From the Field – Entry 8 Kara Schroepfer

The (Un)Reliable Samwisi and the Ridge

Last year I always thought of Samwisi as the reliable one.  During my first few weeks in the field I could always count on her to be somewhere in the upper slopes of Kakombe valley with her mom Sandy and brother Siri.  Even when looking for other chimps, I would always seem to run in to her.  Her movements were fairly predictable given that her mother loves gorging on Mbula fruit and Mshaishai, both fruits grow in the higher elevation woodlands at Gombe.  This year was different though.  I was looking forward to spending time on the ridgetops with Samwisi but for the first two weeks she was nowhere to be found.  I knew that she had to be up there somewhere, but with a less than stellar Mbula crop and a Mshaishai crop that was still green her usual haunts were void of chimpanzees.  I stubbornly continued to look for her several days a week, knowing that other young female chimps, in particular, Rumumba and sometimes Flirt, also like to hang out in the same areas.  This gives you double or triple the chance of finding a subject in these areas.

Samwise after gorging on Mshaishai

On one particular day a few weeks ago we set out to find Samwisi, determined as always.  We started the day in Linda valley and quickly climbed to the top of the river valley.  Once up high we meandered slowly through the ridgetops of Kasekela and Kakombe before settling in for a brief rest around 11:00.  When we were refreshed I turned to Nasibu and asked “So where do you think she’s hiding? (Hiding was a word I quickly learned in Swahili and use on a daily basis here).  “Labda juu kabisa” was his thoughtful response.  It was true, we hadn’t yet climbed all the way up to the end of the trees in looking for Samwisi.  We’d gotten close before but today Nasibu told me about a spot close to the top where the chimps like to rest and he suggested we give it a go since nowhere else we were looking harbored chimpanzees of any persuasion.  Young female, old female, boisterous male, playful juvenile, All were missing.  Thus we headed up the mountain top through several areas of grassland and then back into woodland areas, searching the unripe Mshaishai fields for any sign of recent chimp activity.  Eventually we reached an open woodland known as Bald Soko.  We look here often for chimps but only in the lower reaches.  Today we trudged up the clearing, step after step, until an hour or so later, we emerged from the final clump of trees onto the open grassland of the ridgetops.  Meanwhile, we’d passed the grove of trees where Nasibu sometimes saw chimps rest and there’s very little reason for chimps to go up to the grasslands since there is no food here and they are not on the way to anything.  So, it looked like we had failed again to find the (un)reliable Samwisi.  On the upshot, the upper ridges are stunning and you get an amazing view of the lake, reaching all the way to Burundi.  It’s a great location to really appreciate the different microhabitats in gombe with the thick forests in the river valleys, woodlands on the slopes and grasslands on the ridgetops.

I was already higher than I’d ever been before and when emerging from the trees I was surprised to see just how close we were to the actual ridge.  The ridge divides Gombe National Park from the village lands and from our base camp shoreside it always seems impossibly far away.  I’d been told how amazing it is to be up there, all about the views and the weather and had always intended to someday walk up there on my day off but somehow it’s incredibly difficult to find the motivation to hike straight up for three hours or more on your day off!  Glancing up at the ridgetops I began to weigh our options.  It was already 2:00 so the chances of finding chimps that day were exceedingly slim and the ridgetop was so close.  But we’d already hiked up and down hills for 7 hours and were exhausted.  Then again, the ridge was so close, it would only be a little more climbing.  Nasibu is rarely any help with these difficult decisions.  His answer is always “If you want to go, we’ll go.  If you don’t we won’t.” but this time I could see the twinkle in his eye as he looked to the ridge.  He’s always excited to show me something new.  After a few minutes on the lower hilltop I decided to take the plunge and hike the last 30 minutes or so to the top.

Though not the view from the ridgetop (I had my camera that day but had taken out the sd card the day before and forgot to put it back!) this is an example of the adjacent village land as seen from the park.

Everyone was right, the ridge is amazing.  The views don’t get any better. As we gazed down on the flat spot we had just left Nasibu pointed out a bushbuck who was now sunning himself in the clearing.   However its also an extremely sobering experience given that the village land forms a hard edge with the park.  We had spent hours climbing through incredibly lush vegetation seemingly in an untouched wilderness but the minute we crested the ridge you could hear chickens cooing and children laughing amongst cleared agricultural fields and barren hillsides.  This was definitely hostile territory for chimpanzees.  The village was small and scattered and later I learned that it was settled by Burundians fleeing one of the many conflicts in their home country.  Because of the deforestation in village lands the Gombe chimps are essentially prisoners within the park.  They can and some probably have left but it’s an extremely risky endeavor.  JGI is hard at work with their TACARE community conservation program to encourage the villagers to set aside forest reserves adjacent to the park to provide more of a buffer for the chimpanzees and though the progress is encouraging there is clearly a long way to go before the chimps will be able to safely venture out of the park.

In the end all was well.  I fulfilled my desire to see the ridgetop and though we didn’t see Samwise that day, she returned to the group a few days later and again resumed her position as the reliable chimpanzee.

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From the Field, Entry 7 Kara Schroepfer

Ferdinand keeping a close eye on Sandy as Samwise and Siri groom nearby

5-Jun-12  It’s tough being a female chimp

Sometimes when in the forest I ponder what it would be like to be a chimp.  Much of it seems like it would be incredibly amusing.  In particular I would love to be able to climb trees with minimal effort and balance on precarious branches, move through the michaka with nary a worry of getting stuck and gorging on delicious fruit for hours at a time.  Other perks include being able to carry your baby without much extra effort on your part and being freed from the stigma of bodily functions.  For chimps it doesn’t make a difference if you let out a thunderous fart when you are being groomed by the most desirable male.  It’s also ok if you have poop stuck to your butt, as long as you are swollen and sexually receptive you are still hot stuff.

But then, I remember that life in particular for female chimps is not actually much fun.  I witnessed the unpleasantness that females chimps endure on a couple of occasions this trip.  In the first instance I was again following Zella who was traveling with her mom Trezia, and two adult males, Sheldon and Wilkie.  Trezia and Zella had an agenda for the day; they were only interested in relaxing and participating in marathon grooming sessions with just the two of them.  Additionally they were interested in slowly moving north through the upper ridges.  Sheldon also had an agenda and his agenda included returning south to Kahama Valley and taking ‘his’ female, Trezia, with him.  He was also somewhat interested in sharing some grooming time with Trezia.  Given their differing agendas Sheldon was actually remarkably patient.  He allowed Trezia and Zella to groom for over two hours, only occasionally inserting himself into the mix and demanding a few minutes of grooming.  Trezia obliged each time, but only for a couple of minutes before returning to Zella.  After about two hours, Sheldon began to lose patience and started making ‘rude’ gestures to Trezia, indicating that it was time to go.  He would slap the ground and give a body shake while looking at Trezia.  In chimp speak this means, come here, it’s time to go.  Trezia would ignore these signs as long as she could, all the while Sheldon would get increasingly agitated.  When it became clear Sheldon was about to blow up and give a full blown display, Trezia would quickly run to his side, pant grunt and submit her behind for his inspection, all as a show of submission.  She would allow Sheldon to groom her for a minute or two but inevitably Zella would follow shortly and Trezia would quickly return to grooming Zella.  This pattern repeated itself a good five times.  On the final occasion Sheldon had had enough and resorted to some heavy aggression, slapping Trezia several times and causing her to cower in fear, screaming and fear grimacing.  This was enough to break up the grooming party and Trezia and Zella finally submitted to heading south to the Kahama waterfall.

A few days later I was following Samwise.  She started the day in a fairly large group including her mother, Sandy, alpha male Ferdinand and several other adult males.  Sandy had been missing from the group for quite some time and Ferdinand was keeping close tabs on her now that she had returned.  Early on in the follow the large group split in two but Ferdinand made certain he stayed with Sandy.  When Sandy tried to groom Samwise or her younger son, Siri, Ferdinand would start to shake branches and get agitated in ways similar to Sheldon.  Sandy would quickly return to Ferdinand, she didn’t seem to be willing to taunt him as Trezia had.  You would think it would be easy to slink away from the group and make your escape in a forest as dense as Gombe.  And indeed Sandy attempted to do this a couple of times throughout the day.  However, Ferdinand was keeping an eagle eye on Sandy, even to the detriment of his feeding opportunities.  The other members of the party would be busy eating while Ferdinand would be busy watching Sandy.  At one point Sandy managed to disappear for a few minutes.  When Ferdinand realized Sandy was not on the trail ahead he went into a tizzy.  He stormed down the path with his hair erect giving a classic display before returning to sit at the junction where he had last seen Sandy.  He sat there for a couple of minutes continuing his agitated mini displays until Sandy returned, perhaps knowing it was in her best interest not to piss off the boss and risk bodily harm.

Both Sandy and Trezia are older females, a variety that male chimps find irresistible.  Neither were swollen and therefore not sexually receptive at the time but both are about due to get pregnant again.  Their respective youngest children, Siri and Zinda, are over 5 years old, the average interbirth interval in chimps.  Together, this means that when they are swollen there will be some serious competition to impregnate these females, if they aren’t already, and keeping close tabs on them in the interim may give an advantage to those males who put in the time.  The females theoretically benefit from this arrangement by getting access to the best genes and by foraging within a community defended by males and can sometimes have ‘some’ (key word, some) control over who gets to father their offspring.

Thus, I just need to remind myself sometimes that if I were a chimp I wouldn’t be able to slink off when I wanted to or groom whom I wanted to without fear of extreme bodily harm from males that are a good bit bigger and stronger than me.

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From the Field – Entry 6, Kara Schroepfer

Glitter with her brand new baby.

Glitter and her new baby, testing the waters with twin sister Golden

Glitter has a new baby!  Amri, Nasibu and I discovered it last Tuesday.  More on this later, the internet is about to shut off for the night.


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From the Field Entry 5, Kara Schroepfer


On my first day out in the forest our little group of Makiwa, Ferdinand and Faustino was joined by a traveling party of ~ 5 chimps.  Most were adults but I got excited when I noticed a little fella and quickly confirmed it was Zinda, the younger brother of Zella.  Last year if Zinda was around that meant his mother, Trezia, was around which generally meant that older sister was around.  I am always excited when a young female comes to me, given that its somewhat of a rare occurrence.  However, I quickly ascertained that neither Trezia nor Zella were around.  This initially worried me because Zinda is only 6 years old and its rare for a six year old chimp to be traveling alone unless he’s lost his mother.  Nasibu assured me that Trezia was alive and well and I confirmed her presence myself a few days later when I found her high in a Mgwiza tree with none of her offspring in site.  Meanwhile sightings of little Zinda by himself were on the rise.  At the same time field researchers were also coming across him in the company of adult males.  On one particular morning he bounced around Kakombe Valley alternatively hanging out with the F males.  Early in the morning he was chilling with Frodo, then when Frodo moved on, Zinda went and found Faustino and then later in the day as Faustino headed south Zinda latched on to Ferdinand.  He seemingly didn’t care who he was traveling with as long as it was an adult male.  A few days ago Samwise and her mom Sandy returned to the group after an extended absence.  This excited the males and they kept close tabs on her throughout her first day back.  In and among this group of adult males was little Zinda.  When we first arrived in the morning Zinda was lounging in the tree with six other adult males looking right at home despite his diminutive size.  Its not all easy going for Zinda though, he desperately was looking for some grooming but all of the adults were busy with grooming partners of their own and had little time for  a young juvenile male that won’t make a good coalition partner for about six years.  This is not quite like Disney’s chimpanzee where a young male gets adopted by the alpha male after his mother’s death (If you haven’t seen it yet I recommend catching a showing!) but the Gombe males are somewhat accommodating to this wandering youngster.  They tolerate his presence and do slow down their travels a bit when he’s around but his decision to travel alone without his perfectly able mother is certainly strange!  For the moment, his motives elude us and it will be interesting to see how long he keeps this up.  In the meantime we’ll continue to speculate on why he’s suddenly  given to precocious wanderings.

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From the Field, Entry 4, Kara Schroepfer

19-May-12 Termite Bonanza

When I first arrived there was a man from a local NGO installing a fancy weather station at Gombe that will contribute to a larger project monitoring climate change in the whole Albertine Rift system.  Ironically, he was delayed in his mission by the onslaught of rain that occurred upon my arrival. He remained upbeat and informed us that we only had a few days left of rain because the rainy season ends on May 15.  I’d heard this date thrown around in Kinshasa but had never heard someone in Tanzania proclaim the magical abilities of this date.  But sure enough the rain stopped a day or two before May 15 and had left us blessedly alone since.  My first day out with the chimps we endured an hour of rain.  The rain itself isn’t that bad.  Nasibu constructed a little tent with his poncho and we settled down under the tree where our chimp was doing the same.  I stayed remarkably dry and emerged after the rain refreshed.  Unfortunately it’s the aftermath that is the worst part.  The entire forest is wet and you must spend the rest of the day scrambling through mud and wet vegetation all while dealing with constant drips from the trees overhead.  By the end of the day I was thoroughly soaked and covered in dirt.  We made it three days after May 15 without a single rain drop but yesterday the magic of May 15 let us down.

After a few days of long long searches I was pleased to find Zella before eight o’clock.  She was back with her mom, though little brother Zinda still seems to be traveling without her, and a small group of chimps.  Even with three research teams following the little merry band of chimps we still managed to briefly lose them up the cliff face of the Mukenke waterfall.  Fortunately it only took 45 minutes of frantic searching to relocate them as they casually groomed each other on a cliff face.  The serene grooming session was interrupted with the grumbles of thunder coming from afar that soon descended on Mukenke.  This time, the group was quite thoughtful and took shelter under a large tree that was virtually completely covered in michaka or vines and overgrowth.  There was plenty of room for all of us and I didn’t even need to get out my rain coat, providing a rare occurrence where I was actually thankful for michaka.

This last burst of rain triggered an outpouring of flying termites.  I’m certainly not an entomologist so you’ll have to look elsewhere for details but the rain seems to trigger a release of the new brood of termites.  They come out with wings that are designed for a short flight to allow them to start a new mound away from the parental mound.  Now there are a lot of termite mounds in the forest and this particular storm sent them all abuzz so termites that can’t fly very well were everywhere.   They were literally littering the forest floor.  Normally it’s a lot of work for chimps to fish for termites.  First they have to find the right tool, modify it by stripping off the leaves and then patiently dip it into a hole and eat the piddly number of termites that bite the stick during each dip.  The patience that they show in this capacity is truly amazing and sometimes they’ll fish for hours on end.  Yesterday was different though and the chimps benefitted mightily from the termite bonanza.  All they had to do was bend over and essentially lick the masses of termites off the ground.  Wilkie, an older adult male and Trezia, Zella’s mom, embraced the moment and couldn’t get enough of the termites.  Zella was hesitant at first and spent the first hour simply watching her mom and Wilkie but once she got the hang of it and realized how easy this was she zealously lapped up the termites.  She was so intense in her pursuit that she ended up getting separated from Wilkie and Trezia and spent the rest of the afternoon alone before meeting up with her older brother Zeus in the waning hours of the day.  Chimps certainly aren’t always graceful animals and this rare form of termite fishing kept all of us researchers entertained for the better part of the day.  And I can only hope that the release of the termites also corresponds with the true end of the rainy season!

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From the Field, Entry 3 – Kara Schroepfer

14-May-12 The Twins’ Day Out

NOTES: Pictures will be coming soon.  Because it is the rainy season I need to bring my rain jacket out with me everyday.  This causes an unintended problem: my camera does not fit in my bag.  The rainy season is now officially over (more on that later) so I’m hoping to remove my rain jacket soon.  Also, you may notice I started with Entry 2.  I actually did post an Entry 1 stating that I am back in Tanzania for six weeks to check up on my adolescent females but wordpress decided it wasn’t worthy of publication and promptly deleted it (Alternatively I may have posted it incorrectly).  On to the twins…

A lot has happened to the twins in the past year.  Both were pregnant for the first time when I arrived last year, with Glitter giving birth at the beginning of July and Golden at the beginning of August.  It looked as if they would follow similar life histories in adulthood after a shared childhood.  But, as is often the case, things don’t always go as planned, especially when your mother is a known baby stealer.  The day Glitter gave birth, her mother, Gremlin, stole the infant to raise as her own.  We don’t why, but she has done this before. Thus, Glitter quickly went back to being a childless adolescent female.  When Golden gave birth only a month later Gremlin’s hands were literally full raising her own 2-year-old and Glitter’s newborn, so she left well enough alone and Golden was able to raise her own baby.  Now, Golden’s baby is a healthy one year old named Glamour that is already showing her independence, climbing up branches and getting into trouble while her mom rests nearby.  Meanwhile Glitter is likely pregnant again.

Yesterday when I saw the twins for the first time in nine months I was happy to see the whole G family together, however, it seemed like the relationship between the twins had changed.  Last year they were somewhat inseparable and would go off together for days at a time without their mom or older sister, Gaia.  Yesterday they hung out with the family but didn’t interact with each other much.  It looked as though the change to motherhood for Golden may have distanced the sisters.  Today was a whole different story.  As it turns out, after I left Golden yesterday, she hooked up with Glitter and joined a group of males for the night.  We found them this morning just down from their nest in the group.  After a breakfast of some msongati the group hightailed it down into Kakombe valley.  After a second breakfast of ngazi the males continued on their way and the twins held back.  Around the same time, Gremlin and Gaia with their numerous offspring came running through the undergrowth and it looked as though the family would spend another day hanging out together.  Golden and Glitter thought differently and didn’t follow Gremlin and Gaia as they went up the valley.  Instead the twins made it one of their many days out.  For about six hours the twins were never more than 15 meters apart and spent over an hour grooming each other just like old times.  Golden still is something of a grooming whore and Glitter still seems happy to oblige, spending far more time grooming Golden than she receives in return.  Though the grooming relationship may not be reciprocal I can only hope Glitter receives something else in return, otherwise she is clearly being used by her twin sister!  Perhaps at the end of my dissertation research I’ll have the answer to that question. Glamour didn’t seem to get in the way at all and Glitter was very tolerant as she climbed all over her during the grooming sessions.  In the end it seems like the introduction of a wee infant into the picture hasn’t much changed the relationship between the twins, they are still the best of friends, or whatever the equivalent may be in chimp world.

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From the Field – Entry 2, Kara Schroepfer

7-May-12 Arrival

The big news out of Gombe this year is that they’ve changed the shoes.  I was extremely skeptical when Anne first told me about the cheap soccer shoes that everyone wears in the forest.  It seemed completely counter intuitive that a pair of shoes, made in China, and sold for $5 would work in the extremely rugged terrain of Gombe.  Especially, when we are encouraged by slick advertising to spend over $100 on the latest and greatest pair of hiking boots at the local REI.   I arrived with my expensive hiking boots but was open to trying the shoes so I had someone pick up a pair for me in town.  It only took a few days in the forest to become a convert.  The shoes are amazing.  They are lightweight and so don’t weigh you down and the soles are sticky enough to keep you mostly glued to the paths.  My hiking boots sat lonely in my room for my entire stay last year as I completely wore out my pair of Cosovo sneakers.  This year the plan was to again rock the Cosovo shoes in the forest, this time trying out the red and yellow combination instead of the dull black and yellow combo.  Andrea broke the news to me first.  “The shoes this year suck”, she said, “they wear out in only two to three weeks”.  This was horrible news for me but devastating for the field assistants without the backup hiking boots.  There was nothing to do but buy several pairs anyway and hope the rumors weren’t true even though every indication points in the opposite direction.  I’ll be sure to keep you updated on the saga of the shoes.

A few other things have changed since I left Gombe last August.  For one, it’s raining now.  Last year, I arrived a month or so after the wet season ended, this year I’m here for the tail end of it and I seem to have brought the rain.  It’s poured everyday since I’ve been here.  I’m hoping it will stop by the time my quarantine (I can’t go in the forest for a week to be sure any international bug has worked its way through the system and won’t be passed to the chimps) is over.  The rain also means the hills are alive in greenery.  The upper slopes are tinted green instead of tan and the walk to the waterfall that used to be along a nice open path is now completely overgrown.  The chimps have grown up too.  Amri and Nasibu have done a splendid job with Makiwa and she is now mostly unafraid of researchers.  Familia is sometimes traveling without her mother at the tender age of eight.  Zinda has also said goodbye to his mother at the even more astonishing age of six, meanwhile his older sister Zella still seems to be a momma’s girl.  How quickly they grow up these days.  I secretly hope that Familia will be a typical precocious F and that this is an early sign that she’ll make a break for it and head to Mitumba, This is entirely wishful thinking but, hey, a girl can hope.

Though much has changed, the best part is that on a short jaunt to the waterfall I felt as though I’d been walking through the forest just yesterday.  Everything fell into place and it was second nature to stroll through Kakombe Valley.  I’m sure my legs won’t agree though after a few days of continually climbing the hills!

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From the field by Ian Gilby – Post #5

A good day…in hindsight.

Literally the day after I uploaded my high-and-mighty advice about how to survive following chimpanzees at Gombe, I was humbled by the forest.

The previous evening, the b-record team lost their target in Linda valley, after being swarmed by bees. I’m quite glad I wasn’t there, because this can be absolutely terrifying. The bees come in for the attack so aggressively that they sometimes bounce off of their target before stinging them. The sting can lead to painful swelling, and often other injuries as the victim panics and flees.

So, the research team didn’t know exactly where the group had nested, but Gabo felt that they were forging pretty steadily North, probably into Rutanga valley. We left camp at 5:15, trudged for 30 minutes up the beach, then turned East, climbing the ridge just North of Rutanga. Our hope was that we could zero in on the group as they made their morning calls. Gabo’s instincts proved to be right on, for at 6:30, we heard calls very close to where we had stopped to listen.

When we got to the group in the dawn half-light, there was already action. Dark shapes rushed through the machaka, accompanied by panthoots, screams and wraa-barks. At best could only guess at the major players, based on the composition of the group the day before. The excitement centered around Nasa, a female who transferred into the Kasekela study community in 2000. She hasn’t yet had a baby, as far as we know, and on this day, she was fully swollen, and the males were competing for a chance to mate with her. Freud, Titan and Apollo were there, along with a few young males, including Sampson, Fudge and Tarzan. It’s most likely that the screams came from Nasa at the hands of Titan, who is 16 years old, full of Testosterone, and BIG. As the alpha male, Ferdinand was absent, Titan was wreaking havoc.

But remember that there isn’t much food right now, so all the excitement was happening as we travelled, first North, then East, then back toward the South. Perhaps they had been thinking about an excursion into the territory of the Mitumba community, but felt that the numbers weren’t in their favor? I was trying to teach Gabo how to use the new GPS system, and for the first two or three hours of the day, we were never in the same place for more than 5 minutes at a time. We followed the group down the steep slope to Rutanga stream, where they checked on the mvumvu trees. It was on this descent that I forgot my advice. After being hung up in a tangle, and in a rush to keep up, I forgot to look before touching. A dreaded mwiba was stretched across our path, and just put my head down and tried to charge though. The thorns ripped my left ear, leaving blood trickling down my neck. I lost my nerve and started sliding all over the place. Not my best moment. But, at least I could count on an hour or two of rest while the chimps ate mvumvu, right? Wrong. There was no fruit, so we started up the other side of the valley, which is very thick and steep. Considering my current lack of fitness and my rattled confidence, I was lucky to keep up.

The group kept moving! By now, my arms were smeared with blood, dirt and sweat, and I was cursing myself for writing in my previous post that one ‘loves every minute’ following chimps. But then I heard the high-pitched squeaks and squeals of red colobus monkeys. Finally the group stopped and rested below the monkey troop, eyeing the canopy, apparently assessing their chances of making a kill. In my research, I’ve found that the decision to hunt is based on a number of factors, including the size of the chimpanzee group, the presence of particular hunters, visibility and the availability of colobus escape routes. I thought the chances were pretty good, and the males seemed interested in having a go. I positioned myself in a small clearing at the base of a large bare tree that bent upward toward a cluster of colobus. By luck, Titan jumped into this tree, and started to climb, with Sampson right behind him. I had the video camera out, and thought, “This is going to be an amazing shot!”. But, halfway up, Titan stopped and Sampson climbed down. There was a pair of fierce male colobus blocking their access to the more vulnerable youngsters. The chimp group had spread out by now, and screams from below drew Titan out of the tree and off through the machaka. In struggling to keep up with him, I heard the burst of colobus and chimp screams that signal a successful capture. When I reached Titan, he had hold of one end of an adult female monkey, while his father, Frodo, had hold of the other. Frodo who seems to have a 6th sense for meat, had materialized from nowhere. The monkey was literally torn in half (my apologies to the sensitive readers…) and a crowd of beggars followed Titan and Frodo. I followed Titan, who was fending off Apollo and Nasa, who grabbed at pieces of intestine that dragged behind. Not a pretty scene.

Eventually both Apollo and Nasa were rewarded for their efforts, but not without drama. Titan displayed over and over, scattering the beggars. At one point, Apollo re-directed his frustration at Flirt, dragging and stamping her as she screamed in fear. Eventually, as Titan became satiated, the scene became more peaceful, and soon everyone was resting, with the youngsters chewing on scraps of skin and fur. Mercifully, it stayed this way for an hour or two, but then we were on the march again. The group continued down into Linda valley, checking mgwiza trees and occasionally eating ngoyi pith. There wasn’t much to sustain them, so we kept on moving. And moving. The afternoon research shift had a hard time finding us as we zig-zagged across the valley. But, eventually we were able to hand the torch to them and walk slowly back to camp. I must say that with all my talk of the ‘good-old-days’ of full day follows, I was pretty relieved that I didn’t have 5 more hours of following ahead of me! After a soak in the lake, my body started to recover, and I felt ready to see what the next day had in store.

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From the Field Entry 4 – by Ian Gilby

Ten tips for following chimpanzees at Gombe.

#1. Wear grippy shoes.  I can’t stress this enough. The average slope in the park is 40%, so it’s very rare that the path (if you’re lucky enough to be on one, see tip #2) is level. If you’re not forging directly up, then you’re traversing, with the inside ankle convex and the outside concave. If you lose traction, you’ll find yourself spread-eagled on the slope, clutching at stems of grass (see tip #9), being subjected to good-humored jokes from sure-footed Tanzanians. There are lots of ways to lose traction – In the dry season, it’s the arid, dusty ground and dead leaves. In the wet season (I’m told) it’s termite clay, slick roots and mud. Most folks here swear by $5 Chinese soccer shoes that the research center buys in bulk from a lucky merchant in town. They have lots of soft rubber nubbins on the soles, and seem to have great traction, wet or dry. I’m one of the few who don’t use them, reportedly because my feet are too big and it’s hard to get my size. This is mostly true, but they also have zero cushioning below or above, no support whatsoever, and last about a month. (They do look cool, though). Instead, I rely on low-top, lightweight hiking shoes with Vibram soles. Even so, I suffered for three months in 2001 with an infected ingrown toenail that attracted flies. I’ve said it many times – this continent is tough on feet (and teeth, but that’s another blog).

#2. Embrace the vines. Chimps seem to move just as easily through machaka (vine tangles) as they do on paths. Mercifully, they do often follow paths, many of which began as animal trails that were subsequently widened for bipeds. But, several times a day you’ll find yourself thinking, ‘Seriously, they went in THERE?’. Suddenly your target chimp will slip into the undergrowth without a sound, and then you’re truly in their world. The vines are inevitable. You must embrace them. That is why the next few tips are dedicated to the machaka.

#3. When in doubt, go under. Chimpanzees are smaller than you think, and when you watch them, they duck under vines more often than not. You should do the same. Unfortunately our legs are much longer, so moving as a quadraped is awkward, so don’t be afraid to crawl on hands and knees, or even on your belly. (Remember the average slope of 40%, tip#1). This way, the vines slip (in theory) over your back rather than getting tangled around your ankles. They are amazingly strong and refuse to break if you try to force your way through (tips #5 and #9). Also, it helps to be small – with long legs you’re more likely to try striding over an obstacle, ending with your ankles in a hopeless tangle. I used to use my height as an excuse until I met Gabo, who is at least 6’ 6”, and moves through the forest as well as anyone. But always under. Use your hands to throw the vines over your shoulders, then wriggle through. It’s not unlike birth, really. Of course, there are times when it’s best to go over, but that comes with experience…

#4. Look before you touch. While you’re negotiating the vines, there are lots of hazards to watch for. As you’re slithering down a slope, it’s tempting to reach out and brace yourself against a tree. This is generally a good thing, but occasionally your target will be covered in strong, sharp spines that pierce your hands and hurt for days. Or, there are the thin green vines (mwiba) with barbs that attach themselves relentlessly to flesh and clothing. You can’t grab them to pull them off, but it hurts like crazy to push against them. Or snakes. Ok, maybe I’m being a little dramatic, but it has happened – a few years ago, one of the Tanzanian researchers, Juma Mazogo, grabbed at what he thought was a green vine. It was a green vine snake. Mazogo escaped with a swollen arm. I may simply be blissfully unaware of these snakes, or they’ve all fled by the time I get there. I have been impressed by pythons, mambas and boomslangs, though…What else should you watch for? Army ants, burrs, bees, and chimp poo.

#5. Be calm, don’t rush. Beating the vines (actually, you’ll never beat them) is most likely if you’re calm. Frustration will be the end of you. If you get frustrated, you fight. If you fight, you lose. Visualize your path, concentrate on slipping through (under, not over, tip #3). With fatigue comes anger and frustration, so when you start cursing random people from your childhood and inventing scenarios that end with you pummeling someone, it’s time for a day off. So, take it easy. But, somehow, don’t hesitate either. If you hesitate, thinking, ‘Do I really have to go in there?’, or ‘Isn’t there a path?’, you’ll lose your chimp. (Good luck with this one).

#6. Carry as little as possible. You’re going to spend a lot of time crawling (tips #2-5). Do NOT carry a backpack. I did this once, and found myself alone, upside down, bleeding and swearing in Nyasanga valley. Anything on your back will catch on whatever it can (which will not break, tip #9). If you must carry something, put in the pockets of a field vest or a hip pack. A hip pack works well because you can swing it around to the front as you’re crawling under vines (tip #3). If you wear a vest as well, then the strap from the hip pack doesn’t catch on things as much. No pith helmet necessary, though.

#7. Always carry a camera. I’m a photo buff, so I always like to have a camera with me. You’re in an amazing place surrounded by amazing beings, scenery, life. If you don’t have your camera with you, the chimps will undoubtedly visit the beach, lounge in dappled sunlight and practically pose for photos. Also, it’s great to have a video camera in case a rare event occurs – a patrol, a birth, a hunt, a new immigrant female, etc. After hearing that someone witnessed such an event, the first question we have is always, “Is there video?”. There’s really no excuse for not carrying a video camera (but see tip #6).

#8. Stay hydrated. I sweat a lot. It’s embarrassing, but there it is. I need water. In the old days of full-day follows, my strategy was to drink a liter of water before heading out in the morning, try not to throw up and carry half a liter with me (but see tip #6). Now, I’m less aggressive with my early morning hydration, but still carry water with me. I’ve noticed that now most of the field assistants carry water too, which makes me feel better. There’s no need to be a hero.

#9. If it looks like it will support your weight, it won’t. When clambering up slopes, you’ll use what you can to stay upright. If you’re in a tight spot and lunge for something, it will break, guaranteed. But don’t forget that if it looks flimsy, and you think you can force your way through it, you can’t (tip #3). Although, my life has been saved a few times by grass roots, so really, learning what will tie you up and what will give way comes with experience. Good luck with this one.

#10. Love every minute. This is the easy part.


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From the Field Entry 14 by Kara Schroepfer


Saying Goodbye

Yesterday, after waking up and getting ready, I headed down the street to Duke’s campus instead of up the hills of Gombe in search of chimps.  The contrasts were stark and though I have enjoyed stocking up on American food, hot showers taken not in the world’s most voluminous bath tub (Lake Tanganyika), but in a small stall where water pours over your head and the dirt you have just scrubbed off is quickly washed away and having reliable and quick access to internet, I already miss the chimps.

Yamaha begging from alpha male, Edgar. Photo by Ian Gilby.

I will now have to catch up on the daily drama of their lives vicariously through Ian and Deus.  But that said, they gave me a pretty awesome farewell.  I last followed them 9 days ago which gives you a sense of the epic journey that I had to undertake to get home.  Last Sunday we started off with no hints as to whereabouts of any adolescent females.  We chose to head into Mukenke valley since that is where several small groups had been hanging out.  We got lucky right away and ran into Golden and Glitter and the rapidly expanding G family.  With one last look at Golden’s baby, we were off to look for a more elusive target.  Five minutes later, we ran into the B record team straining their necks to identify several chimps high in an Mgwiza tree.  Amri made the first IDs and was happy to see Rumumba eating away in the next tree over.  Rumumba is a young immigrant chimp who came into Kasekela a year or two ago from Mitumba.  I initially had high hopes for Rumumba, but had later written her off as a nervous wreck.  Back in June, Nasibu and I had spent two fruitless mornings running after her through the highlands of Kakombe valley.  She made it clear that being followed by two humans was not acceptable and she did everything in her power to shake us.  It’s not hard for a chimp to shake a human and after only an hour she was off into the black hole that is the thickets.  So I was pleasantly surprised when, a month later, I decided to give her a second chance and was able to leisurely follow her as she hung out with the Fs.  This was followed shortly thereafter by a full day follow.  Finding her on my last day and keeping up showcased the progress that we both made during our three month stay.  For Rumumba, she overcame her skittishness and I overcame a total inability to climb through thickets and run up mountains.  A bit later she also provided us with a precious teaching moment.  Ferdinand (the alpha male) was keeping tabs on Rumumba and Tanga as they were eating near the beach.  Nasibu was lounging on a log that arched over the Mukenke stream, practicing data collection, a good 10 meters away from Ferdinand.  A nearby chimp group erupted into a series of pant hoots, arousing Ferdinand and Apollo.  Apollo gave a mini display and Ferdinand followed with a display of his own.  He ran down from a nearby tree with his hair erect in a classic display pose, thumped down the overhanging log and ran towards Nasibu.  It was all Nasibu could do to jump safely off the log and watch in amusement as Ferdinand assumed his rightful position on the log.  Previously Deus and I had been working with Amri and Nasibu to explain the concept of ‘displace’ as it relates to primate behavior.  And here, Ferdinand gave us a perfect amusing example of what a ‘displacement’ entails – A displacement occurs when an (usually dominant) individual approaches a second individual (often at an ideal feeding location), causing the second individual to leave and the first individual to assume his/her spot.  It’s often hard to understand Tanzanian humor but this was a situation we all got a good laugh out of.

Rudy, posing for the camera. Photo by Ian Gilby.

Later in the day, the chimps continued their final performance as we got a radio call from Mitumba saying Yamaha was back in the group.  It took me all of five minutes to decide to leave Rumumba and make the trek up to Mitumba.  With Ian accompanying us to say hello to the Mitumba folks we were quite the crowd.  The Mitumba chimps spent the day hamming it up, treating us to two separate hunting events.  In the first, Edgar, the alpha male, caught a small colobus monkey.  As with Eowyn in the first hunt I saw, Yamaha initially hung back and let the resident females mob Edgar.  After 15 minutes Yamaha tentatively climbed up to Edgar and sat quietly a meter or so away from him.  At a snail’s pace, she gradually inched closer and eventually began begging ever so politely.  I was impressed with her politeness since chimp begging is generally characterized by the beggar being so rude and annoying that the begee has to share just to make it stop.  It was evident here though that Yamaha’s polite choice wasn’t getting her much meat and only got two tiny pieces for all her effort.  After splurging on meat the chimps retired to a large Mvule tree for their second course.  More than an hour later Yamaha continued to eat even after the rest of the group moved on.  When we heard a commotion coming from the river valley, Ian looked over and told me it sounded like they were hunting again.  We hurried after Yamaha and sure enough, Kocha, one of the young males, had caught an adult blue monkey.  We were all late to the party and by the time we arrived, Kocha was at the top of the canopy with his prize and Yamaha was left to pick at the bits that had fallen to the ground in the scuffle.  It’s incredibly rare for chimps to catch or even try to catch a blue monkey so this was an exciting observation for all.  They spent the rest of the day lounging in the river valley, practically posing for pictures.  Though I knew we needed to walk back to Kasekela I lingered awhile and reluctantly said goodbye to the chimps.

I can only hope that my absence will spur them into action and sooner rather than later, I will hear the news that some of my females have made the leap into a new community.  Meanwhile, I will be busy here in Durham, entering pages and pages of data and trying to make sense of the lives of my females from June – August 2011.

The ‘Wasichana’ Team – Amri, Nasibu & Kara

A huge thanks to Amri and Nasibu for their tireless trekking through the forest in search of elusive females.  Also thanks to Anton Collins and Deus Mjungu for all their help in logistics and research design and for being amenable to relaxing with sundowners after long days in the forest.  Lastly thanks to everyone at Gombe for making my stay there wonderful and unforgettable.  And to Aaron Sandel, Christopher Walker and Katrina Schroepfer for help with this blog.  See you all next year!

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