Mid July 2017
The fission-less Uvariopsis season finally coming to a close, our chimp friends have begun to steadily break off into smaller and smaller subgroups spreading farther and farther across the territory. Yesterday our dedicated FA’s followed small group of males that fed late into the evening, turning the humans back to camp before the chimps built their night nests. There were no females left in the party by the end of the night which was bad news for Stephanie and I, but this morning we woke up hopeful that our luck would change.
We headed in toward a wide, flat-bottomed valley where Stephanie had last seen several females feeding together on a fruit from the genus Pseudospondias. It’s a grape-sized, green-purple grape-colored fruit that is so tannic it sucks all the moisture from your mouth like chalk. Our destination is a beautifully wide, flat, valley that you reach after hiking up a hill, down a valley, through the swamp, back up a hill, down into the next valley, and repeat for about 3-5k (or 2-3mi) until you finally get there. That said, that kind of hike out is both a great way to get your blood flowing in the morning and also very typical these days so neither of us was all too upset about it.
Thirty minutes into the hike and at the peak of the second hill, a rally of pant-hoots arced around the valley. We couldn’t believe our luck! We stopped to listen, our grinning faces following each voice from a few hundred meters stretching across the eastern swamp sweeping westerly through thick vegetation in front of us, across a second swamp, up the next-west hill, and finally very far and very west and slightly behind us.
All around us, the calls continued from at least three or four different locations- all of them out of sight but surely within about a hundred meters of us just up the next hills. We chose the next-west hill and booked, still beaming, toward the pant hoots. We suspected a nice big party was coming together and all we needed was one female. Easy peasy. What a lucky day! We barely had to try! This chimping thing isn’t so bad!!
7:34 am and we found our first chimps feeding together on young leaves about 6m up in a fig tree: two geriatric males and one subadult male cling-on.
Right then. Not exactly what we wanted, but no big deal! Male chimps are always louder and more obvious than females!
Step 2: search the area checking for peripheral females that might be quietly foraging at the edges of our currently all-male in the party.
Nothing. Disappointing, surely, but no call to despair yet! Surely some of these boisterous others will join us here. Or these old men will find us a chimp friend more suitable for our data needs.
As we begin processes our options more calls bounce around the valley. Then, seeming to personally oblige our dreams of finding others, Big Brown, our communities oldest male (not that you would know it. He’s in far better shape any of the other old guys), looked toward the calls and slid down a fire-pole sized tree in typical fire-pole fashion. As he sauntered down the trail away from the tree, the other two followed suit, and here we go--in the only direction where exactly no chimp pant-hoots originated.
And so we found ourselves at the day’s first truly tough decision: to follow or not to follow. Chimps tend to be better at finding other chimps than people are at finding any. My general rule, and advice to others, is to stick with the chimps you have and let them find friends for you. However, older males tend to spend less time in bigger groups, so you can’t necessarily rely on their tracking help, especially if they’re already trailing a few friends. We already knew none of the females were at the most receptive points in their cycles so there were no particularly sexy ladies inspiring these males to come and find them. And worse- no receptive females, means none who would be seeking this particular company either. So, which gamble do we take? Should we stick with the old guys and hope they feel social? Or trade them in and try to switch to one of the other, louder parties somewhere else in this valley?
We opted for the trade-in. With other chimps so close by, what is there to lose?
Off we went! We spent the next two hours or so hiking toward calls, never quite making it to the location of the first one before hearing the next one, which was always in a slightly different direction and still too far away for us reach them. These chimps were clearly traveling in ones and twos. And moving quickly. Destination: far. A classically frustrating tracking day.
Step 3: time to take a break and think through the odds.
We stopped. Caught our breath. Listened as several sets of calls rang out. One from about 50-60m through vegetation behind us and three at varying degrees of far away east. It was becoming clear that these were tiny foraging parties. They spread out across a long valley as full to the brim with dense herbaceous vegetation as it is sparse with big, fruiting trees. We still hadn’t seen a single one of them since we left Big Brown and Co. Not an ideal situation.
But they all seem to be heading in the same general direction. That piece, we can work with. We took the most-preferred chimp path from our location traveling with the chimps, as our own tiny party. As we went we moved slowly by slowly, our eyes pouring over each inch of leaf litter, mud, and dirt for clues.
A knuckle print!
To be continued…
I have no idea how it suddenly turned into September. It just all happened so fast!
Honestly, it’s just that every time I sit down to write, I can’t figure out where and how to start. Just like every other season the last one started off feeling never ending, insurmountable even. It dragged on forever, a never ending loop of wake up at 6am, stagger into the forest at first light, follow the chimps, go home and eat and enter data and sleep, repeat.
And then, I was so pleasantly surprised by the most amazing summer. You might not even believe it if you weren’t there. By mid-July, the entire community had ranged and fed and played and groomed together every day for so many weeks that a first-year graduate student out for their first summer finally turned to me to ask, “So, fission-fusion, is it really how chimps work or just one of those things you read about all the time but it’s not reality…?” You can’t believe the fairy tale wonderland of June and July. And it lasted forever!
Until it stopped. And they all broke apart again like they were never all together in the first place. Like the magical fairy tale wonderland never happened- like they’d deny it ever could. And that was, of course, magical in its own right. Something about the wonder of witnessing a thing that no one else might ever see and knowing that it might never happen again. Feeling like maybe the chimps knew it too, like they were looking at us telling us not to get our hopes up because it can’t last forever.
And then when it finally really did end, it came too quickly and not soon enough in the realest most complicated kind of way: equal parts dark and light; and happy and sad; and beautiful and tragic in some sort of not-quite-Shakespearean poeticism. And I’m still working through the mechanics of how to write about it in a way that does all the sides justice.
I have a few bits and pieces that are nearly ready. I want to be as honest as I can about how I experienced the last few months. They were so amazing and so hard and so terribly, terribly beautiful. The balance is nearly right. They’ll be coming along just as soon as they’re polished… so stay tuned.
This blog is a forum share my personal experiences as a field researcher and traveler.