Nearly five years after I started my first pilot season, Gola still holds a very very special place in my heart for a few reasons. First, she's the first wild, live, juvenile chimpanzee* that I ever met.
On our first day in the field after Drew and I finished our pilot season quarantine, we followed the field assistants into the forest before dawn. As we trudged along the muddy trail, contemplating how amazing and hard core our day was going to be, there was a cough. Barely a mile into the forest, along the main trail into the forest, the chimps had climbed from their nests to feed on a small, fuzzy fig called Ficus exasperata. The community was recovering from a respiratory outbreak that had hit them hard in March, killing three adults and an infant. Gola was one of the last coughing chimps. While the others ate, Gold continued resting for most of the morning. Though she remained in her nest, which was about 8 m up from the ground, I could see her head poking out from the edge of the her leafy bed. From the bank of the road where I stood below her, I watched her through my binoculars as she watched the other chimps start their day. After such a long while gazing at her, studying her face and noting her features, she was the first chimpanzee that I could readily identify without help from our expert field assistants.
Secondly, the portrait that I snapped of Gola during my first field season (the first photograph at the start of this post) is, to this day, the best chimpanzee photograph that I have ever captured. She is so soft and thoughtful and perfectly lit in that shot. After such an auspicious beginning, she just continues to be the perfect model. She's given me some of the most expressive expressions and poignant images I could have asked for. I use them all the time to tell my own stories and show how similar to chimpanzees we can be.
And Gola and I have been through a lot together- although, I should really say that I watched Gola get through a lot. As Olympia's next-oldest sister, part of my pain in Olympia's death was watching Gola grapple with it. She was one of the first chimps out of the tree, darting after her mother and peering into Outamba's arms as she clutched her dying infant. Watching her groom her sister's body, carry it around, try to rouse it into playing (for the full story on that day, please see my previous blog).
My favorite thing about Gola is that she is just so prosocial. Like her sisters, she loves carrying sticks and stones around with her, playing with them and building nests for them. One of her favorite games is picking up any infant, just to carry it off, build a ground nest for the two of them, and the just groom the baby in the nest. Of course, the infants are less thrilled with this game than she is and tend to run for their mothers after a few moments of forced grooming. Gola loves new females and has been among the first to approach and groom the three that have joined since I started working with the project. She seems sensitive to injured chimps as well. Over the summer she was very interested in the wounds of recently snared young male. When Gaga came back with her snare in 2016, Gola groomed her for hours.
After I left the forest this summer, Gola lost her mother and newest sister, Omukunyu, too. I don't know much about how she's doing since then, but I've heard that she's been hanging with the big boys, like Tuber, seen below playing with Gola and chewing on her fingers. My fingers are crossed for this juvenile. Surviving without a mother is hard on chimps, even after they're completely weaned, but if anyone can get through it, a social butterfly like Gola should stand a decent chance.
*The actual first wild chimp that I saw was an elderly, and very dead, male named Stout, but that's another story for another day.
The chimanventure continues...
Sometimes chimpanzee knuckle prints are frustratingly difficult to discern. Other times they’re practically billboards. With the right weather and mud consistency you can tell whether the calloused reliefs are a few minutes, or hours, or days old. More often than you might expect, the prints leave clues about which specific chimps you’re tailing: a couple of robust, strong-handed adult males; a lone, knobby-knuckled senior; a mother with her small and slender-fingered juvenile. On rarer occasion, features like missing fingers, limbs or a particularly unique gait can even help you discern the individual.
In this set, we found big, strong knuckles followed by one large, round, indented oval. It could only be Max, a young-adult male who very sadly lost both of his feet to two different snare injuries when he was quite young. That big oval is the stronger, less painful leg stump that he balances on as he travels. He tends to tuck the other leg up into his chest to keep it off the ground. Following Max’s trail there was another set from a much smaller, and therefore younger, chimp.
Perhaps Max’s little brother, Moon? We followed the trail from print to print like bread crumbs tracing each outline. It could be Max and Moon. The brothers have travelled together quite a lot since their mother died a few years ago, but recently Moon’s been branching out, extending his social network to other, older males. This summer he’s practically been Eslom’s shadow. Alternatively- given that the sets weren’t overlapping in quite the right way to conclude they must have been made at the same time- it could be Max on his own following in some other chimps’ trail. I swallowed my raising hopes of finding Moon to stave off the disappointment of the later option.
As we crouched over the knuckle prints, talking through the options, a twig snapped up trail. Looking up from the wet earth we caught the last edges of dark limb and the rustle of dense vegetation swallowing the form.
A few quick steps to catch up and we confirm: Max resting in the bushes us off trail! …and Moon above him reaching for a snack!
Nailed it! Even though these two just fine for me because Moon is one of my focals, they aren’t ideal for Stephanie’s mother-focused work. But, compared to the geezers we found this morning, they are much more likely to run into one of her focals. A sigh of relief, high-five and tugende! Let’s go!!
With renewed energy we followed the brothers as they led us straight back across the valley and into one of the few remaining patches of Uvariopsis. When they reached the grove, Max sat below the stand of trees and Moon paused just behind him. The pair surveyed the quality lingering fruits, considering which tree trunk to climb first.
But their eyes, and ours, found more than just fruits--- exactly as we’d hoped they would--- they’d taken us to even more chimps!
And just like that, in the perfect one-day metaphor for what it means to be a chimper, we went from the feeling that we’d never find our focals ever again, to stumbling over Max and Moon, and now, like she had magically granted my deepest wish, here was Tongo feeding above our set of orphaned brothers alongside all of her offspring (even the fully grown ones)! The boys each climbed up their own thin UVA trunk, food-barking happily....
Now this is a party.
After stuffing themselves each to the brim, each chimp came down one by one to recline on the ground, approach a friend, exchange some grooming, play with Tongo’s infant, Tangawizi, and generally relax. Somehow we had stepped out of the most disappointing type of early morning into the most rewarding mid-day! I mean honestly, to go from no suitable data chimps, to the best type of chimp viewing with my favorite chimps?! It was delightful!
And we’re not even to the best part of the day yet....
...to be continued
This blog is a forum share my personal experiences as a field researcher and traveler.