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Skeletons in the Forest: Life, Death, and the Dynamics of a National Park

Young Explorer Aaron Sandel studies the largest community of wild chimpanzees ever observed. Trekking through the forests of Kibale National Park, Uganda, he is investigating different aspects of behavior and morphology, with a focus on development, dominance, and play.

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On July 20th, I went to exhume the skeleton of a chimpanzee. On our way we came upon a stone on the trail. William, a member of our anti-poaching team, explained that this rock was used to sharpen pangas (Ugandan machetes), a reminder that people lived in this area before it became a national park. In other parts of the forest there are stones that were used to grind millet, and some researchers have found pottery, likely hundreds of years old.

I look at a stone once used to sharpen the blades of pangas, now just another rock in the forest (Photo by Caleb Vogt)

I look at a stone once used to sharpen the blades of pangas, now just another rock in the forest (Photo by Caleb Vogt)

Humans are part of the ecosystem, and the history of people in the forest remains visible. I, however, want to leave as little an impact as possible. This requires compromises to maximize conservation and comfort.

I’m not a morning person, but I wake up at 6am, an hour before heading to look for chimpanzees. Breakfast consists of toast, peanut butter, banana, tea…enough to fill me up and warrant a productive trip to the latrine before 7. I want to avoid a forest BM. Not only is it less enjoyable, but to reduce the risk of disease transmission, we’re supposed to dig a hole. This is fine in theory, but while sometimes “Nature calls,” often “Nature just shows up.” With dense clay and a matrix of roots, my plastic camping shovel doesn’t really do the job (see Figure 1.)

Following chimpanzees requires a lot of hiking and a lot of patiently sitting, so I’m either fighting hunger or fighting sleep. I try to hold off until at least 10am to eat my energy bar. Non-biodegradable trash is brought to the nearest town where it is burned, the local form of waste management. To avoid this, I save my wrappers and pay a local family to make them into crafts. Cliff Bar coaster, anyone?

Resting, sleeping, gazing into a tree: the life of a chimp...and chimp researcher (Photo by Aaron Sandel)

Resting, sleeping, gazing into a tree: the life of a chimp…and chimp researcher (Photo by Aaron Sandel)

But on July 20th, I had one goal in mind: chimpanzee bones. After seeing the sharpening stone, we continued hiking west toward the GPS point marking where the chimp had been buried six years ago. A lot can happen in 6 years: new vegetation can grow, flagging tape can disintegrate, forest pigs can dig up and eat bones. Big James, the leader of our anti-poaching team, had been there for the burial, and when we got close he searched for the exact site. Eventually, I noticed two pieces of tattered flagging tape; after some digging we found teeth and a handful of finger bones. It seems the pigs had dug up the corpse, and this was all that was left. While the presence of humans can be seen after hundreds of years, the presence of a chimp is more ephemeral; the forest swallows up much of its own past. But at least a little bit of chimpanzee history was preserved.

Figure 1. If there’s one thing anthropologists are good at, it’s digging. Unfortunately my paleontology and archaeology friends never imparted their skills onto me. So I relied on our Ugandan field assistants to do the digging, when we went to exhume the chimpanzee skeleton (Photo by Caleb Vogt)

Figure 1. If there’s one thing anthropologists are good at, it’s digging. Unfortunately my paleontology and archaeology friends never imparted their skills onto me. So I relied on our Ugandan field assistants to do the digging when we went to exhume the chimpanzee skeleton (Photo by Caleb Vogt)

The human artifacts interspersed through the park are signs of the dynamic nature of tropical forests. People come and go. Farmland turns to grassland. Grassland turns to forest. While fires delay forest regeneration, left alone, much of the habitat can be recovered. Conserving the park is vital to protect the dynamism of the ecosystem. So I’ll keep saving my wrappers and eating an early breakfast.

Berg crosses a burnt grassland. Fires keep the grasslands from regenerating into forest, which is detrimental to primates and other forest animals (Photo by Aaron Sandel)

Berg crosses a burnt grassland. Fires keep the grasslands from regenerating into forest, which is detrimental to primates and other forest animals (Photo by Aaron Sandel)

 

 

NEXTHow Big are Camera Shy Chimps? Meausuring Body Size in the Forest

Read the entire blog series

Comments

  1. Zayin
    July 29, 2013, 7:57 pm

    lol, you need a metal shovel :)