From the field!
April 2022 (Marilen Gabel)
Kinanda - the first wild chimpanzees that I observed!
It happened one day after I turned 23. At the time I, like many people, seen chimpanzees in zoos and on TV, but never had the chance to see them in their natural habitat in the wild. When I arrived at GMERC research station in the Issa valley, I finally had the opportunity to see these great apes. I had been out in the field for over a week and every day I was hoping I would see the chimpanzees. But the vegetation during the wet season is thick and already the density of woodland-savanna chimpanzees very low. But then luck found me!
A colleague (Sophia) and I were out early in the morning. The sun was rising; the birds and cicadas singing. The forest was waking. We were sitting on some boulders overlooking a steep valley, waiting in the chilled air listening for chimpanzee vocalisations. Suddenly Sophia got up, took her bag, and made a sign for me to follow. She only said “Sokwe”, KiSwahili for ‘chimpanzee’. I grabbed my rucksack and followed her intently down the steep hill. With each step my heart raced, a feeling of immeasurable excitement rushing through my body.
We didn’t have to go far. Sophia stopped and gestured towards the canopy above us. “Can you see?” She asked. I wasn’t sure what to look for, so it took me some time to identify my first chimpanzee – a black shadow in the high canopy against a waking grey sky. But ohh when I saw her, I couldn’t believe my eyes. One we were sure that she saw us, we stood very still and watched her feed when all of a sudden, from underneath her, another tiny head! A baby! I thought my morning was complete...
But then, to their right, the leaves began to rattle, the canopy began to shake. I followed the branch movements up and spotted three others. Another mother with her baby and her older son. I watched intently at the juveniles, climbing and jumping around like little bouncing balls.
Not long after we arrived, the nursery parties climbed down the tree and in seconds later they were gone, seemingly vanishing in the understory. Sophia had their trail immediately and had already started behind them. I followed her closely and made my way to her shoulder. The chimpanzees were on the move, stopping every now and then to feed or to groom each other. In the meantime, the sun had brought with it more than light; we were soon being infiltrated by tiny, persistent flying insects. They didn’t bite or buzz, but they obsessively divebombed our eyes and ears....sweat (or stingless) bees! At first I went to war swatting them away, but soon I didn’t even notice them, esp. once I threw on my head net! It was a small price to pay for being with the chimpanzees.
At around 10am the chimpanzees decided to make their way down to the valley. We followed them until the thicket captured us. Eventually we escaped its wrath, but by then the females and their kids were. When we reached the nearby river for a drink and a breath, I asked Sophia how she knew where the party was initially, as they hadn’t called. She said she noticed the distant canopy moving in a way that no wind or bird could have caused.
I was mesmerised, under a spell of amazement, not just from my brief time with the chimpanzees, but under Sophia’s tutelage as well. I had so much to learn, not just about great ape behaviour, but how to study it.
The next day I was out again: same forest, same sunrise, same anticipation. Once again, the two females and their offspring were near-by, this time calling early on and again before travelling before meeting up with another party. Their vocalizations gave their location away this time and we managed to spend the entire morning with them (and the sweat bees!).
These first encounters with the Issa chimpanzees are not remarkable for any unique behaviours that I observed; to the contrary, the individuals with whom I spent those first 2 mornings foraged a bit, rested, and travelled with meet up with others. In that sense, rather unremarkably, for most chimpologists. For me, however, who had known them only through zoos and the National Geographic channel before then, they represent moments that I shall never forget. To them and Sophia....asanteni sana!
...To many more encounters with these wonderful apes!!