Unfortunately, due to a comtinually-tightened and restricted schedule in my final month in Kibale, I was not able to post a final full-length entry. But, here I am, at 4am on December 8th, an hour before I leave Kanyawara for good, and just wanted to have a final little farewell on record.
My last month with the chimpanzees progressed quickly and somewhat modestly. Other than an exciting encounter with a neighboring community, which I’ll detail later, the chimping was very quiet. Usually, the field assistants tell me, in October and November, it’s not uncommon to find vey large groups and seeing the chimps hunt almost daily. No such luck this year, though. We passed most of the days with small to medium-sized groups, lazily sitting below feeding trees much of the day, and often waiting for the rain to stop. Still, I enjoyed spending every day following the chimps; how could I not, especially over the last couple of weeks, knowing that every time I saw an individual might be the last time. And on Thursday, my last day in the forest, I found myself looking at my surroundings with an innately rejuvenated eye: all the trees seemed just a bit taller, the downpour a bit less stinging, and meeting the chimpanzees’ gaze a bit more soothing.
My most vivid memory of the first day I worked back on February 10th was of one chimp, Bud, displaying across a trail right behind one of the field assistants, Wilberforce. I was taken aback at how powerful that animal seemed, that we could get that close to him (and he would get that close to us), and that Wilberforce wasn’t fazed by his display of strength at all. Although after more than 10 months of spending almost every day with these chimpanzees has certainly left me more accustomed to their powerful behavior, I am still amazed by their receptivity to (cautious) human presence. Sitting 5 meters away from 5 or so adults and watching them groom, I realized I’ve forgotten they are wild animals. The chimpanzees in Kibale do not seem like a part of the forest, the way I would look at a deer or a bird; somehow they just don’t fit. They seem above the forest. Modifiers. Influential. Aware. It is this aspect of watching chimpanzees—that I’ve come to know them almost as collaborators, not as forest animals—that will really set this experience apart. And although 10 months isn’t even that long of a time, I have still been able to see some of them grow up a bit. Thatcher, who was less than 2 months old when I arrived and still spending every waking moment clinging to her mother for dear life, is now just over 1 year old, and quite the climbing / tumbling enthusiast. I think Thatcher is my favorite young chimp, mostly because she spent more time looking at me than any other infant. Even after 10 months, I still found myself instinctively smiling at her, and even occasionally making facial expressions as to a human baby to spawn a laugh. I suppose that might count as violating the “don’t affect their behavior” clause, but find me a person who wouldn’t have done the same thing.
So, I’m now leaving for Kampala, where I’ll start my week-and-a-half long vacation to finish off my stay in Africa. Although much of that time will be spent travelling, my plans include whitewater rafting on the Victoria Nile, and down to Tanzania to dive on Mafia Island and hopefully see some whale sharks. I’ll be adding more posts about Uganda over the next couple of months from the US (hoping we make it past December 21st), and uploading more pictures as well. But, for now, farewell from Kibale National Park, from Uganda, and from East Africa.