Getting to know the chimps

I have been living at MUBFS for almost two months now, and am settling in nicely. It took awhile to get comfortable here, mostly because every time I took a step forward it seemed I took two steps back. During the first week I lived here, I was eating and getting my water from Emily Otali’s house, and largely my first couple of weeks here was spent buying enough of my own things to be self-sustaining. Just to describe a few of these speed bumps:

Although we boil all our drinking water, it was recommended I buy a filter as well, both to separate any accumulated junk (if it’s rainwater), and hopefully to make it taste a bit better. Well, we had a tough time finding a filter in Fort Portal; eventually, we did come across a single filter in one of the stores, inconspicuously stored in a box that looked like it was run over by a combine. And, fittingly, back at Kibale when we assembled it, there was a big gash in the metal frame. So, I couldn’t use it for another week until the next trip to town, when I got the gash welded shut.

Next, after I had gotten more or less settled in my duplex, the housing supervisor informed me I’d be moving to another duplex. Or, I should say, Emily told me I should move, but I’d have to go through the housing supervisor first, who can be difficult to find. Why move duplexes? The one I’d been living in had no door on its kitchen, and an open kitchen spells anathema for those wishing to keep away devious, hungry baboons.

But, out of the frying pan and into the fire—I moved to have a kitchen door that would keep baboons out, but this same kitchen door keeps all the rats in. I thought I was finished buying pots, pans, and plates after the first round in town, but most of the plates were needed to cover the food, so I needed to buy more. I bought ceramic plates specifically because they were heavy beyond the ability of rat paws to maneuver: an incorrect assumption. Just a couple days ago, actually, I found one of these plates shattered one the floor after a rat decided the chapattis underneath were worth the strain. I won’t go into other details with my rat troubles, but if you’re wondering, I did eventually decide enough’s enough and start trapping them.

Before I started trapping the rats, though, I had to buy lots of storage containers to seal all of my food as much as possible. I also bought a small refrigerator, which was another headache itself. Emily had bought it for me during a trip to Kampala, in addition to a certain type of surge protector made especially for these fridges. The surge protector was broken, of course; not broken as in a piece snapped off in transit, but manufactured incorrectly. So, another couple weeks went by while we waited for a replacement protector to be brought.

Even when I finally could use my fridge, my cook couldn’t even access it during the day (I have it in my duplex, not my kitchen), because I was only given one working key to my duplex padlock. I should have moved into this new duplex a couple weeks earlier, but the previous occupant had taken the keys with him, and it took him that long to send them back from Kampala. And, when he did finally send the keys back, only one of them was the proper fit, which I had to keep for myself. In the end I bought my own padlock, which was recommended to me earlier anyway since the standard issue padlocks here are apparently quite easy to file through.

Incidentally, other “pests” I have had to deal with are the black and white colobus monkeys. I came back from the forest one day

Caught in the act!

to find them in my shower, eating a bar of soap and the wooden shower door itself. However, it’s tough to get annoyed at black and whites, and until they eat enough of the door so it’s not really a door anymore, I’m still just going to watch and take pictures.

Probably the most annoying living issue I’m facing is the intermittent, and rather unpredictable, electricity. It’s not that can’t live without power; I’ve dealt without power before. There was the island-wide blackout in Zanzibar for my first two and a half months there, and I had no power at all during the two months I spent in the DRC jungle. Here, the intermittent power is irritating because usually it’s turned off on purpose. The government calls the procedure “load-shedding,” which is designed to ration a limited power supply to an overwhelming demand. But they don’t tell us when they’re going to turn it off, and there’s no telling for how long either. Again, it really wouldn’t be that big a deal, except my job necessitates a fair amount of computer use to upload, edit, label, and send photos. Plus, I need to charge my camera battery almost daily, so half a week without power could mean I’m out of a job until it comes back.

Amidst all of these minor living difficulties, I’m still absolutely having a blast working here. A normal workday finds me meeting the field assistants between 6:30 and 7am, when we walk into the forest to find some chimps. We usually do this one of two ways: first, since we followed a group of chimps until they nested the day before, we can go to this same nesting spot. If we’re too late and these chimps have already moved somewhere else that morning, we’d go to a feeding tree where we’d expect the chimps to come to at some point. Usually it doesn’t take that long to find a substantial group (which I call at least 4 or 5 individuals), and then we spend the whole day following them. Since I’m still not able to always accurately identify individuals by myself, I’m always tracking the chimps with at least one of the excellent field assistants the Kibale Chimpanzee Project employs. It’s really incredible, almost unbelievable, how they are able to identify chimps high in the canopy in poor light conditions while I’ve barely managed to spot the chimp at all. Keeping up with the chimps for the whole day is also not easy, and the field assistants are experts. My first day, I naively attempted to follow one of my target individuals by myself, and lost him in less than 10 minutes. Not that it’s a no-brainer with the assistants’ help: half the time when they’re tracking the chimps moving through the forest, I have to call upon whatever jungle skills I’ve acquired just to track the assistants themselves. Finally, depending on how the day is going, how many chimps we’re following and what the chimps are doing, etc., I’ll usually stay in the forest until between 4pm and 6pm and head back to my duplex.

Throughout most of March, we haven’t had very much luck finding more than several individuals per day. Although they will eat leaves, wood, and other less desirable foods, chimps prefer to bulk up on fruits, and when there isn’t that much fruit available (like now), we’re less likely to find substantial groups as they try to decrease potential foraging competition. This presents a few problems for my photography: first, I need to get pictures of certain individuals, and the chance of finding those individuals decreases with poor sightings. Second, although almost all of the chimps at Kanyawara are very well habituated, some are harder to follow when they’re not in larger groups, and we can lose them during the day. Third, there aren’t many calls during the day to help us find groups; one of the reasons chimps call to each other during the day is to broadcast rich feeding areas, and with so little food no one wants to let everyone know they’ve found a good spot. Finally, as the chimps eat less during the day, they tend to rest more to conserve energy. They often build day nests in trees and spend most of the day off the ground, and I can’t take teeth pictures if the chimps aren’t on the ground. All in all, obviously I’m hoping more trees start fruiting soon.

With the slow internet speed and unreliable power, I’m a bit behind with both my writing and picture-uploading. But, I’ve posted a good portion of my chimpanzee pictures, including a few teeth pictures so you have an idea of what I’m shooting for.  I’ve also labeled pictures with the names of the chimps, in case you’re interested.

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1 Response to Getting to know the chimps

  1. Sherron Laurrell says:

    Hi Andrew,
    I had a wonderful catch up conversation with your Mom and Dad tonight. The rats were a highlight…????…of the conversation 🙂 It sounds like you are having a great time. I had lost sight of the fact that you will be there until December! Yikes! I’ll pay better attention to your posts since it’ll be a while before you can tell me about everything in person. Keep having a good time. Please don’t feel compelled to bring me a rat home as a present ….
    love you!


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