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Charging Chimps, Chasing Poachers, & Other Drama

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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Chimpanzees are dramatic. Pant hoots, screams, charging displays. You would think something unusual was happening. Nope. Just that they found food, or ran into another chimp who they hadn’t seen that day.

Of course, I shouldn’t downplay the importance of food or those quotidian details of chimpanzee life that elicit such excitement. After all, those are the details I want to understand. (And while I’m not prone to pant hoot, the one thing that elicits anticipatory emotions for me is vegan Thai food.)

I’ve gotten used to the forest melodrama, and my pulse remains steady as chimps scream, hoot, or charge past me. But I’m not entirely phlegmatic.

Jackson, a high-ranking young adult male, drags a log as he charges by me (Photo by Aaron Sandel)

Jackson, a high-ranking young adult male, drags a log as he charges by me (Photo by Aaron Sandel)

I’m not used to gunshots.

Some signs of poachers are more obvious than others. A dropped matchbox is a bit less subtle than the bent grass where a boot had been. But when the Uganda Wildlife Authority ranger fired his gun three times, we knew we were close. William and Lamuel, two members of our snare removal team, took off running. At that point, I didn’t think I would be much help, so I stayed behind.

Upon hearing gunshots nearby, William and Lamuel run in pursuit of the poacher (Photo by Aaron Sandel)

Upon hearing gunshots nearby, William and Lamuel run in pursuit of the poacher (Photo by Aaron Sandel)

My adviser and the other students left camp on August 10th. Sam, the only other researcher, drove them out of the forest. Upon their departure, another fire was set in the grasslands. When Sam was driving back, he spotted a poacher and dog on the road near camp.

As Sam told me this, a clap of thunder provided cinematic emphasis. The sunny day turned dark, and rain swept across the porch and soon turned to hail.  After the storm subsided, I joined William, Lamuel, and an armed Uganda Wildlife Authority ranger to look for the poacher.

Even though the rain had washed away most of the clues, William and Lamuel were able to find the poacher’s trail. They stayed in the forest late into the night, but unfortunately didn’t catch the perpetrator.

A matchbox dropped by the poacher (Photo by Aaron Sandel)

A matchbox dropped by the poacher (Photo by Aaron Sandel)

Can you find the dog paw print? (Photo by Aaron Sandel)

Can you find the dog paw print? (Photo by Aaron Sandel)

What direction did the poacher walk? (Photo by Aaron Sandel)

What direction did the poacher walk? (Photo by Aaron Sandel)

Poaching remains a problem in Kibale National Park, although snare removal teams and the presence of researchers mitigate the threat. Poachers generally do not hunt primates (except baboons). But chimpanzees still fall victim to snares set for forest antelope and other preferred bushmeat.

Garrett, holding his left hand, has had an infected snare injury most of his life (Photo by Aaron Sandel)

Garrett, holding his left hand, has had an infected snare injury most of his life (Photo by Aaron Sandel)

Garrett, an adult male chimp, has had a snare around his hand for most of his life. It has remained an open, infected wound. Most of his life he has been shy of humans, so it hasn’t been possible for a vet to dart him with a tranquilizer and remove the snare. And by now much of the damage is done. Garrett is small and low ranking. But he still grooms others with his working hand and charges after adolescent males. When I hear his hoots and screams I know he is still taking part in the drama of chimpanzee life.

 

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

Read the entire blog series

Comments

  1. caira
    n7y
    September 17, 2013, 10:38 am

    love thiS so great but just WOWW

  2. Russ
    Australia
    September 10, 2013, 2:15 am

    Liked the article on the chimps of Gombe. Have been following their fortunes for many years inspired by Jane Goodall’s groundbreaking research. Can we be brought upto date on the present status of the famous “F” family’s fortunes. Who is the alpha male please? And how are the “G” family going ?

  3. june walterhouse
    Killaloe Ontario Canada
    September 8, 2013, 6:55 pm

    SO VERY SAD !!!!

  4. Andrew Micklos
    United States
    September 5, 2013, 10:08 am

    Poachers are a problem because they are not severely punished when caught. If these people feared the same fate they bestowed on their victims they would slow down and some would stop.

  5. Beth
    San Francisco, United States
    August 22, 2013, 1:35 am

    I’m wondering why they start fires. I was in Kibale Forest in July and there was also a fire in the distance (and lots of lightning). I couldn’t understand it, unless they were trying to clear it to plant.

    I loved Uganda and all the primates. I was in Budongo Forest for two weeks. I was astonished by the amount of wildlife. What a great research assignment you have there.

  6. Advantage Safaris Africa
    Ntungamo
    August 19, 2013, 2:36 am

    Poachers are a big problem and hindrance to wildlife not only in Uganda.It is a global problem.It is challenging that rare species like mountain gorillas ,chimpanzees,bonobos,rare birds like The Shoebilll are very prone to poachers activities.A big thank you to those involved in stopping the practice.