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.
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.
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.