5 - Planet of the Chimps
Updated: Nov 8, 2022
Our guesthouse was just down the road from a tea plantation. Their harvesting techniques don't appear to have changed much from the last century (or three):
Time to trek with chimps! We'd done so much so fast, I hadn't thought about this experience to come. I was excited, but should I be, just a little... nervous?
I assumed we’d have to hike an hour or so into the jungle with our AK47-toting female ranger, build up the exotic intrigue of the event by sweating and hacking through wild equatorial jungle, but about 5 minutes after setting off from the parking lot we came across our first character.
The intelligence in his old wise eyes was obvious.
He paid us no mind as my mind tried to process and capture the whole experience, every little detail. He picked up a melon and started to dig in, holding it just as I would, carefully bringing up to his mouth just as I would... save for the fur and fangs there was an eerie similarity seeing the sameness of his breakfast manners vs. my own.
But that was just the first experiential appetizer. Less than 10 minutes later I heard branches being seriously rustled. Back home I'm used to a gentle swish as a squirrel jumps from branch to branch, but this sounded more like Paul Bunyan leaping on a tree, before tearing it down.
Suddenly we were surrounded. Imagine that sound, that feeling, then hearing this chatter shatter the calm silence:
What a humbling sensation to be surrounded by a tribe of wild chimpanzees, all of them two -- three or four times stronger than me, on their home turf, and being allowed to watch them in action. And then the action began.
"Don't move" instructed our guide, in whom I now placed serious faith when I saw how serious her face had grown. The main force of the troop were returning home, on the ground. "They will choose a path around you, but if you move you might... disturb them." I froze, glad I'd visited the restrooms before setting out, suspecting that "disturb" was the pleasant Ugandan term for "instigate a face-removing incident."
And a moment later I learned something new, something mildly mind-blowing.
As the troop swaggered home around us, I noticed something
hanging from the mouth of a large male. It happened so quickly I wasn't sure, but when I looked at my digital images I saw
I zoomed in
Up until a few decades ago, it was believed all the large primates were vegetarian. Even the massive mountain gorilla, who could easily crush the skull of any mammal between its thumb and forefinger without a second thought, spends the day happily munching on forest celery. But...
Jane Goodall was one of the first to document chimpanzees killing other animals to feed on their flesh. Disturbingly sometimes even other chimps. And then, rather unexpectedly, Nathan and I confirmed the fact. This wasn't a group returning from a friendly visit with the neighbours. This was a war party, a hunting party, returning victorious. And, hungry, it was time to enjoy the spoils. Which in this case were all the body parts of an unlucky colobus monkey. Even the tail is a delicacy. And as the large male ascended a tree to enjoy his
dinner, the youngsters gathered below him to beg for scraps. Bone marrow, I deduced by the sound of molars
no doubt similar to mine
The little monkey looks to have put up a big, final, fight.
A few moments later there was more "humanity" on display by some of our closest relatives, though this was much more heartwarming. Adorable even.
At first I thought the big chimp was biting the little one
but our guide spoke up and explained this was play, with momma tickling her young child, who started laughing uncontrollably
The intelligence in their eyes was so striking
The experience, limited to an hour for the sake of the chimps, was over all too quickly. What an eye-opener, to see the intellect in those eyes, watch them play just like we do, eat just like we do, hunt for meat just like... I had no idea any other large primate beyond me enjoyed eating sushi (or raw monkey) until that day.
We hit the road, driving past numerous small villages, where I noted none of the children seemed as happy as that baby chimp laughing uproariously while his mum tickled him so lovingly.