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.
When I started this project in 2013, Tembo was a rambunctious little yearling with a penchant for play. Since then he’s gotten quite a lot bigger, but he hasn’t really grown up. In fact he’s a bit of a spoiled firstborn if you ask me. Last year, at age four, Tembo went through a very rough weaning period as Tenkere rounded the end of her pregnancy with Tambara. He begged his mother constantly for milk and then cried again after taking her nipple to find she’d run dry. As Tenkere encouraged him to travel more on his own, the intensity of his fits increased. He’s follow at his mothers heels whining loudly and then when she turned around to pick him up, he’d vehemently refuse by pulling away from her, throwing his body on the ground, and escalating into pure screams. He even put two-year-old Leakey’s weaning tantrums to shame (for more details on her crash-diet from weaning, check out my previous blog)!
The birth of his baby brother in 2016 hasn’t pushed him any further into acting his age either. Rather than grooming or playing with Tambara, Tembo throws tons of energy into competing with his brother for mom’s attention. Luckily, as a part of the O-Family Dynasty he has the adoring eyes of grandmother, Outamba to fall back on. She really dotes on him and seems to prefer playing with Tembo to playing with her own daughters. I’ve even seen Outamba come running to Tembo’s aid when the males get so rough that the mighty Tenkere has fled up a tree.
Despite his tendency toward brattiness, I can’t help but love following the little bugger around the forest. It’s pretty rare to get bored watching this little guy. Perhaps his maturity hasn’t developed but his love of playing all the time no matter what certainly has! Follows of Tembo are nearly always the type where I end up recording 90% of the data on video because he’s just skipping from play bout to watching someone groom someone else to another play bout and then there’s some aggression that he’s watching and on and on and on.
But I can’t wrap on Tembo without talking about how much I love his mother, Tenkere. My favorite type of female chimp is the kind like Tenkere, who is as playful as her son and gives aggression back as often as she takes it. She is the archetypal strong and sassy. Over the past two weeks, I’ve watched her play with any willing partner from her youngest son to the adolescent females to alpha Eslom and even our oldest male, Yogi. The only chimp that laughs louder than her, is Quiver.
This one, little Lobo, has been giving his “big” sister Leakey grief since conception! If you remember, Lia is one of our two moms that conceived very quickly after her previous baby. As a consequence, Leakey was forced onto the crash-weaning diet just after her second birthday. She was not happy about it, nor has she been quiet about her displeasure, but now she seems to be managing on adult foods just fine!
Lia, who definitely deserves a Super-chimp-mom award, has been carrying both infants wherever she goes since Lobo was born in July. Lobo clings to her belly while Leakey mounts and rides Lia's back. Luckily for Lia, Lobo has a ton of siblings to entertain him when Lia needs a rest.
While I was in the States between seasons, I worried quite a bit about Lia's two infants. Last season Leakey was clearly suffering from her mother's split energies, this season I worried I might return to find both- or really all three of them- in bad shape. The good news is that everyone seems to be coping. Lobo in particular seems to be taking it well- but it is still early in his young life and certainly neither baby is “home free.” I imagine that things will become a bit harder on all three individuals before they ease up, but I'm hopeful...cautiously optimistic even!
And finally, our newest teenie tiny little Wanji, who was born on the second day of this season. Wanji’s name is a Lugandan term that roughly equates to something between “What’s up?” and “Huh?” He was named after a prank that the field assistants pulled on us, tricking us into thinking that Wangari had returned from a month of maternity leave carrying little Wanji along in October. Our field assistants love to play tricks on us- they were quite amused over both our excitement and our disappointment at the reveal. We all got a good laugh too, but it was such a let down! If I hadn’t been there to see Wanji with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have let myself believe the guys until they found him and showed him to me for fear of a repeat disappointment. But, as you may have read in my previous blog, there was nothing disappointing about that day in the forest!
Wanji brings the 2016 baby count to six- a pretty incredible feat when you consider how many females were not eligible to contribute. And, to add a bit of icing to that cake, five of them are boys which rounds out our study population quite nicely. Now I’m just waiting on one more female to give the last of my original study babies a little sibling before the end of data collection in August…
....come on, Leona!
This beautiful lady is one of our Northern-neighborhood females. She is very shy but has been spending more and more time with central group members since D and I got here in January. Her favorite social partners seem to be other Northerners like Y, shown here grooming Lady G. Some of her more notable features are those piercing light eyes and a snare injury, which you cannot see here, that left her fingerless on one hand.
This blog is a forum share my personal experiences as a field researcher and traveler.