nesting site of a small party of female chimpanzees. We arrived early; slowly the grey of dawn simmered into the valley and gave us some light, and we settled down to wait until the chimpanzees awoke. When they eventually did, they began their daily routine of eating, resting and playing while the sun rose and we diligently collected data. The scene was of a peaceful morning. A morning of ‘business as usual’ for any field-biologist.

     That was until we heard a bark close behind us. A weird barking that we couldn’t place immediately, so naturally we turned around. When we did, we were met by a big, beautiful male African wild dog, standing on a stone, maybe a bit more than 20m away, and barking at us. Clearly surprised to find us here.

We were stunned. And we took some double (and triple and quadruple!) takes to grasp what was happening! African wild dogs are an endangered species of an estimated population of a few thousands only left in Africa. And suddenly some of them were here, next to us?

     Frantically, I started to search for my bag to get my camera – always the first instinct of a field-biologist – while not taking my eyes off this rarely observed creature. He was gorgeous! African wild dogs have a beautiful spotted fur and the most incredible ears, which move around like small, dark satellite dishes. Slender and thin with long legs, they are social hunters and very good ones indeed. Any dog-lover would immediately fall in love with them.

     Some barks came from other pack members and our male moved away a bit to the side, still carefully watching us. We didn’t move, fearful of startling the dog, or worse, provoking him! And finally, the camera was ready, so I leaned slowly sidewards and recorded, my eyes still fixated on him. That moment, I was exhilarated – I even had photograph proof of it! – while Mashaka was watching the scene with much less comfort. Suddenly 2 smaller shadows ran past. They stayed a while at my right side in the bushes and I could identify 2 younger wild dogs seemingly in a playful mood and curiously looking at us. Many thoughts sprang into my head – How many of them are here? Do I need to worry? Even I started to feel a bit queasy about the encounter, but I usually feel (naively!) invincible to the dangers of African wild life. I have this irrational trust that I won’t get eaten. And truly, another bark in the distance and a few moments later, the pack continued on its way. Just a passing family, who likely cares as much about us as any other benign animal.

     I dropped the camera, suddenly feeling the weight in my arm. Then I remembered that the chimpanzees were still in the trees! They didn’t make a single sound the entire time. Completely disguised (and protected) in the high canopy foliage, they were sitting it out, watching the watchers. The researcher in me wonders, what would have happened, if the male chimpanzees had been around. Would they have attacked the dogs? But I am not unhappy that they weren’t. Interspecies encounters can be quite nasty and this was too good of a moment to have it spoiled by a fight. After this we moved on with our day; the chimpanzees finally picking up where they left off and we following them, me grinning all the rest of the day.

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