The land of the chimps

Friday December 1 2017

A meeting of the elders - the chimps of Gombe National Park - from the Kasakela group. PHOTO | RUPI MANGAT

A meeting of the elders - the chimps of Gombe National Park - from the Kasakela group. PHOTO | RUPI MANGAT 

It is heading to dawn as we make our way to the secluded bay on Lake Tanganyika in Kigoma to take a motorboat to Gombe National Park. It’s the only way to get there.

Tanganyika is a beautiful, freshwater lake that the outside world knew nothing of until the mid-19th century. We sail past fishers and cargo boats to and from Burundi and DRC. Villages that double up as fishers’ landing sites and refugee homes for the Congolese and Burundians straddle the lakeshore.

A red sun rises and three hours later, we see the first signpost to Gombe National Park on a beautiful sand beach framed by soft blue waters, with troops of baboons drinking from the lake. “The chimpanzees never come to the beach,” says Dr Anthony Collins who has been there for 30 years studying the baboons.

Stepping ashore at the research centre, Iddi Kaluse, the guide, greets us. The big question is, where are the famous Kasakela chimpanzees? There’s a long wait during the two-way conversation between the chimpanzee trackers and the guide on their walkie-talkies.

At this point, the chimpanzees are midway in the hills. Scanning the peaks, my heart pounds; if they go higher, it’s going to be a tough climb. But the chimpanzees are in our favour and we hear them before we see them, their shrieks and calls echoing in the forest-full of peaks and vales. And then we’re only a few feet away from them.

Chimpanzee kids play and wrestle. A two-week-old baby suckles her mother’s breast. A loner swings in the trees. Abruptly, Sheldon the alpha-male ambles down the forest path passing inches away from us, followed by the rest of the family. Kalusi points to a big male pounding his chest and whispers. “That’s Fudge showing off. It’s like he’s saying, ‘I’m strong’.”

We’ve follow the apes further down the vale, keeping a respectable distance as per the park guidelines, to a crystal-clear stream flowing through towering trees of oil palms, ferns and more. Suddenly the calm is shattered when the chimpanzees see a Red colobus high in the canopy. The chase is on but the sure-footed arboreal monkey manages to escape. Collins tells us about another similar chase a while back.

“Fudge climbed up the tree and grabbed the first monkey and flung him to the ground, then grabbed the second monkey and did the same and then the third. The rest of the chimpanzees were waiting on the ground.”

It was at Gombe that Jane Goodall, the ape researcher of renown, documented chimpanzees fashioning grass stalks as tools to extract termites from termite mounds. It was a defining moment for until then, tool-making was seen as the preserve of humans. It led Louis Leakey, Kenya’s famous fossil hunter to remark, “Now we must redefine tool, redefine Man, or accept chimpanzees as humans.”

It’s hard to believe that until a few decades ago, this rainforest stretched all the way from Burundi to Kigoma. In 1947, a chimpanzee was seen just a mile away from Kigoma. Now it’s all land settled by a fast-increasing population of people clearing land for settlement.

“When Jane started her research, there were 150 chimpanzees here,” continues Collins. Today the population is down to 90 and decreasing. The worst danger is respiratory diseases contracted from humans followed by encroaching humans and clearing forests.

Sailing back to Kigoma there’s a stark divide between the park that’s all forested peaks, and the neighbouring land that’s all eroded scrub land that’s been cleared by the human hand.