Thursday, September 26, 2013

The chimpanzees of Kibale Forest

Harriet blazes a trail through the forest, and we follow as close as we can. "Let me know if I'm walking too fast," our guide says, "and I'll slow down." But we have it easy. The morning group had to chase the chimpanzees, who were feeding and on the move, at near full pelt. Inge, who competes in triathlons, later said that after several hours she didn't think she could make it.

But the apes tired themselves out, too, and this afternoon they are resting. I was ready for a bit of a run, but as we move from an open patch to a copse of trees we are suddenly and unexpectedly upon one barely three metres away. It seems to me that we are too close, but the ape lolls in the grass on his back and regards us with complete nonchalance. He seems so gentle that I want to touch him. Magda echoes my thoughts: "I want to touch him," she says. Of course, the moment any of us encroached on his personal space we would see just how much a wild animal he is. A chimpanzee is four times as powerful as an adult human, and has fearsome teeth – as is evident when the great ape yawns.

We move on and find the alpha male grooming his first lieutenant. Grooming between males forms bonds which are vital for maintaining troupe hierarchy, as one male alone can not maintain dominance without key backers. The two trade positions, groom some more. Then they lay down and doze in the quiet forest.

The peace is sharply broken when out of sight in the trees a chimp gripes and, with an unsettling volume, the two in front of us scream and hoot in response. Apparently, one of their senior males was complaining that another was giving him grief, and the two bosses were saying, "leave him alone! If we have to get up there's going to be trouble!" A little while later a junior chimp makes a similar sound and the apes below do nothing. Chimpanzees social politics.

Neighbouring chimp communities are often hostile to one another. Chimpanzees are the only animal apart from humans to declare war on a neighbour and take over territory. The researchers in Kibale have watched it happen. It is brutal. If they trap a male from another group they will beat him with sticks to kill him. When his body is inert, a nominated member from the community will act as doctor, listening for a heartbeat. If he indicates the victim is still alive, they continue beating him. Harriet says she has seen the alpha male finish off the wounded by cracking his ribs and jumping on him so that the bones pierce the organs. Chimpanzees are ruthless.

They are naturally fearful of people, but this group is habituated to humans. In fact, they are habituated specifically to black people in khaki greens (the researchers) and to white people (the tourists). They remain wary of local villagers. In fact, there could be something of a symbiotic relationship here. These chimps may consider us recruits to dissuade attacks from competitors. Neighbouring chimpanzee communities appear to wonder, "who are these strange upright chimpanzee mercenaries?"

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