15 Feb 2015
When I arrived at Kibale for the first time in 2013, the great Kakama, the alpha to rule all alphas, had just died. His cause of death was a bit mysterious and already shrouded in the legend of his reputation. We suspected that he had died from complications arising from the same respiratory illness that killed our oldest male and a rather robust younger female. But a simple cold could not have killed the great Kakama- he must have been trampled to death by an elephant! Perhaps he was thrown from the highest limb of a tree in battle with another male!
And still, his royal shoes remain unfilled. Yes, when I arrived here in January, 21 months of contests had still not produced an obvious alpha.
You see, the problem is that Kanyawara has a number of very young males, and a number of very old males, but very few right in the middle. Among male chimpanzees, maintaining an alpha position requires brute strength and prowess, but also a certain confident attitude and nuanced social savvy. To rise up the ladder and find the top rung, one must strike the balance between physical domination of those below you, and careful cultivation of political allies.
Our best candidates are Eslom and Lanjo, and they could not be more archetypal. Lanjo, the classic hero, is drop dead gorgeous. His long light colored coat flows with the wind, glistening in the sun as he displays. He uses saplings like stage props in some sort of modern ballet, swaying and bending but never breaking. He is majestic and powerful but graceful as well. When other males aggress against his mother, Tongo, Lanjo defends her honor. He keeps the peace, breaking up squabbles as they break out in the canopies of feeding trees. Lanjo also has a certain fascination with people, but that story is for another post.
Eslom is an orphan. No siblings. Just Eslom. And he wants to be alpha so badly that I cannot devise a hyperbolic metaphor to do his ache justice. Eslom has goals and aspirations. And he chips away, slowly but surely, fighting his battles and stacking up victories and supporters. He is not beautiful, but he does not look intimidating either. His bottom lip ticks a melancholy quiver when no one grooms him. Another researcher calls him a teddy bear because of how fuzzy he looks when his coat goes piloerect during displays. I find this comparison perfectly appropriate, even as Eslom tries so hard to convince us all of his fierceness.
I arrived as a staunch supporter of team Lanjo, but recently I’m flip-flopping.
I thought of Eslom as a brute. He reads as the slightly villainous underdog with a chip on his shoulder. But now I see more layers. He is so playful and seems as happy to groom others as his is to be groomed. He has an adorable little entourage of subadults following him around faithfully. He is one of our most accomplished hunters and never hesitates to defend the community against intruders.
My feelings on Lanjo have shifted as well. I still find him absolutely beautiful- if he were a human he would be a Calvin Cline model. Classically chiseled. But he isn’t a leader. He sneaks into the party and slinks away as he pleases. Sometimes his disappears for days or weeks. He doesn’t exhibit the same hunting, protection, or playful drives that live at the core of Eslom.
This is all to say that I realized recently, watching Eslom play with the kiddies, that I’m switching sides. I’m trading in my Team Lanjo kit to sign with Team Eslom, hoping that all the hard-work pays off for my little brutish underdog. In the interest of full disclosure, I should share that Eslom does seem to be winning this war, slowly but surely, but this is yet another story for another day. My point is to say that I’m not jumping ship just to pick a winner. It’s his playing that won me over. How could I say no to supporting the most playful adult male?
I’ll let you know how things develop…
09 Feb 2014
As I watched Outamba’s family playing on the path, a large male approached, piloerect and stiff-armed. Females pant-grunting in submission, he moved right into the middle of the bunch and sat, looking fierce. Pairs of playful infants and juveniles went right on wrestling, seeming not to notice. They tumbled closer, falling over each other and into his legs when suddenly he snapped to life snatching an infant male, Tembo. Tembo let out a small squeak as he was ripped away from his play mate- but it was too late. The male already held Tembo’s exposed tummy against his open mouth- his fingers tangling around Tembo’s torso and arms and legs. As his mother looked on, Tembo struggled against those strong hands. Biting fingers and pulling hair. The male held firm, smushing his open mouth into Tembo’s belly but never fully biting down. Tembo gasped with little chimpanzee laughter as the male squirmed his fingers into all the best spots with just enough force, but never too much, for a solid ten minutes of tickle time.
Moments like that one are my favorite. I am consistently amazed that male chimpanzees can be so fearsome and brutish in one moment, and so tender and gentle in the next. The same male that showed such careful restraint playing with Tembo was chasing and attacking a subadult female with pounding fists merely moments before. The way they crash through the undergrowth demolishing trees and unleash seemingly unbridled muscle power and yet- sigh. I love that I get to study the other side of that coin.
06 Feb 2015
On Tuesday my lab mate and I were debating- you see, he had heard elephants tons of times, but never seen one. On the other hand, elephants seem to appear out of nowhere when I’m in the forest and might be fond of chasing me as well. So we wondered: who’s luck was the strongest?
My lab mate led the group on the long walk back to camp. As we shuffled home, laughing and swapping jokes after the trek down into the swamp, across the swamp, and back up the hill to the main road, you could smell them. I swallowed, telling myself that the odor was probably a few hours old. Surely they were gone by now. Surely.
Then our leader stopped cold. A gray shadow in the twilight. Flapping ears. Fifty meters ahead and just left of the trail.
We whispered. Crept along quietly to confirm our first suspicions. Squinted into the fading light at the spot where the trail turned. Greener and light on one side and darker on the other and--
Yes. There was Anjojo. With friends.
There was no suitable way around them. I felt betrayed by the GPS. We waited for a bit, hoping that our new friends would move further into the forest. Finally, the coast was clear enough to press on. The journey was slow, cautious, dark. I barely took a breath.
We passed the spot. I sucked in the twilight air. Let my shoulders drop from my ears as I exhaled. Picked up the pace to make up for lost time.
Sitting right on the path and looking like might live out the rest of its long elephant life without leaving the spot. There were no side trails nearby. So we waited. With baited breath.
Finally, the elephant moved along and let us pass. We made it home safely and soundly. No charges, no chases, and my lab mate saw his first TWO elephants instead of just one!
So I guess our luck was about equal.
20 Jan 2015
To me, exhilaration is the marriage of deepest fear and purest excitement. As we hit cruising altitude on this first flight leg- Dulles to Brussels- I am suddenly stuck by it. It isn’t the same as the eager anticipation that I experience when I’m wheels up for a holiday adventure. Nor the equal-parts-nervous-and-delighted butterflies that take flight in my stomach when I’m about to see my boyfriend after a long separation. This time it was some inseparable mixture of fight-or-flight level terror and the feeling of scoring the winning goal of your soccer match.
Because, let’s be honest, this suddenly got real. Like, really real. I’m not a first year anymore. I can’t just tool around and have fun. I’m not a research assistant or meeting the chimps for the first time or even piloting random methods to see what’s what.
I am a Master of something. And THIS is my dissertation work. (That’s the completely scary part.)
And now I remember that the hardest part of travel like this is leaving your loved ones and your home behind so many months. You can never know how much things will change while you’re away. And then there’s Marlee. I feel like I’ve abandoned my poor lil pup- who knows if she’ll even recognize me when I get back, smelling like the forest and looking like it too.
On the other hand- I have a proposal and a data protocol and a decent little pile of pilot data to build on. I know the forest and the station and chimps (and where the elephants are easily surprised…). For the first time, I’m returning to a field site instead of starting fresh! Not to mention all the babies! We have so many chimp babies! Possibly more little chimp babies than ever- I almost hesitate to write it down for fear of putting a jinx on the whole operation- but I can’t hold it in I’m elated! It feels like every time we had a lab meeting last semester there was a new baby! On top of all that- the icing on the cake, one might say- is that my best friend will finally overlap with me at Kibale!
So here’s to 2015! The year that I begin my dissertation.
This blog is a forum share my personal experiences as a field researcher and traveler.