From the field!
October 2022 (Nora Bennamoun)
Hi, my name is Nora, I’m French and I arrived at Issa in August '22. I graduated with a Masters in Primate Conservation from Oxford Brookes Univ (UK) in 2021. I am deeply interested in many areas of chimpanzees behavioural ecology and coming to Issa was probably the best decision I have made so far in my life. I have long wanted to study chimpanzees in their natural habitat, therefore the independent study that I’m leading here gives me the perfect opportunity to live that passion and gain valuable field experience. So what am I doing ? I am investigating the behavioural responses to fire from non-human primates, looking at their diet, food processing, as well as measuring fruit mechanical properties among other metrics.
You clicked here to learn about some of the experiences here in Tanzania, and lucky you, I have one to share! Most of my friends and family at home can not really imagine what it is like to study wild chimpanzees: tracking them, finding them, monitoring them, because the beauty of studying them in their natural habitat comes with many challenges. Everyday is as exciting and exhausting as the previous one. I am here to tell you about one of those days in particular and let's see if I can make you live the story along with your reading as if you were with me in the field, because that was one of the most exalting day I had tracking the chimps.
I went out in the field on the morning shift with Payton Sime, leaving the station at 0600. As we had not nested a party the previous night, we listened at an overlook, waiting for the first chimpanzee vocalisations, while the sun rose in the horizon. Beautiful. The first chimpanzee calls tend to happen between 7am and 730am and from there our mission begins!
That morning, we heard nothing, so we travelled to another listening spot and waited. While we wait, we hope for two things: that we'll hear vocalisations AND and that if so, we'll be « easily » able to find them! But at Issa, the mosaic landscape can be unforgiving, no matter how fit one is!
Suddenly, without any indication, we saw two chimpanzees in the valley right in front of us. We stood up quickly and looked again. We waited until we saw at least more than one individual, which is otherwise a challenge to follow. We were not sure, but Payton seemed keen to hurtle down the valley, cross the forest, and climb the valley in front of us. While Payton has been at Issa for a year, at that time I had been there for less than a month, so I'll let you imagine the face I gave her. But negotiating this terrain is as much a mental, as physical challenge, so I grimaced and said let’s do it. What timing! ...before going down we heard a party vocalising just next to us. We turned abruptly and hastily headed towards the calls: Payton in front, me praying that I won’t smash myself on the ground trying to keep up!
We found the party in a spot hardly accessible to bipeds and surrounded with thorns. Payton was determined and she helped me limbo and duck through them. Through the thicket, I secretly hoped the chimpanzees were consuming a fruit that I had not yet sampled for my work. I was in luck! When we arrived, the party was already on the move. We decided to split up: Payton followed the party, while I made a run to sample the new fruit. I managed to be quick but since they left the feeding tree and kept travelling, I got left behind quickly! I took the opportunity to use the GPS-radios we carry to track Payton...who's in turn, tracking the chimpanzees! I didn't panic, just focused. I let her know : « Fear no more Payton, I’m on my way. » We were following three males, and Payton told me that they stopped at a cliff edge and was not sure if they would go down. I am French and my English is *typically* good, but I in this case, I mis-heard that the chimpanzees went down and she followed. I arrived at that cliff, looked at it, and I definitely cursed (this time in French). I couldn’t see Payton down there but my GPS was telling me that she was very close. In the walkie talkie it went like:
« Ok Payton I’m going down »
« No Nora what are you doing, I’m right here look at your left »
« Oh hi »
« Hi »
It was very hot and sunny but thankfully the wind was blowing quite hard, drying the sweat on my face. In the field, I sweat more than I could have possibly imagined. The chimps were grooming in hand clasps a bit further down. Payton told me that she was hoping that they would NOT go down as it would be too dangerous for us to do it as well, and they would be too fast for us anyway. Merci mon dieu I thought. But obviously what did they do ? They went down, of course. We were stuck and they were fast. I wish I could walk like a chimpanzee in those moments. We were looking for a way down, but we had no other option than going around the rocks which would take us too long and we might lose the party. But adrenaline was running high and so we decided to try and follow them down that very, very, very, steep slope. The most frustrating thing is that almost immediately we could see the party already in the distance now! Payton was flying down and I was behind, practicing my best falls. It was very exciting though. I found Payton down the hill and I remember counting 6 splinters on both of my hands from my tree to tree Tarzan imitation rushing down the hill.
When we reached the bottom, we had lost the party ...and I had lost track of where we were. Payton had also never been to that area, so we discovered this new area together. It was a riparian area off the river, with a sand bank and puddles everywhere. It smelled like a swamp and the ground was soft underneath our feet. Ending here was completely unexpected. We were so disappointed to have lost the party.
In our despair, we sat and rested, only to hear soft hoots coming from around the river bend. A quick peak and there they were! Our three males had joined another party! They were algae fishing, which is a rare behaviour. I was so happy, seeing them in the open like that - words cannot describe how wonderful a sight it is! Chimpanzeess do not know how to swim and even though the puddle was large, it was definitely not deep but they were extremely careful. They stayed there for over three hours, until the end of my morning shift. Lucky me, when the shift ended. Back up, up, up the hills and to camp.
I hope this story helps others understand how hard it is to follow these remarkable animals, surely shared across study sites. Sometimes, several days can pass without finding a single individual, or we can lose them as we almost did with Payton this day and struggle to find them again. One has to accept the frustration with the fascination! But once you see them everything is forgotten and makes the difficulties a worthy sacrifice. I've been here for 2 months now, with many more to follow. I’m looking forward to the day that I will be confident enough to lead my own follow!