Don’t get me wrong; I’m not disappointed. Not even remotely. But when someone tells you there’s a possibility you will see fishing chimps, that inspires a very entertaining mental image. Turns out this does not mean you’ll get beer-bellied primates kicking back with a rod and reel, discussing first-round draft picks and wearing a loose cap with tackle attached to it.
Equally impressive though is that chimps use stiff grass to fish for termites in their mounds—then eat them like a kebab.
It was just me and my Swahili-only guide this morning. I’d been cautioned that there is no guarantee we will see chimpanzees, but we were only out on the trail about 20 minutes when the guide stopped, looked to the right, then turned to me and said plainly, “Chimps.”
And there to my right in a tree was a munching adult chimpanzee 20 feet away checking me out, with fig all over her face. For an hour we followed her (Gremlin), a younger chimp, and a little baby, who may be the cutest little chimp you ever will see.
I tried to figure out today why it’s so much more exhilarating to see an animal in the wild than a zoo. It’s really not brain surgery I suppose (that would be very strange if it were). In a zoo, they tend to be sedentary, often depressed, and just animated photographs compared to seeing them in the wild. In a zoo, you’ve got an animal behaving as it would as a guest in a human’s home. In the wild, well, you get to see them doing whatever it is they do, which is enthralling to watch and stalk through the woods.
It’s particularly exciting to see an animal with whom you share more than 98% of your DNA. You are forbidden to visit the chimpanzees if you’re ill, since they can catch our diseases (perhaps this is why seemingly inexplicably there was a jumbo box of condoms on top of the bureau in my hostel bedroom).
Relating to their behavior doesn’t seem like it should be ignorantly anthropomorphic; it’s just similar. Watching a chimpanzee awkwardly scratch his shoulder blade, I was thinking I know that exact spot he’s trying to get to (I would’ve offered to help if not for “rules”). The way they sit, their facial expressions, the way they may pee on unsuspecting Americans standing below them: it’s all very familiar. Or at least I’m going to believe that. It’s more fun.
After our time was up with the chimps, my guide and I trekked for another hour or two through the jungle, seeing Jane’s Peak, a dandy waterfall, and some punk-ass baboons, but I was still high on chimps.
After writing last night, three primate researchers passed my doorstep and joined me for a couple beers. Good, fun folk with excellent inside stories of the park, Jane Goodall, and ape habits. The stories of individual chimps helped me to understand some of the individual personalities of the community. Tonight I joined them (the researchers, not the chimps) for dinnertime in the park staff camp area (which was kind of like going behind the scenes at Disneyland) and watched the sun set across Lake Tanganyika and the distant, long, high ridge of the DRC.
Anyway, just wanted to give a quick shout-out to Elizabeth, Andrea, and Kristin. Thanks for the entertainment, info, and boat ride back to Kigoma. Once on the public boat was great, but sufficient.
So, if you ever have the chance to track chimps, I highly recommend it at Gombe or anywhere else. And if you want to learn more or help support our kin, take a look at the Jane Goodall Institute website.