After our relaxing evening on the beach swimming in Lake Tanganyika and enjoying the baboon’s company, we woke up the next morning to do our one day of chimpanzee tracking. Our guide named Isaya was wonderful – full of knowledge, information and the ability to recognize all of the chimpanzees by name. There are trails in which you walk on until you get closer to where the chimps are located. Once the guide has located the chimps through the help of a chimp tracker and researchers, tourists go off trail and bush whack through the forest to see the chimpanzees up close. That’s one of the cool things we encountered was witnessing the researchers: Tanzanians and foreigners sitting on the ground, keeping track of certain things the chimps are doing. There was only one other group of three tourists in the forest that day besides Jon and I.
At first, I was slightly disappointed. We found chimpanzees including one of the alpha males but they were all high up in trees eating their breakfast. It was cool seeing them but they were so high up, they really only looked like any other monkey. I really wanted to see them on the ground. My interest rose when the alpha male made a calling sound to his group of chimps. He makes a loud sound and then a chorus of responses go back to him from all those who follow his lead. It was scary at first, but I relaxed once our guide explained this call was simply asking his group “hey, are you all okay?” and the other chimps make a call saying “yes, we’re all okay!”. We watched these chimps for a while – many of the other chimps went to see the alpha male and to greet him and say hello.
Chimpanzee eating breakfast
Chimpanzee playing in the tree
Finally, after one hour of elusive chimpanzees eating breakfast and swinging through trees, one of the males came closer to the ground. Jon and I stood face to face with him and then as he got drunk (according to our guide, they eat a certain fruit that makes them drunk), he came down to the ground to relax. That’s when I started to get really excited – this chimp was so close to us and now on the ground!
Then we struck our luck, the chimpanzees kept coming to the ground. They all gathered together under a tree and we got to observe them for nearly an hour. All the guides and researchers kept commenting on how unbelievable it was that there were so many chimpanzees together in one spot. We were informed that just two days prior to our trek, the tourists only saw two chimpanzees total up in the air. Right before us were about 10 –20 chimpanzees uncaring that we were all observing them. The females groomed, the babies chased each other, the teenagers climbed trees, the males even mated for us. They fought, they played. They were indifferent to our presence. They walked past us…if I put my hand out, I would have been able to pet them as they walked on by. They continued to group and relax after their breakfast.
Some things I learned about the chimps is that the chimps that are in their mid-teen years begin to get black skin. Chimpanzees with white faces are generally under 14 years old. The oldest chimp in this park is around 54 years old. They are named based on their family. So, for example, there is one whole family whose names all begin with Gs. All the chimps in this park are familiar with humans since there are so many researchers all the time. Despite this fact, they are still wild animals and there is still a considerable risk to chimp tracking. We experienced a moment of this that will forever remain in my mind. Jon and I were quietly observing the chimps, as were all the researchers when the group of chimps panicked. They started running towards us and all around us. Jon and I were instructed in such a situation to slowly back up towards a tree and then grab onto the tree. Chimps sometimes will grab humans and try to take them away (they are stronger than man by 3x). So, if you are holding onto a tree, you can hold on (for dear life). The guide quickly told Jon and I to continue backing up towards him and put me between him and Jon. We slowly made our way up a hill. When we turned around, the chimps were still moving around, screaming and pretty much had circled us. It was scary, but we remained still and no harm was done. We observed them from the hill, let them calm down and left the group of chimps behind as we continued on our hike for the day… (more follows)