I work in Scotland as the Senior Education Office at Aigas Field Centre, an environmental education and eco-tourism centre. I feel very privileged to be involved in the staff exchange programme between Aigas Field Centre and the Chimp Trust in Uganda and am certain it will be an experience I never forget.
My first adventure with the Chimp Trust was a visit to Ngamba Island, a small island that sits within the extensive Lake Victoria, which plays a vital part in the Trusts conservation work. It is home to 49 rescued chimps that have experienced horrendous starts in life, whether from the illegal pet trade, bushmeat sales or caught in the human-wildlife conflict. These chimps now belong to a group and live in 95 acres of dense, diverse forest on Ngamba Island. There are 5 acres set aside for people, including visitors, caregivers and myself, for the next five days. A 1.5-hour trip to reach the island on the staff boat allowed me to meet a few of the very friendly people I would be working with and I tried hard to remember their names! As I stepped onto the island I was surprised by how much wildlife there was everywhere. A huge weaver colony stood meters from the shore, with cattle and little egrets, black-winged stilts and Nile monitor lizards roaming around. I knew I would settle in quickly on this wildlife haven.
On my first full day, I helped the caregiver, Amos, to chop fruit for the morning feed. A beautiful array of exotic fruit filled shelves in the storeroom, they are some lucky chimps! The chimps are fed four times a day with a different selection of items each time. The food is thrown from a raised platform looking out onto an open patch of grass in front of the forest. It is as if the chimps have watched, appearing perfectly on time for every feed, sitting on the grass ready and waiting. As we approached with the food, they would watch our movements closely. I always wondered what thoughts and clever assumptions they were creating as they studied me, a new person on their island.
What I began to find really interesting working with the chimps, was observing the social behaviours and interactions that occurred. The social hierarchy is very important in a group, with lower-ranking individuals having to respect those that are higher up the ranks. This shows when the food is thrown to within feet of a low ranking chimp yet is taken by a higher ranking chimp, but that is all part of the hierarchy. The caregivers ensure every individual gets food though, as they know the social rankings, as well as the chimps, do.
The most memorable social interaction I observed during my stay was in a late morning feed when visitors had come to the island and were taking part in the feeding. There are two young chimps in the group, Eazy, who is 3.5 years old and Ruparelia, a 2.5-year-old. As expected, these attract a lot of attention by all! They have a very close relationship as we observed in the following incident. Eazy had caught some fruit and was about to munch into it when an adult came and, without much difficulty, took the fruit from his hands. Eazy let out a distraught wail, moving around in anger throwing his arms to the ground. This reminded me of young humans, suddenly breaking into a tantrum as if the world was ending because of the smallest incident. The crying continued for a few minutes, until Ruparelia approached cautiously and then rather quickly gave him a loving hug then walked off. His wailing immediately stopped. Well done Ruparelia!
Once feeding time is over, the chimps start to wander off into the forest to do what chimps do. Although some tend to relax in the shade first, looking how I feel once I have indulged on a tasty meal, sleepy and full. Ruparelia and her grandmother, Katie, also have a good relationship and Katie plays a big part in caring for her. Katie had decided it was time for them both to head into the forest as well, coming over to put Ruparelia onto her back. This was a fairly normal routine but today Ruparelia had other ideas. She was in a playful mood and kept running away from Katie into a bush. Appearing on top of the bush, then out to the side, running back into the middle each time and popping up somewhere different. Katie kept moving around trying to grab her, playing along with Ruparelia’s game. After several entertaining minutes, Katie had decided that was enough playing and they really should head into the forest but Ruparelia was still having too much fun.
Eventually, Ruparelia sensed her grandmother’s annoyance and gave in, hopping onto Katie’s back, they wandered off together into the forest. Assuming it was all over, everyone began to leave when running back into the open was Ruparelia. Katie appeared seconds later and flung her arms to the ground in a desperate plea for Ruparelia to behave. This may sound familiar to some human guardians out there and even I remember as a child taking games just that step too far because I just could not resist! I am pleased to say for Katie’s sake, eventually, Ruparelia gave in, probably realising she had done just the same as I had, taken it a bit too far.
It can be easy to put an anthropomorphic twist on the actions of the chimpanzees but along with stories that the care-givers have shared with me, it seems that they show off their emotions just as clearly as us humans. Or maybe we find it easier to read their feelings because we are 98.7% related. This was one of many interactions that I observed while volunteering on the island, and every time I was fascinated to watch. I can certainly see how Jane Goodall got hooked into observing chimpanzees, they are truly amazing animals.