Electricity, snares, and my pet name

Although I wasn’t writing blog entries that often before, it’s tough nowadays to keep up with them even once a month. A big perpetrator here is the frustratingly inconsistent power supply at Kanyawara. Given the recent widespread power outages on the East Coast, this seems as good a time as any to talk about it.

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s normal for the power to go off every few days, for a few hours at a time; this is just a load-shedding system Uganda utilizes to deal with an insufficient supply to meet an overwhelming demand. However, the power will also go off when there is a problem, and here, problems are common and take a long time to fix. Exacerbating this elongated repair time is Kanyawara’s relative remoteness, and when I say remoteness, I’m talking about our proximity to Fort Portal within the greater Fort Portal area. It seems that Uganda’s one power company (there’s another problem in itself–with no competition, there’s little incentive for the power company to fix problems right away) is more concerned with Fort Portal itself rather than its surrounding villages, so when there’s a problem with the power lines between Kanyawara and Fort Portal, repairing it is a much lower priority. All of that background is leading up to the point that it’s also normal—although it shouldn’t be—for the power to be out for at least several days at a time due to the inevitable repair time lag. Since I’ve been living here, there have been four different periods (that I can remember) of 5 or more days without power. Just last week, the power was off for about 3 days due to a number of damaged poles—some of the same poles that were just replaced in March, which caused about 3 weeks without power. And this past outage came just after we lost power for about 12 days in early-mid October, when it took that long to replace the field station’s blown transformer.

The Kanyawara field station is separated into different “camps,” and the camp that houses the administrative offices has its own generator. Even though they don’t use it very often, they’re less likely to complain to the electric company since they don’t wholly depend on Kanyawara’s main power supply. Us researchers, living at a different “camp,” are allowed to charge our computers, etc. while the office has its generator running, but we’re still without power in our duplexes. After talking at length about the electricity with David, the golden cat researcher who’s been living here for two years, we think Uganda is dealing with two main issues: an economic inability, and a lack of understanding of how pertinent reliable power grids are to development. At this point, only about 16% of Ugandans live with electricity, and many view it as a luxury: great when we have it, but no big deal when we don’t. The paradigm is one of serendipity, not one of expectance.

Even when the power did come back on last Saturday, years of being a successful pessimist have encouraged me to keep my expectations low, and assume we wouldn’t have power for long. Although it hasn’t gone off again yet, we are in the middle of the long rainy season, and each daily downpour threatens to sever our tenuous connection to the grid. Just two days ago, actually, I was almost responsible for blowing my own power. I got back from the forest just as a thunderstorm hit. It was raining heavily, but it didn’t seem heavier than usual. I sat down at my desk to upload and edit my photos from the day, and after a few minutes felt a light shock from the computer keyboard. I looked at the plug, and noticed a stream of water that had come under my door and gathered around my surge protector and all the electronics I had plugged into it. It was a dangerous situation, and one I was lucky to come away from unscathed.

Anyway, power hindrances aside, I haven’t mentioned anything about a significant chimpanzee event that occurred back in July. Probably the most considerable and probable threat to the Kibale chimpanzees is snare traps. Poachers illegally set these snares for catching small game like duikers or bushbuck, or even larger animals like buffalo, but very often chimpanzees get caught in them as well. Snares are usually made of wire or nylon rope, and are designed to snag either an animal’s foot, hand, or neck, tightening as the caught animal continues to struggle against it. The chimps are strong enough to pull the wire or nylon or rope away from the branch it’s anchored to, but then are left with the snare wrapped around a wrist or foot. Usually the chimps can’t bite through the snare, and the more they work at it, the tighter it gets, eventually cutting the limb off. Probably 20% of the Kanyawara chimps have at least one snare injury, including our alpha male, Kakama. Our most unlucky chimpanzee is probably Max, who lost both his feet to snares.

Kakama’s left hand is permanently twisted due to an old snare injury. Because it hasn’t healed very well, it’s possible the wire itself is still embedded in his hand.

Max has lost both of his feet from two independent snare incidents.

The most recent chimpanzee to get caught in a snare was a sub-adult female, Special. We first saw her with a snare around her right wrist at the end of July, and a vet was called in the next day to try and remove it. Veterinary interventions are a risky business with chimpanzees: among other hazards, it involves darting the chimp to put it under anesthesia, and some research sites won’t take the risk. It should take about five minutes for the anesthesia to take effect, and in that time, it’s a very real possibility to lose track of the chimp. That’s almost what happened with Special: we lost her as she came down the tree she was in, and only found her about half an hour later when another chimp, Lanjo, led us to her. But the procedure went as well as could be expected: the vet removed the snare and cleaned and stitched the wound, and we followed a woozy Special the rest of the day until she climbed into an old nest early in the evening.

I really didn’t expect Special to make a significant recovery. There was another chimpanzee several years ago that had a similar injury in similar circumstances, and although the vet was able to stitch her hand back together, she never regained use of it. Amazingly, though, when we observed Special in the middle of September, she was using her injured hand to scratch herself. Later, in early October, we observed her moving her fingers and using her healing hand to climb a tree. It seems like Special will make a near-full recovery.

I posted just a few pictures outlining Special’s story at the end of my Kibale Chimpanzees album. Given their graphic nature I didn’t post any pictures of the snare removal surgery, but several pictures are posted on the Kibale Chimpanzee Project’s website, along with several blog posts I wrote (with help from Sonya Kahlenberg) detailing Special’s injury and subsequent recovery: www.kibalechimpanzees.wordpress.com

On a different note, I passed a noteworthy cultural milestone last month: I finally asked for and was given an empako. Out of the many different Ugandan tribes, empakos are unique to the Rutooro culture and a central mark of ethnic awareness and social interactions. An empako is a “pet name,” used when greeting someone as a sign of respect. There are 13 different empakos, each with its own meaning and significance. Empakos are usually given out by parents, but in my case, I called upon the chimp field assistants since they are the people here who know me best. They chose Apuuli, which I gather means something about puppies (the other one they were thinking about was Araali, which relates to thunder and lightening. Maybe I like that one a little better, but oh well). The initiation of an empako is also supposed to be accompanied by a party, during which they prepare and cook the ubiquitous millet dish. I haven’t done that yet, but maybe on my last night here. Either way, although it took me over 8 months, I’m now known to many of my Ugandan friends as Apuuli.


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