We’re met at Budongo forest by Joyce, our first ever female wildlife guide, who looks a little like Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, managing to carry off a beige all-in-one boiler suit with grace that makes her all-male colleagues look jungle-clumsy and uncomfortable in comparison. Jackie comes from a village on the edge of the national park and her face dances with enthusiasm when she describes her love for the forest, its plants and creatures.
While it’s a treat to walk through any forest, we’re here for one specific black furry ape and the enormous mahoganies, palms and rubber trees that Joyce points out get scant appreciation from me, I’m afraid. Are there any fig trees nearby, I ask her, knowing that chimpanzees love a figgy pudding.
We walk through rainforest for a couple of hours, straining our eyes into the canopy for movement, our ears against the incessant screech and chatter of hornbills, listening for chimpy noises. We see an old nest, some days-old poo and even some knuckle marks in the mud – but no chimps. Joyce is doing her best – refreshingly, when we ask her questions that she doesn’t know the answer to, she says immediately that she doesn’t know, rather than inventing some nonsense like other guides do – but even she is stumped. “There’s no sign of them, it’s very strange,” she says, after another hour or so.
Suddenly, I see a black shape leaping across the canopy above us. But even as I whisper-shout “Chimp!”, I see its long tail. It’s a beautiful black and white colobus monkey, and we stay a while to watch them playing. Colobus monkeys are the favourite dinner of chimpanzees, Joyce tells us, and their relaxed play is more evidence that we are a long way from any chimpanzees.
Last night, there was a fierce electrical storm that tore down the sky and tipped rain over the forest for hours. This morning, it’s chilly out and the chimps are not happy, Joyce says. When it is sunny, they play for hours, vocalise loudly and are generally active. But when it’s cold, they stay high in the trees where the sun dries the leaves first, and try to keep warm.
We decide to stand still and just listen for a while. Nick and I share glances of disappointment – it’s becoming clear that we probably won’t get to see any chimps. Joyce tells us that it happens that the chimps disappear from the area for weeks or months. She wants us to see them almost as much as we do, and we try to hide our disappointment.
We stand there for around 20 minutes, and then we hear it: the unmistakable whooping calls of chimpanzees! They are quite far from us, Joyce says, but there’s no question we want to walk there – and fast. We hurry over to the area the calls came from, and then we have to wait again, listening for some sign. They called out just once in the previous 4 hours, so we’re a bit anxious. Joyce says there’s a tree in the area that they like to get nuts from, and we might here a banging noise when they throw the nuts to break them. It’s hard to hear much through the din of hornbills, but we can’t make out banging noises. We’re standing by a tree with massive buttress roots that the chimps beat on when they set off for hunts, but we can’t hear any hunting either. We can smell chimp dung and urine though!
Joyce says there is a fig tree nearby that they sometimes go to, and she’ll check it out for us. A while later she returns triumphant: “I’ve found them!”
We rush over to the tree and there, in the branches, I see a black hairy arm with a distinctive hand reach for a few figs, pluck them and put them into her mouth. The group has split up, Joyce says, and these are the females and babies. We spend the next hour watching them as they feed and clamber around in the branches, carrying their babies and grooming each other. It’s mesmerising. Every no and then, someone pees on us from height, Nick treads in chimp poo, which is definitely a step up from cow poo, and our necks straining upwards ache, but we can’t take our eyes off them. Their largely hairfree faces are as distinctive and different from the other as human faces.
After a while, the babies grow in confidence and curiosity takes over. They swing above our heads using the vines as a trapeze, while staring at us and generally showing-off. Their play makes us laugh out loud, watching their little black chimpy forms hanging out, their too-big round ears glowing pink in the sunshine.
We follow them through the forest for a while, and then Joyce’s radio buzzes: some rangers have located the males, do we have time still to trek over and see them? Like she has to ask…. We reluctantly leave our new chimp friends and hurry over through the forest to where the males were spotted. The females often split from the males when they have youngsters, to protect the babies from being accidentally (or intentionally) killed by males. Joyce told us of one female with her baby who got too close to fighting males. The baby got hit on the head and died, and the female carried his body around for a month, while first his arms then his legs dropped off and she was left only with a skeleton.
The males are massive – they are five times stronger than a human (prob not than Arnie) and ven on our first encounter with us, they are not scared, staying low in the branches and just watching us, with what looks like arrogance, while eating caterpillars and leafshoots.
It’s horrible to have to leave them, when our time with them is up, but the elation at having found them and spent such a fab time with them stays. Poaching has decreased in the forest, Joyce says, but local villagers still take illegally from the forest, hunting bushmeat and harvesting timbers. Every week, the rangers find and remove around 20 vicious metal traps, used for hunting antelope and bushpigs, but which cause nasty injuries in chimps that get their limbs caught in them. And climate change is also effecting them. Droughts in the past few years are forcing them to wander further and further in search of water when their usual rivers run dry, putting them at potential risk from humans.
I see know what kept Jane Goodall interested for so long – hanging out with chimps is an excellent way to spend your time.
Images and video when we can, internet allowing…