Tracking Chimpanzees

2 04 2009


Sure Jane Goodall has the books and the fame, but where would she be without me?”


The scientific journal “Current Biology” recently reported the case of a male chimpanzee stockpiling weapons for attacks on visitors. Santino was recorded calmly making projectiles from bits of his concrete enclosure and hiding them before the Stockholm zoo opened. Hours later, he hurled them at visitors in what is one of the few cases of an animal planning for future events – and one of the reasons that tracking chimpanzees in the forests of Africa can be more of a challenge than tracking their considerably larger gorilla brethren!


There are only a handful of places in which it’s possible to track wild chimpanzees. Although rangers have been habituating lowland and mountain gorillas for several decades, efforts to view chimpanzees in their natural habitat are far more recent.


The Kibale Forest in western Uganda was amongst the first to accustom chimpanzees to small groups of visitors…although when I visited, the project was still in its infancy and the chimps were less than cooperative or hospitable.


It was almost an hour of trekking before our ranger spotted a chimpanzee at the very top of a tree. It was little more than a black smudge, but given that none of us was particularly confident of seeing one at all, we were thrilled. We edged closer until we had our best possible view, and then hoisted cameras and binoculars to watch one of humankind’s closest relatives.


It wasn’t long before the chimp was aware of our presence and began to scream its protest of our trespass. Although we were certainly no threat, this was one cantankerous chimp and she definitely hadn’t baked a cake for her visitors. Her irate screams echoed through the forest like Tarzan’s Cheeta deprived of red M&Ms in his trailer. From some distance away other chimps answered.


“We won’t stay long” our guide explained. “We don’t want to distress her too much, and we also don’t want to alarm the rest of the group.”


Unlike most other primates, chimpanzees are omnivores and aggressively hunt down monkeys and even small antelope. The guide said he’d seen a gang of chimpanzees sweep through the trees in pursuit of colobus moneys, surrounding and attacking the smaller primates and eating them. Attacks on humans are certainly not unknown as well, especially when they feel threatened.


“Would you rather face an irate silverback gorilla or a group of angry chimps?” one of our group asked the guide as we all craned our necks skyward.


“Gorillas, definitely. Although they can and do attack, it’s easier to avoid a confrontation with a gorilla…and it’s unlikely that a gorilla would attack to kill. If a group of chimpanzees attacked it would almost be like a feeding frenzy. They’re very excitable.”


We watched the chimpanzee for a while, the screams and shouts echoing wildly through the thick forest. Other chimps continued to answer although they didn’t appear to be coming any closer…which made the attack that followed all that much more surprising.


“Ow” someone shouted, stomping their feet hard on the ground. Within moments someone else shouted and hopped and then everyone began performing an unhappy jig.


“Ants!! They’re everywhere!”


The trail beneath us teeming with thousands of tiny ants which were now boiling over our feet and up our legs. Although we were all wearing hiking bots and most of us had our trouser legs tucked into our socks, the tiny little menaces were savaging us.


Each bite was like a pin-prick of fire. The chimpanzee forgotten, we began swatting desperately at the ants on our legs and moving quickly away from their swarming path. We yanked our trousers legs out and began to individually extract each ant, all the while contending with their continuous feasting. The bites were surprisingly painful and just when we thought we had removed them all, another would start biting.


Stumbling out of the forest we reached a patch of grass and hurriedly removed our boots and socks and began thoroughly inspecting them for ants. Despite our diligent efforts, they were still everywhere…and still biting. Eventually, the feasting over, we relaxed in the warm sunshine.


“See, I told you tracking chimps was dangerous!” some wise guy exclaimed.



Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan



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