Meeting Darwin and Gremlin
Tribes’ Amanda Marks goes chimp trekking in Tanzania…
“What?! They’re right up there?” I said.
A mountain of impenetrable green forest loomed in front of us. There was no doubting the beauty of this national park – the remote Mahale Mountains rise up from the deep waters of Lake Tanganyika in western Tanzania – but the thought of trekking along the ridge that lay ahead of us to get almost to the summit of one of the peaks … well, it was daunting to say the least. I’m not a big fan of ‘uphill’.
I should have known, of course. Six of us had come to see wild chimpanzees and at this time of year (June) they still tend to frequent the higher reaches of the mountain range since that is where they can find food until the trees and shrubs lower down start to flower and fruit from about July to October. And the chances of us actually finding the group?
“The tracker who left earlier this morning has spotted them, so we know where they are.”
“But they’re on the move and if they head into the gully over that ridge, we’ll lose them. It’s impossible to get down there.”
At first, the forest was quite kind to us. Yes, our guides had to hack a few vines and help us to cross a couple of streams and we had to watch out for stinging nettles, roots and other plants with nefarious intentions, but it’s a beautiful place to be, the birds were singing and the incline was not too strenuous. Soon, though, we were not hacking vines but using them as ropes to haul ourselves uphill, and roots were no longer seen as trip hazards but steps to be grateful for as we tried to conquer precipitous inclines. The guides were incredible with us. Helping us find footholds, carrying bags that had become too heavy, pulling us up particularly difficult bits, and encouraging us with word from the trackers that the chimps were still within our reach.
“A mother chimp, Kupi, was sitting there on the rock grooming her boisterous baby in the sun….”
Three and a half hours later and we were nearly there. Suddenly, the air rang out with the familiar calls of chimpanzees. The sounds echoed around us like a welcoming fanfare heralding our arrival. We stood for a moment, thrilled by the obvious proximity, and we hardly noticed the last push to the top. And then, there they were!
We’d come out at a small clearing with a huge boulder in the middle. A mother chimp, Kupi, was sitting there on the rock grooming her boisterous baby in the sun. My heart was beating so fast I could hear it. We all put on the masks we’d been given so as not to infect the chimps, and then we simply sat with them, and watched, and laughed, and took photos. We were within 10-15 metres of them and, after an initial glance, they totally ignored our presence and carried on with life.
The baby’s father, Bonobo, came and sat with his family (which is apparently quite rarely seen); two adult males, Teddy and Orion, sat in the shade of the trees by the rock grooming each other; another chimp sauntered across the rock and headed off into the forest further up. Our guide asked me if I wanted to follow, and so, leaving the others, I followed further into the trees. It turned out that the big male we followed was Primus, the alpha male. He sat up a tree, just watching. It’s hard to explain why, but you could see in his face that this was a chimp with stature. He soon decided to move on and to my astonishment, walked right past me. I meant nothing to him but being in his presence meant everything to me at that moment.
We tried to follow Primus but he was too fast, and instead we came across a male called Darwin.
This gentle chimp had the kind face of a well-loved grandfather, with grey hairs and slightly watery eyes, and he just lay on his back on the forest floor with his head propped up on his arm and his feet on a nearby branch. He was the picture of Sunday morning relaxation.
The guide and I sat quietly with him for about ten minutes. He looked over at us occasionally. I just stared, drinking him in. It was one of those moments never to be forgotten.
“We were lucky this day as the chimps had come down the slopes.”
Two days later, I was sitting in another piece of forest further north, but still on the edge of Lake Tanganyika. This was Gombe National Park. You may know the name through the work of Dr Jane Goodall who was the primatologist who first habituated the chimpanzees in this area, back in the 1960s. She is in her eighties now, but still firmly involved and her foundation is still going and still a key force in the park.
Though the terrain at Gombe is very similar to that at Mahale, we were lucky this day as the chimps had come down the slopes. This made the experience here very different, and far more similar to the trek you would expect (even in Mahale) if you visited from about July to October. It took us only 20 minutes walking to find our first groups of chimps in the Kasakela community. The forest at this level is not so dense and there are more pathways that make the going much easier, though of course the chimps aren’t necessarily going to follow the paths – and they didn’t!
“You must keep to a distance of 10m and wear a face mask. You cannot visit them if you are ill – even with a cold – as you could wipe them out.”
We found a few different groups of chimps as we walked, as these chimps were not in such a sedentary mood as the Mahale chimps had been. We walked and stopped, walked and stopped for a couple of hours. We saw Gremlin and her high-spirited twins, we met Gaia and her family, we watched Google and Grendo having a chat on a log, we were there as Golden suckled her baby, as they all ate, squabbled, played and groomed each other. I could have stayed all day.
All in all we had one hour with each group. I am more than thankful for the experience, for the fact that they still exist and that they accept our presence, that the forest is still here for them, that I was able to have the opportunity to come here, that they are being protected thanks to tourism. However, my heart was also full of concerns after leaving them: could the forest – their home – be protected from logging (either commercial or simply from nearby villagers needing land or wood); could the chimps be protected from poaching (wild meat poachers are known to still cross from DRC); will the tourists like us be the unwitting cause of the destruction of these incredible creatures through the transmission of disease; can these wild chimp populations be assured of a future?
Sadly, I don’t think anyone can offer a confidently positive answer to any of these questions. All we can do is do our best to ensure that forest creatures such as these magnificent chimpanzees are given all the protection we can afford them. They deserve it. This is their planet too.
So, is it worth the expense and the travel and the exertion to see these extraordinary creatures that are so like us?
Yes, yes, and yes again. Do not hesitate. Just come.
Can you help protect chimpanzees?
VISIT THEM IN THE WILD
Although tourism is a double-edged sword because it can bring disease if not carefully managed, in the view of most conservationists, it remains the strongest weapon we have in the protection of the species and their habitat. There are about 700 chimps in Mahale, but only around 100 in Gombe. The numbers in both communities are in decline. Up to 30 visitors per day can visit the chimps, with a maximum of 6 people per group for only 1 hour. You must keep to a distance of 10m and wear a face mask. You cannot visit them if you are ill – even with a cold – as you could wipe them out.
Please come and visit these remarkable creatures. You’ll be helping them to survive as tourism pays for their protection.
DONATE FUNDS TO THEIR PROTECTION
If you are not able to visit, but still want to help, please consider donating to a charity such as the Jane Goodall Institute. www.janegoodall.org.uk
Their work is critical to the well-being of the chimps at Gombe National Park.
All images © Amanda Marks