Thrall of the wild
Shena Guild travels to Tanzania to visit our closest living relatives
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.
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.classicsafaricompany.com.au.
Family ties: Mother chimpanzee with her young