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From the field!

June 2023, Lian Bakker
Researchers negotiating the demanding Issa landscape in pursuit of chimpanzees! (photo: R. Drummond-Clarke/GMERC)

Hide and seek with Issa chimpanzees


One early morning in April, I went in the field with my fellow chimpanzee chaser, Theresa. We left camp at 05:30 because the evening shift from the day before had nested the a party of chimps deep into a valley over an one hour walk from the station.  When we arrived, two males (Dhahabu, Waiti) and a female (Baseka) were already out of there nests. 


And that’s when our game of hide and seek begun! 


The sun was barely up when we climbed our first hill to track them. They were more vigilant and moved more quickly than usual. We lost Waiti immediately and the party was down to 2.


When we reached the top, we realized that they had descended the other side, a rocky and steep woodland slope, lined with 2m high grass. Theresa and I split up, thinking we’d have a better chance finding the party. Theresa climbed higher to listen for vocalizations instead of wandering around aimlessly, which was my strategy! After failing to find signs of the chimps, I thought I would catch-up with Theresa, so I headed in her direction, but I failed to appreciate the thickness of the forest.


Issa is characterized by vast expanded of woodland and thin strips of evergreen forest...but sometimes those forest strips are thicket-laced and uncrossable...I was learning!


I was hunkered down in a tunnel of lianas, scratched all over, and deciding what to do next when Theresa called me - having found a much better way to cross the forest! When we were finally reunited we received a call from another colleague (Ivorda), who had seen four individuals (chimpanzees) 2km away. Knowing Dahabu and Baseka were still running around nearby we decided to go halfway up to listen for vocalizations – and we would let the sounds tell us in which direction to head next.


It was only 07:30 and we had already been running up and down hills all morning. After climbing back up, we sat to rest and listen and immediately heard a vocalization very close but, you guessed it, all the way downhill...from what sounded like exactly like where we had just been! We jumped up and hiked down, rewarded by seeing Dhahabu in the thicket, now with other males Waiti, Samaki and Mosi. We followed them as they began to travel, but the hide and seek continued, with their climbing and descending hill after hill, hiding amongst the thick forest.


By 0930, and between chases, Theresa and I rested, having not had more than a 1min of recovery since we began the follow. After another short respite, we were happily greeted by another (surprise!) vocalization coming from the other side of the forest. The excitement of hearing the calls helped us suppress our fatigue and discouragement. The adrenaline levels in our blood rose once more. When we crossed the forest something wonderful happened. We discovered that Dhahabu, Samaki, Mosi and Waiti joined a group of six of their community – now 9 of them in total! This was the biggest group I had ever seen in all my time here, it was amazing! Ultimately, we followed them across another forest strip, where they met up with an estrous female and all screamed in excitement (we nearly joined in vocal elation!). 


At almost noon, we knew that the afternoon (researcher team) shift was on their way and so a handoff was imminent. We wanted desperately to handoff this big party to the afternoon team as a sign of our dedication and efforts from the morning! Instead, the gaggle of chimps headed back down into the forest, dashing our hopes! Theresa followed them, vanishing into the undergrowth of rock-laced high grass...and I followed, more carefully negotiating the landscape to avoid bodily harm!


When I finally reached her, the chimps were nowhere to be seen...but now this was the challenge of the next team! 


After 29,000 steps and more than nine hours in the field we arrived back at the station, where we recovered in the spring of refreshing cold water. It was an amazing, crazy, and exhausting day, and despite having only brief flashes with the chimps, it was oddly enough my favorite day in the field so far! There was more hide and seek to come, I knew....but I would be ready for the challenge!

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