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.

Posted in From the Field | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.


Posted in From the Field | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in From the Field | Leave a comment

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!

Posted in From the Field | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in From the Field | Leave a comment

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!

Posted in From the Field | Leave a comment