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Rendezvous with the Chimpanzees of Gombe

Above: A meeting of the elders – the chimps of Gombe National Park – from the Kasakela group  Copyright Rupi Mangat

Click to watch the chimps of Gombe National Park

Published in Saturday magazine Nation newspaper 2 December 2017

The night air is fading as we make our way to the secluded bay on Lake Tanganyika at Kigoma to climb into the motorboat to Gombe National Park. It’s the only way to get there.

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Tanganyika is a beautiful freshwater lake that the outside world knew nothing of until mid-19th century. We sail past fishers and cargo boats to and from Burundi and DRC. Villages straddle the lake shore that double up as fishers’ landing sites and refugee homes for the Congolese and Burundians. A red sun rises and three hours later we see the first signpost to Gombe National Park leading to a beautiful sand beach and soft blue waters with troops of baboons drinking from the lake.

Arriving at Gombe National Park - baboons coming to drink fresh water at Lake Tanganyika Copyright Rupi Mangat

Arriving at Gombe National Park – baboons coming to drink fresh water at Lake Tanganyika Copyright Rupi Mangat

“The chimpanzees never come to the beach,” reveals Dr Anthony Collins who has been there for 30 years studying the baboons – like Dr Jane Goodall who in 1960 started the first-ever research on chimpanzees in the wild. She thought she would be there for a year – but it morphed into a lifetime passion to protect the last of the great apes.

Stepping ashore at the research centre, Iddi Kaluse the guide greets us. The big question is – where are the chimpanzees? And these aren’t just any chimpanzees but the Kasakela chimpanzee community that Goodall began her research revealing facets of their world that we knew nothing of.

There’s a long wait during the two-way conversation between the chimpanzee trackers and the guide on the walkie-talkies. At this point, the Kasakela chimpanzees are midway in the hills. Scanning the peaks, my heart pounds – if they go up, it’s going to be a tough climb.

But the chimpanzees are in our favour and we hear them before we see them – their shrieks and calls echoing in the forest-full of peaks and vales. And then we’re only a few feet away from them.

Children at play - the chimps of Gombe National Park - from the Kasakela group up a tree Copyright Rupi Mangat

Children at play – the chimps of Gombe National Park – from the Kasakela group up a tree Copyright Rupi Mangat

Chimpanzee kids play and wrestle, a two-week baby suckles her mother’s breast, a loner and a whole crèche of kids swinging in the trees. And abruptly, Sheldon the alpha-male ambles down the forest path passing inches away from us followed by the rest of the family.

Kalusi whispers. “That’s Fudge showing off,” he points to a big male pounding his chest. “It’s like he’s saying, ‘I’m strong’.”

We’ve follow the apes further down the vale – keeping a respectable distance as per the park guidelines – to a crystal-clear stream flowing through towering trees of oil palms, ferns and more. Sunlight filters through and the chimpanzees – 20 of them busy themselves – Gremlin the good mum and her twins Golden and Greta born in 1998– one of the rare twin births. Gremlin ambles to the stream and drinks. It’s magical – us seated on dry leaves of the forest floor surrounded by the apes. It’s a strict rule – we have to keep a distance and not interfere with them in any way.

Red colobus high on tree at Gombe National Park surrounded by the chimpanzees Copyright Rupi Mangat

Red colobus high on tree at Gombe National Park surrounded by the chimpanzees Copyright Rupi Mangat

And suddenly the calm is shattered when the chimpanzees see a Red colobus high in the canopy. The chase is on but the sure-footed arboreal monkey manages to escape.

“Fudge is not of Jane’s (Goodall) favourite’s,” tells Collins. He relates another hunt. “Fudge climbed up the tree and grabbed the first monkey and flung him to the ground, then grabbed the second monkey and did the same and then the third. The rest of the chimpanzees were waiting on the ground.”

It’s a complex world of hierarchy and clans – similar to humans.

It was at Gombe that Goodall documented for the first time chimpanzees fashioning grass stalks as tools to extract termites from termite mounds. It was a defining moment for until then tool making was seen as the preserve of humans. It led Louis Leakey, Kenya’s famous fossil hunter to remark, “Now we must redefine tool, redefine Man, or accept chimpanzees as humans.’.

It’s hard to believe that until a few decades ago, this rainforest stretched all the way from Burundi to Kigoma. In 1947, a chimpanzee was seen just a mile away from Kigoma. Now, it’s all land settled by a fast-increasing population of people clearing land for settlement.

“When Jane started her research, there were 150 chimpanzees here,” continues Collins. Today the population is down to 90 and decreasing. The worst danger is respiratory diseases contracted from humans followed by encroaching humans and clearing forests.

Fishers and refugees villages en route to Gombe from Kigoma Copyright Rupi Mangat

Fishers and refugees villages en route to Gombe from Kigoma Copyright Rupi Mangat

Sailing back to Kigoma there’s a stark divide between the park that’s all forested peaks – and the neighbouring land that’s all eroded scrub land that’s been cleared by the human hand.

Go to Gombe

The Thinker - at Gombe National Park - from the Kasakela group Copyright Rupi Mangat

The Thinker – at Gombe National Park – from the Kasakela group Copyright Rupi Mangat

It’s Tanzania’s smallest national park – 56 square kilometres along the Great Rift Valley.

Road map of Tanzania - trace our journey from Nairobi via Arusha to Tabora and then L.Tanganyika

Road map of Tanzania – trace our journey from Nairobi via Arusha to Tabora and then L.Tanganyika

The only way to access is by boat. I hired a motor-boat at Ksh 25,000 for the day – the most expensive part of the journey.

At Gombe spend at least two nights to ensure you do see the chimps. Visitors have come away without seeing them.

It’s very affordable for Kenyans – Conservation fee of Ksh 250 per person per day; guide trekking Ksh 125 per six people; Campsites, hostel and restaurant at about the same prices. Check out www.tanzaniaparks.go.tz

Clean, affordable hotels at Singida, Tabora and Kigoma– up to Ksh 4000 for room bed and breakfast.

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  • Avatar
    Wilson
    December 2, 2017 at 10:27 am

    Am in shock to hear about this rare family of the chimps.The sad part is that they are only 90 remaining.Something must be done for sure.

    Reply

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