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Friday, December 10, 2010

Chimpanzees

Rebecca, the scientist who is studying Gishwati’s chimpanzees, kindly offered to take me out with the research team for a glimpse of the chimpanzees. This group of about 20 is at the very beginning stages of habituation, meaning that they are not entirely accustomed to human visitors. Very few people have ever seen these chimps. It was an amazing opportunity.

We set out around 10am to meet the morning team, which had presumably been following the chimps since daybreak. When we found them around noon, after a brisk uphill hike that left me embarrassingly winded, the morning team had lost the small number of chimps they’d been watching. We did hear a few chimps hooting in the not-too-far distance, so we went off-trail, up and down steep hillsides that further reminded me I need to work out more. We were hot on their trail - following the paths of trampled bushes and broken vines they’d left in their slides downhill, noting wads of spit out bark or bites taken out of leaves. I was exhausted and thinking of exiting the forest with the morning team to try again another day when, very nearby, a great chorus of whoops rose from the trees.

I stuck around, and was treated to several hours of chimpanzee viewing: a mother and infant eating in a tree, the bold male who I thought of as the class clown selecting the closest appetizing tree to us for his meal, chimps swinging from trees and vines, the very unappealing swollen red bottom of a chimp in heat, chimps wadging bark, chimps eating leaves, chimps scratching and grooming, chimps building nests. What incredible creatures they are, and it is a privilege to work with the organization charged with protecting them.

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