Close Encounters

Although I’ve been photographing the chimps in the forest for over 4 months now, I always look forward to glimpsing many of Kibale’s standard yet elusive residents, many of which I haven’t seen yet. Out of all the monkey species living in the forest, the two rarest are the Blue monkeys and the L’hoest monkeys. I still haven’t seen a Blue monkey here, although we’ll sometimes hear their calls as their groups mix with red tail monkeys or when an eagle flies overhead. I have spotted the mercurial L’hoest monkeys, although usually they’re on the ground darting across trails so taking pictures is difficult. One particularly unusual primate sighting was a Lesser Bushbaby that I spotted during the day. I had seen these nocturnal primates before in Zanzibar’s Jozani Forest, although only at night. Duikers, a small antelope, are relatively common, although photographing them is also difficult—usually I only see them after I scare them, while they’re running away. There are both blue and red duikers, but I’ve only seen red so far.
Then there’s the myriad of fascinating insects here. I can’t even remember all the striking beetles, flies, bugs, caterpillars, etc. I’ve seen. At the end of March, a student group from Liverpool came to the field station for a few days, and one of their professors was an entomologist. I found out lots of fact about the insects here, for example a large, clumsy flying “sausage bug” we see often turns out to be a fertile male safari ant. I also showed him a picture I’d taken of some insect that looked like a mini feather duster, which he couldn’t recognize right away; I sent the picture to him and several of his colleagues back in Liverpool, who eventually identified it as a larval leaf-hopper. Point being, no matter what length of time you stay here, and no matter what your level of expertise, you can always stumble across something that is not well known.
There are all also all manner of snakes in the forest, although they are usually shy and secretive so sightings aren’t that common. I’ve seen six snakes so far: a black-lined tree snake, a forest cobra, a forest night adder, a rhinoceros viper, and two I couldn’t identify. The rhinoceros viper I saw was just last week, and it was definitely my most exciting snake encounter here yet. After a rainstorm, when the chimps were just starting to mobilize from their sodden torpor, all of a sudden they scampered up trees and barked at something, all of them facing the same direction. It was clear the chimps had spotted something, and were staying away from it. Spending all day with chimps is really synonymous to paying for the best available forest tour guide: they’re aware of things we would never be able to see. We all went over to investigate, and when we thought we were close, John, one of the field assistants, started poking around the undergrowth with his machete. Before we knew what we were dealing with, whatever it was let out a tremendous hiss. The threat finally had a face and a name, which John asserted as a puff adder. Proceeding undiscouraged by both the snake’s sibilant forewarning and its reputation as the deadliest snake in Africa, I edged closer and try to get a few photos. Finally I saw the snake myself, although it slithered under a log before I could get a photo. I did see it clearly enough, however, to later amend John’s identification to a rhinoceros viper.

Although we may not have seen the deadliest snake on the continent, the venomous rhinoceros viper is nothing to scoff at. Perhaps it’s simply a 22-year old’s innate audacity, but I’ve realized I tend to treat animal encounters with less caution than might be considered prudent. I suppose the issue stems from my interest in all the animals I come across, and perhaps, a significant dose of “adrenaline poisoning.” I’ve noticed that when I’m in a potentially dangerous situation with an animal, I immediately consider my daring aspirations (followed by what might be considered wise), and follow through with some middle ground. One of my most thrilling bouts of fearlessness (substantial lapses of judgment) to date came one night in March when I walked outside my back door and was inundated with the musk of nearby elephants. I was disappointed (lucky) I hadn’t stumbled upon elephants in the forest yet, so when I smelled how close they were, I felt very excited (nervous). Here was finally my first chance to see (run away from) elephants, and I might even get charged! (get charged!)
For their smell to be that strong, I knew the elephants were just inside the forest, maybe 50 meters away. I could hear them eating and crashing around a bit as well, which only made me more anxious (anxious) to get closer (back away). My next move was a moment of blind extemporaneous inspiration (big naive mistake): I walked towards them so I could finally say I’ve seen elephants in Kibale (dashed back inside and pulled the covers over my head). I did the smart thing (keep telling yourself that) and turned my headlamp on, but the batteries were low so the beam only projected a few meters in front of me. No problem (just keep digging yourself in deeper). Just when I was about to reach the front line of trees, David from next door comes out and calls out incredulously, “Are you going out looking for them?” “Yeah, I just want to see them. But I won’t go in too far, I don’t want them to get behind me.” Oh yeah, playing it smart (mm hmm). But, David gets his stronger light, and starts walking with me (fantastic, bringing a friend as another barrier to sensibility). We kept inching forward bit by bit until we were a few meters beyond the tree line, with the elephants still unaware of our presence (they won’t be for long…retreat!) and my headlamp getting weaker by the second (Retreat! Retreat!). Just when I thought we might be within 10-15 meters or so (are you kidding me? And at night?!), there was a loud, invisible commotion as the elephants caught our scent and crashed their way through the trees, running away from us (saving us). In the short amount of time it took for them to dash away, I realized the short amount of time it would have taken them to run towards us (wait a second), and how vulnerable and unprotected we really were (by George, I think he’s got it). Of course this episode didn’t stop me from searching for elephants during the daytime (here we go again), but I’ll get to that later.

At the end of the day, that first elephant incident turned out favorably, but what if I can’t objectively draw the line between interest/curiosity and self-preservation? What if one of these times I really do get in over my head? Thankfully, my instinctual common sense was confirmed one morning in early April. The field assistants weren’t working that day, so I was on my own tracking the chimps. I did found them feeding in a fig tree, and settled down with my binoculars to try and identify all the individuals. This was difficult at the time; even now, when I’m confident in my ability to recognize individuals on the ground, distinguishing them in the trees is more of a challenge. As I was circling the base of the sizeable fig tree, the behavior of the chimps suddenly became tense and attentive. As with the rhinoceros viper, they were all barking in the same direction, towards an approaching threat that every primate in the vicinity was privy to except myself. Given this its blatant disregard for concealing it’s considerable physical presence, I knew whatever it was approaching was big and unafraid, so immediately my guess was an elephant. I stayed rooted to my position, but relaxed as a large dark shape emerged from the undergrowth: it’s just a large male chimp, piloerected and announcing his formidable presence to all other chimps in attendance. Quickly, however, I realized my mistake…chimps don’t have tusks…as it suddenly started running towards me: it was a giant forest hog, and it was charging. In theory, the best course of action is to climb a tree to get out of its reach, and at least several meters up since full-grown males stand a meter tall at the shoulder. Practically, however, all the trees nearby were either too spindly or too massive to scale, so I just ran behind the trunk of the fig tree. I won’t pretend that I thought all this through once the hog started running at me, though: my instinct was to run. Perfect! My fear of being instinctively overconfident was assuaged. Luckily the hog decided its goal was accomplished before actually attacking me, and after making lots of noise on the other side of the trunk it ran off.

Sorry for the delay in this update—power had been very consistent in the last few weeks, up until last week when it went out for a few days. Plus the internet has been very unreliable over the last couple weeks. But I also added a few more chimpanzee pictures to my “Kibale Chimpanzees” album, and some more Kibale forest pictures to the “General Kibale Forest” album, including one of my favorite monkey pictures to date.

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One Response to Close Encounters

  1. Sherron Laurrell says:

    Hi Andrew! Thanks for this very interesting latest installment of your adventure. I had a wonderful dinner with your mom and dad and sister 2 weeks ago. You were missed but we sure talked about you alot! It was so nice seeing them. I’ll look forward to seeing you when you return at the end of the year. Take care and know that many thoughts go out your way quite regularly even if the typed word lags behind 🙂


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