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.