Thrall of the wild

Shena Guild trav­els to Tan­za­nia to visit our clos­est liv­ing rel­a­tives

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

CHIM­PANZEE be­hav­iour has been found by many stud­ies to be so sim­i­lar to ours that we thought we would take our four mon­keys (sons) to see just how much they had in com­mon with their clos­est re­la­tions in the wild. We would be trav­el­ling to the far north­west­ern cor­ner of Tan­za­nia, to Gombe Stream Na­tional Park. Jane Goodall ar­rived here in 1960 to set up a ground­break­ing re­search project on chim­panzees for the fa­mous an­thro­pol­o­gist Louis Leakey. He was com­mit­ted to prov­ing that Homo sapi­ens had evolved from ho­minids and shared a com­mon an­ces­tor with chim­panzees.

Our first stop is Kigoma, a three-hour flight from Dar es Salaam. Here, re­mote­ness has left the African way of life in­tact: the only traf­fic is chick­ens and goats. From Kigoma we head north in a tra­di­tional long boat up Lake Tan­ganyika. This vast fresh­wa­ter lake runs the length of the Great Rift Val­ley, which is gen­er­ally re­garded as the place where an­cient ge­o­log­i­cal up­heavals forced the evo­lu­tion of what be­came Ho­mosapi­ens .

Af­ter a four-hour jour­ney we ar­rive at Gombe tented camp, where haute cui­sine and four-poster beds with all the as­so­ci­ated lux­u­ries await. The next day it is just a five-minute boat ride to the na­tional park. As we en­ter the rain­for­est, the re­searchers, who con­stantly track the chim­panzees, ra­dio our guide with their lo­ca­tion. They are close. A few min­utes later we stop in our tracks. Just me­tres away is a group of about 20 chim­panzees; they are much big­ger and more im­pos­ing than we ex­pected and far re­moved from the familiar tea-party chim­panzees on television.

It is a scary mo­ment, but our guide re­as­sures us. This is the long­est run­ning re­search pro­gram in­volv­ing a wild an­i­mal pop­u­la­tion and the chim­panzees here are so used to hu­mans, they think of us as part of the furniture. Most peo­ple, he ex­plains, do not re­alise how dif­fer­ent chim­panzees are from mon­keys, or how sim­i­lar they are to hu­mans. Not sur­pris­ing, per­haps, given that they are pri­mates, like us, and share 98 per cent of our genes.

Sud­denly there is a loud hoot­ing and the chim­panzees be­gin mov­ing down through the un­der­growth. It is the start of the hunt, a highly so­phis­ti­cated op­er­a­tion. Moth­ers carry the very young and climb trees in the cen­tre: their job is to spook the mon­keys. Males put aside hi­er­ar­chies to work as a team and climb trees in the outer perime­ter, ly­ing in wait.

There is not a sound. Clev­erly, all com­mu­ni­ca­tion is by sign lan­guage. Then high-pitched calls re­ver­ber­ate through the for­est as red colobus mon­keys fly ev­ery­where. But, as is the way in the jun­gle, some are too slow to es­cape.

Later, in a quiet re­cess we see Kris, the al­pha male, di­vid­ing the spoils. But as one of the priv­i­leged hur­ries up a tree, he drops his share. Much to the amuse­ment of our four boys, there is a noisy fra­cas and a fight breaks out be­tween a half dozen close com­peti­tors. For a few mo­ments it is ag­gres­sive and we are re­minded that chimps can and do kill each other. But then Kris ap­pears from the thick of the jun­gle and re­stores or­der.

As life in the group re­turns to nor­mal our own mon­keys be­come in­trigued by a mother chim­panzee and her young fam­ily. One of the sib­lings is taunt­ing his brother by swing­ing his por­tion of mon­key in front of him while the mother’s eyes are averted. Sud­denly she turns. The young­ster drops ev­ery­thing and runs. Learn­ing what is ac­cept­able be­hav­iour is cru­cial for chim­panzees, as they are ex­tremely so­cia­ble an­i­mals and rely on fam­ily and com­mu­nity for sur­vival.

As night draws in, we file down the path. To our de­light the chim­panzee group fol­lows us. Our guide looks at his watch. Chim­panzees are crea­tures of habit too, he notes. And at that mo­ment they van­ish into the depths of the rain­for­est, to nests of branches and fo­liage in the tree­tops.

For our four mon­keys, spend­ing time in such close prox­im­ity to their coun­ter­parts in the wild is a fas­ci­nat­ing and un­usual walk­ing sa­fari. Gombe has given them a sense of how sim­i­lar we are to our an­i­mal re­la­tions and how we too are a part of na­ture and need to look af­ter it for all of us.

The Spec­ta­tor


Aus­tralia-based Clas­sic Sa­fari Com­pany of­fers sa­faris in Tan­za­nia that cover the Ma­hale Moun­tains Na­tional Park, ad­join­ing Gombe, with chimp-view­ing ex­cur­sions, and ac­com­mo­da­tion at Greystoke Camp. More: www.clas­sic­sa­fari­com­


Fam­ily ties: Mother chim­panzee with her young

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