Searching for Chimps & Other Misadventures in an Ugandan Forest

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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A bee sting to the face, a snake that might have been a forest cobra sliding across the trail one meter away, a fire set by poachers burning the grassland near camp: a day in the life of a chimpanzee researcher. July 14, 2013 to be exact. Of course, no day is typical.

A poachers' fire burns the grassland south of camp (Photo by Aaron Sandel)
A poachers’ fire burns the grassland south of camp. Photo by Aaron Sandel

But most days do have a routine. I get out of my tent at 6am, go to the professors’ cabin for breakfast (they sleep in a cabin, students sleep in tents around the cabin), am off to look for chimps by 7, and head back to camp around 6pm. Often, days are spent sitting below a tree, craning my neck, contemplating why my backpack smells so bad, and how insect spray is more productive as cologne than at repelling ticks and mosquitoes.

July 14th was more exciting. There was a large group of males eager to mate with an estrus female, I only got one bee sting (and had a beard to mitigate the impact), the 5-foot snake continued on without noticing me, and the poachers’ fire eventually subsided. And really, my biggest concern is not killer bees, venomous snakes, or forest fires. It’s recognizing nearly 200 individual chimpanzees.

Trying to recognize an infant chimp as she tries to recognize me (Photo by Aaron Sandel)
Trying to recognize an infant chimp as she tries to recognize me. Photo by Aaron Sandel

I’ve been in Kibale National Park, Uganda for one month now, my second summer studying the chimpanzees here. At 200 individual chimps in this community, it’s the largest of any chimpanzee field site. This is great for getting a large sample of data, but it makes some aspects more difficult; namely, knowing who’s who. But being familiar with everyone is necessary for my research. Last summer I got to know all the males, and this summer my project is focusing on mothers and infants. Being able to recognize all the Ngogo chimps has been the biggest stressor in my life recently. It’s been nice to finally be back in the forest facing my fears, even if that means a few additional risks.

Garrison was too busy eating leaves to notice the snake (Photo by Aaron Sandel)
Garrison was too busy eating leaves to notice the snake. Photo by Aaron Sandel
I am a PhD student in Anthropology at the University of Michigan. I write from Ngogo, in the center of Kibale National Park in Uganda, home to 200 chimpanzees, the subjects of my dissertation. A National Geographic Young Explorers grant in 2013 got me through the angst of finalizing a dissertation project. Now, I study angst, or at least the closest thing to it: friendship and the transition to adulthood in male chimpanzees. When I’m not focused on following a chimpanzee, my forest daydreams include opening a vegan burrito restaurant in a rural Ugandan village and making a documentary about an old fig tree.

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