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)

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

Changing Planet

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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.