Saturday, August 22, 2009

The secret life of chimpanzees

finally got to spend a whole day in the forest with the chimps yesterday. It was a perfect day for it too – lots of activity but they stayed on grid so we were able to follow them the whole time. At about 7:30 the males formed a hunting party and cornered a black and white colobus in the giant fig tree right by the camp. It was interesting to see the way they hunt; 2-3 males in the tree screaming and shouting to scare the thing into making a run for it, then at least 3 males on the ground waiting for the monkey to come down. As interesting as it was, though, I wasn’t sure I really wanted to see the colobus getting ripped in half – it was pretty small, probably not much more than a year or two old, and it was so terrified but still managed to muster a few threatening growls. And then, for seemingly no reason at all except for maybe boredom, the chimps stopped paying attention to it and wandered off to forage elsewhere. Talk about a lucky monkey.
At about 10:00 the chimps all decided to take a little nap up in the trees which is annoying because you can only crane your head up so long to watch them sleep before you realize youre giving yourself a neck ache for no reason. Luckily Zig, one of my favorite lil guys, decided to have his nap on the ground. He seems to be the most habituated out of all of them, or maybe just the most curious, because he is always around. He’ll just come right up to us and sit there, looking at us. He reminds me of someone I know but I cannot for the life of me place the face. I think it’s the expressions – its amazing how human they can seem, their faces have more muscles in them than most primates (aside from us), so they can convey an amazing range of emotions. I think maybe he reminds me of John Cage. Can anyone else see it?
Another almost freaky moment when one of the chimps seemed to be almost human was a few hours later when they were all at a clay site – a murky pond of clay soil which they eat to get nutrients. They would hold on to a tree root and then tip over so they were almost upside down to get the clay on the underside of the ledge without having to wade through the mud. This obviously causes some disorientation because now
and then someones butt would get in someone elses face and at one point Musa, a large male, became annoyed with Rachel and bit the hell out of her hand. Of course she starts screaming, looks down at her hand with huge eyes and then turns to us (about 2 meters away), holds her hand out towards us while holding it with the other hand and shakes it like ‘:ook! Look at what he did to my hand! Ouch!’ and then goes around to all of the other chimps doing the same, trying to rally them on her side until one of the other males starts yelling as well and chases Musa off. Then she just sits there, pouting and staring at her hand – I swear I thought she was going to cry. The best part of the day was when about 14 of the chimps all lined up on a large rotting log and groomed each other for hours. There was a lot of foliage surrounding the log so I didn’t get any great photos, but it was actually a blessing because some of the more shy chimps felt protected by it and allowed us to get closer than usual to them. Its so sweet to watch them all – males grooming females, females grooming males, adolescents grooming mothers, mothers grooming babies (which is hilarious because they are very squirmy so the mother spends a lot of time holding them down – one even held the baby upside down by one leg while she groomed him and he poked at her face), and of course everyone grooming the alpha.I made a lil composite of my favorite babies. Meet Zac, Marian, Rafia, Honey, Klaus and Sokomoko.

I don’t like to play favorites but yesterday we were following Honey and her mother Harriet down the trail at about 3m and all of a sudden Honey starts doing somersalts down the trail. First she went headfirst into about 3 somersalts, then she stood up on her legs looking dizzy, then proceeds to roll down the trail on her side, holding her feet with her hands. This went on for about 5 minutes – roll, recover, roll, recover. I only wish that I could have gotten a good photo. I took about a million but they are all fuzzy. Boo. Only one week to go, I’m already getting sad about leaving. I don’t think I will ever have an experience like this again and its impossible to absorb all of the experiences at once – I wish I could have a video of everything I have seen/heard since I arrived in Uganda to look back on when I start to tell myself that it was all too good to be true.

Almost forgot – quick tour of the camp:
Exhibit A: Shower. The barrel to the right is filled with water and then wood from the forest is shoved beneath it then lit at about 5:30. There is a pipe leading from the barrel to the shower head inside, so when it is warm
you just turn the nozzle and have a lovely little shower. You can see the tree canopy from inside, so its not uncommon to watch blue monkeys or colobus running around in the forest while you take your shower.
Exhibit B: The kids. Lots of fun, some very shy and others very bold. All scared of baboons but all willing to throw rocks at them to keep them away from the kitchen. I cant describe how strange it is to see a 6 year old barking at a male baboon twice his size.
Exhibit C: Home sweet home and a game of tag. Funny how some games are the same in every corner of the world. Behind is the house that includes my room, the director’s office, the ‘museum’ (lots of skeletons, snakes, butterflies, and even a few baby primates in formaldehyde, most victim to infanticide), and an empty bedroom. You can kinda see the solar panels on the roof – that’s how Im able to write this right now and why I wasn’t able to get any work done yesterday when it was raining. The big thing out front is the rainwater catchment, used for washing clothes, dishes, teeth, floors, for cooking, and filtered in the kitchen for drinking.


Monday, August 17, 2009

Football, abstinence and monkey hunting

Had a big meeting for the Budongo Football Challenge 2009, or I guess I should say they let me tag along. It was in a little villaige about 45 minutes away, the primary school allowed us to use it to organize the teams for the championship. It was supposed to start at 2:00 but since people here run on Africa time it started around 4:15. And I thought my dad was bad…
Basically the challenge is to promote education about the forest. The project does a lot of community development things – chicken raising projects, goat raising project, a youth center, school programs, whatever. The winning village of the challenge gets 400,000 shillings ($200) to put towards a new program of their choosing. It’s a cool project and the people here are really into their football, so it was fun to be around all the excitement. I think they wondered what I was doing there haha.
(will insert photo of footballers here - internet isnt cooperating at the moment and I only have 5 minutes left of battery)

The chimps have been super active the past few days – turns out that since the community is more centralized than usual that there is an adequate number of males to form hunting parties, so they have been hunting for Black and White Colobus for about 3 days. I believe they have gotten at least 4. Its sad and kind of morbid to watch but its really quite fascinating; its very rare for them to form hunting parties like these, especially in this community, and it’s a normal part of the cycle here. I guess they just need the protien. I’m just glad I’m not the one collecting samples from the remains for DNA work. Ick. Maggots are super quick here – aside from bananas you have to eat your fruit and veggies within a few days or they will be crawling with little worms. So you can only imagine what the remains of the baby chimp carcass looked like after 4 days (the females wouldn’t drop it, they apparently wouldn’t believe it was dead).

It has been super hot and humid here, sometimes I forget how close to the equator I am because the trees make it so much cooler than it would be otherwise, but today was a scorcher. Luckily we are getting into rainy season so there has been a thunderstorm almost every night for the past week. It never rains super hard for long, and the wind isnt all that bad, but they get great thunder and lightning here. Its so nice to smell the rain coming at about this time of day. Oooooh and there is this flower, they call it the night rose, and the smell is absolutely intoxicatingly yummy. I wish I could bottle it. You can smell it from every corner of the camp when it blooms at night. Took me a while to find out which plant it was though - one of those things where it was almost stronger of a scent 3 meters away from the bush than standing right next to it. I wish I could send scents over the internet. Someone needs to invent that.

Infanticide and a forest symphony

(Written August 14th)

Nick and Nora just killed Juliet’s infant baby about 20 minutes ago. Reminds you of how brutal the life of a wild chimp can be. Apparently Juliet left the family for about 2 ½ months (very common) and just resurfaced with an infant, about 4 days old. I guess Nick didn’t get the memo that the gestation period is 9 months for a chimp, so he assumed that the child was not his and therefore should not be part of the group. Nora, a younger female who is currently in estrus, is supposedly the one who initially took the baby away from its mother, then Nick began to kill it, and, to the surprise of all of the primatologists here, Nora took it back and finished it off, hitting it against a tree trunk and tearing it apart. Juliet is understandably completely devastated and supremely angry, and the entire troop is super stressed – I havent heard this much vocalization since I arrived. We tried to recover the carcass but some of the other females apparently are attempting to keep it safe and have taken it with them. It seems different than when this kind of thing usually happens in nature, more personal because the chimps are like children to the people here. They live about as long as us, gestate as long as us, and the people here spend years following and studying them – they are all known by name and each one as a story. It sad to think that this little guy wont.(the photo is one of Nick that Cat took when the family went off grid to raid the mango orchard in the village)

On to a more positive subject, anyone reading this who knows me well at all knows I sleep like a rock. Last night, however, I had a large cup of super yummy coffee after dinner (beans and rice – you would t
hink it gets old but it really doesn’t…) which a year ago would have done nothing to alter my sleep patterns but I guess I just haven’t had caffeine in so long… anyway I was up most of the night and it was actually a really cool experience to listen to the sounds of the forest as the night unfolded. Of course there are the tree hyrax (would you call them dassies here?), whose calls I cannot begin to explain. It sounds like something out of a creepy Steven King novel turned movie. Maybe you can look it up on youtube or something. I’ve actually gotten completely used to them, which I didn’t really think was possible, and I think I’ll be somewhat saddened when I can’t hear them at night. Then of course there are all the bugs, mostly crickets I suppose, but there are so many that it creates a soothing background music to the screams of the hyrax. If I had to pick the genre I would have to say jazz, somewhat erratic with lots of solos. Then every few hours the baboons would wake up for some reason or another and have a little tiff which inevitably ends up with an assumingly large male ‘waoo’ing, kind of like a ‘don’t make me come over there!’, which generally shuts them up. At about 5 am the colobus start, which is what I definitely would have missed if I hadn’t been wide awake wondering what the scratching sound was that was coming from the corner of my room (it was a bat, removed it this morning). Once again, I cant explain it, but it is amazing and Im hoping to record the sound before I leave. It’s a low guttural growlish sound, only it goes up a few notes over the course of about 45 seconds, and whenever one starts, all of the colobus in the forest seem to follow suit, creating this awesome growling orchestra that you can hear from every direction and every distance. I sat in bed smiling to myself at my amazing luck to be where I am for 2 hours listening to this. Towards the end they were joined by the birds, the only one of which I can identify based on its call being the red breasted cuckoo. As the sun started to rise I could hear the children next door laughing and calling to one another as they began collecting water from the rainwater barrels for the day’s use. I really cant think of a better alarm call than laughing children. I wish I could record the whole night of sounds and listen to it every day.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Getting Settled

Woke up today to an intermittent swishing sound outside of my window. After wrestling with my mosquito net to get out of bed I realized that it was about five local men cutting the grass around the camp with pangas (machetes). I immediately felt guilty for complaining about using the push mower that Dad used to make me use on the back yard at home. It has been 4 hours since I woke up and they are still at it. I have only 21 days left here and that really sucks.
I can tell this month is going to be way too short. I am still excited to go home but
am no longer in a hurry. I seem to find myself much less interested in things like wedding details now that I am here, which I think is a good thing. Things like decorations and party favors and what kind of salad dressings to serve were always in the back of my heat, its nice to have that of my mind for a while. Found out that the walk I take in the mornings with my coffee is actually known as the ‘Royal Mile.’ I was reading one of Phillip’s Bradt guidebooks on Uganda and he mentioned that the Royal Mile in the Budongo Forest is arguably the best birding spot in East Africa. When I asked one of the staff where the Royal Mile was they laughed at me and just pointed to the road. I thought they were pointing in the general direction East, so when I asked one of the researchers later they clarified. Sweet. Makes me wish I was a little more knowledgeable about birding. I became very familiar with almost all of the birds in the Western Cape of SA, but here it is a whole different story. Lots of little sunbirds and others that look similar to the ones in South Africa, but most are totally different species. I saw a very cool hornbill this morning along with some kind of francolin, an Olive Long-tailed Cuckoo, a Blue-throated Roller (gorgeous), a Little Green Sunbird (VERY little), and some species of woodpecker that I couldn’t identify. Makes me miss my camera, I don’t know if the little disposables I bought are going to cut it with the birds here.

I had an AMAZING day in the forest with the chimps on Saturday. They were all foraging on the ground in an area that isn’t totally overgrown so I was able to see them perfectly. They are incredibly well habituated – they don’t associate humans with hurt nor harm. I learned that this chimp site is the only one in East Africa where the chimps have not been conditioned with food, which means when you are watching you they do not really change any of their habits and go about life as normal. Which is awesome.

Their faces are much more expressive than baboons or any other animal I’ve encountered for that matter. We watched the whole day as they played, cuddled, groomed, ate, and fought. I love watching them eat, it’s oddly mesmerizing. I even noticed some of the higher ranking males sharing their food with children who were not theirs, which is something that baboons would never ever think of doing. It was really sweet.

OH and they hold hands! I took Cat’s camera into the forest and Ann had hers as well, so I took some of these photos but not with my camera so I don’t take credit for any of them but thought yall might enjoy them :)

Turns out that the strand of malaria here is 85% resistant to common treatments. Also tu
rns out that Geresham (a field assistant) has gotten malaria 5 times this year already. I have started using an extra layer of mozzie spray and have become more conscious of taking my doxy at the same time in the morning. We think Steven has it now, he left this morning to go into town to get treatment because the meds he normally takes are not working and he is getting extremely dehydrated and is unable to eat. Its kind of scary to see how quickly he shed the weight, especially since he didn’t have too much to begin with.

We had a leaving party for Cat on Saturday night with about 40 people from the local village (I don’t know if there was anyone left). It included the staff, the womens club (a club organized by the project to make a business whereby the women can make crafts, food, etc and have them transported to Kampala), the researchers, directors, and everyone’s family. The food served, of course, included rice, beans, chapatti, g-nut sauce, and sweet potatoes, and the dancing lasted all night long.

We also showed a video that the BBC made about the chimps here at Sonso a few months ago. It was great because the field assistants and their families got to see them on tv – they loved it and would all laugh historically whenever someone they knew showed up on the screen. For me the show itself was a bit strange because of the unnecessary drama they added to the show - making it seem like following the chimps was a dangerous wild encounter, playing very dramatic music during any of the scenes that showed the alpha male, Nick, vocalizing, and the lady yammering on about how ‘they have accepted me as one of their own’ and things along that line where in reality some will just about let a stranger pet them they are so docile towards humans.

Friday, August 7, 2009

African Paradise

I cannot explain how incredible, breathtaking, exciting, humbling and heartbreaking it feels to be here. I feel like my heart is bursting like the Grinch who stole Christmas, but its like the more it grows the more it suffocates itself, like I have no more room left to care more, to love more, like if I look into another childs eyes I will burst. Everything beautiful I see makes me dizzy, sometimes on the verge of tears. Every injustice I see makes me sick to my stomach. If I see another malnourished child I might explode. I want to help them all but I know that I cant. And I know that if I help one there will always be another. If I try to reach out to them I will never be sane again, just living my life caught up in the cruel downward spiral of hopelessness. Fighting against the powers that be. You would think I was catholic, I feel so damned guilty. I have spent the past few months on top of the world, with everything I have and everything I have to look forward to. My life rocks. Now I just wish I could send one of them home in my place – switch lives so that they can realize their dreams as I have.

I’m trying not to focus on these things for obvious reasons, and I have work to do. At camp I am somewhat sheltered from these depressing thoughts because people here are so passionate about their work that its hard to think about what lies beyond the forest. There are currently only 3 researchers here – 2 girls in their early 30s and one guy here with his wife and 2 kids (they live off base). Everyone else is either staff (2 cooks, a baboon monitor, a vet, and the four or so codirectors/conservationists who do ongoing research and community programs), research assistants, or students from the forestry college down the road (who only spend a few hours a day here). I found out when I arrived that they have spent the past week practicing how to say my name (none of the local languages use the letter H at be beginning of a word), so they like to use it every time they address me.

The research site itself is perfect – comfortable in ways that matter and different in ways that have helped me understand how people here live. My room, for example, has a lovely big double bed complete with sheets and a blanket, a giant wardrobe where I can stash my stuff and lock up when necessary, and a little desk with lots of room for my scattered papers, books and articles. The curtains are in bold colors and shapes, the typical fabrics seen around womans’ hips as they walk home from the water spouts carrying what looks like 100 kilos of water in a precariously open jug on their heads (I’m surprised their necks aren’t all butch and manly… or broken). A few of the field assistants’ families live here at base, so I can hear the children playing outside my window – their giggles are like candy for the soul. They even have a mozzie net all set up for me so I don’t have to worry myself with untangling the one I brought, which seems to be ripped by my zipper anyway. What it does not have, however, is electricity or running water, same with the other buildings at camp. Its super hot during the day but the forest cools the air a bit, so air conditioning isn’t really necessary anyway. They have solar panels with which to charge computers and cell phones and such. This works from about 10 am – 3 pm. There is a gas stove in the kitchen, and a tiny generator provides light for some of the rooms at night so really the lack of electricity isn’t even much of an inconvenience. Just how it is.

The running water, on the other hand, I do miss. Not because I mind filtering everything I drink or being able to take long showers or hot baths, but for toilet sake only. I have used pit latrines in other countries – India, Vietnam, places in Mexico – but to live with one is a different story. I think its safe to say its harder for women even though the Ugandan men don’t seem to have very good aim. And the flies, ugh. Luckily the pit is pretty deep, so the smell isn’t as bad as I expected. I’m sure I will get used to it eventually – the first few days I unconsciously avoided drinking water so that I wouldn’t have to use it, but now its just the late night callings that I dread. I have to crawl out from under my mozzie net which is confusing when half awake, find my shoes (I have abandoned my love of being barefoot due to the fact that I am sufficiently terrified of the little bugs that burrow into your skin to lay eggs so that the larvae can feed on your flesh – yes, they live here), find my torch, spray some mosquito repellant on and walk out of the house and to the latrine which lies in a little shack on the forest edge. It looks like something out of a horror movie in the moonlight. I know, I know – I’m a total tourist for complaining about this but it’s only been like a week and I don’t know if I even want to get used to it. OH and there are walls and a roof on it but the walls stop at about my shoulders and there is a big gap there. I was out there yesterday morning and a baboon was climbing down the tree next to it and peeked in. I didn’t hear him coming and it scared the shit out of me (no, not literally), so I yelped and got out of there. There was a boy nearby who saw the incident and thought it was hilarious (prick).

Water for cooking and such is collected when it rains, so we fill a big barrel full and bring it into the kitchen in the morning, where we wait for it to filter into drinking water. There is a big barrel which provides water for the showers – it is heated every day at about 5:30, 6:00 by burning wood beneath it, so it is perfect temperature from about 6:00 – 6:30 and 7:30 – 8:30. In between it is scalding hot.

There are 2 ladies who do the cooking, but since Ugandan food consists of rice and beans the researchers usually just get rice from them and then cook their own main dish. I personally have nothing wrong with rice and beans so haven’t done much cooking yet.

My work so far as been mainly sorting out the computer stuff and writing tutorials which I will eventually go over with some of the staff. I went into the forest for the first time today (there is a quarantine period when you first arrive) with the snare removal team, a group of ex-hunters which the project has hired to help them remove the traps from the forest. Before we went out they showed me what the traps look like in the shed where they keep all the traps they’ve collected. I have seen some before – the wires and such that lie beneath a pile of leaves – but I saw my first mantrap and DAMN those things are scary. They are huge and will just about cut your foot off if you step on one. Lets just say when we went into the forest I followed literally each step that the guy before me took.

When we went to town yesterday we saw a chimp monitor staring into a sugarcane field looking somewhat perturbed. We stopped to see what was up, and he said that the alpha male of the community (groups of chimps are called communities instead of troops like baboons and other monkeys) stepped on a mantrap that morning. A minute later we saw a chimp peek his head out of the sugarcane and walk across the street carrying an armload of sugarcane, looking rather guilty. My smile at his adorable demeanor wore off when another male emerged after him, carrying 2 long sugarcane stalks in one hand and a huge steel mantrap in the other. It had snapped around his wrist and which he rested against his chest to relieve some of the pressure, but the poor guy looked pretty miserable. Not miserable enough to keep him from raiding sugar cane, of course. We watched as he humbled across the street and into the forest, looking like a disgruntled little old man (its crazy how human they look, especially when they walk on just their legs). The monitor explained that since he was the alpha, the other males in the group wouldn’t let him get close enough to inspect the wound. Normally under these circumstances the chimp would be darted so that they could remove the trap and then release him again, but there are doubts that the monitors will be able to dart him without putting themselves in extreme danger.

The first week I spent my time away from the computer at the forest edge, hoping to catch a glimpse of some wildlife. No hoping needed – there is incredible fauna everywhere! I spent mornings walking down the road, about 2 kilometers to the gate of the site. It’s a gorgeous walk – there is a breeze that wanders through the trees whose canopies arch up over the road, and the wildlife wanders through, busy in their own tasks. Lots of tiny little birds of amazing colors, and larger ones that mock me as they fly away before I get a good look. I spend a lot of time telling myself to find some kind of book so that I can study up on my birds and trees. It feels like an enchanted forest out of a fantasy book – there are little red and white mushrooms dotting the ground, eiphytes on the trees glisten with dew in the mornings, birds chatter away and there is always some primate or another whooping or screeching, grunting or waooing in the distance. Blue monkeys stay pretty high up in the trees so I haven’t seen them closer than about 5 meters. They make a funny little noise that sounds like a bird chirp or a rock hyrax squeak. I think I was being threatened, but I wanted to squeeze the guy that was chirping and shaking a branch at me. The black and white colobus monkeys are awesome! They have this funny scowl on their face all the time that makes them look like some kind of clown from the depression with a big black frown painted on. So badass, I love them.

Its been really nice to have the baboons around too. I know they are not considered as high up on the awesome chain as chimps because they are not apes, but I still love them. They are a different species, Olive baboons instead of Chacma baboons, but they look much more similar to each other than the other species in the continent (look up the Hamadryus – kinda freaky, eh?). They are also habituated, so you can get about 2 meters from them without scaring them off. Sometimes if I stay in one place long enough the adolescents will come within arms reach, not because they trust me or want something from me, but because they hardly take note that I’m there. There were 2 wrestling with an empty water bottle the other day and chased each other in circles around me like I was a tree. Sweet.

Anyway, back to my first day in the forest. Today was mostly just to familiarize myself with the work that the snare removers do and their level of GPS understanding (not much). They are incredible at spotting things that normal people would not – places where hunters may have entered, areas of leaf litter that are piled unnaturally, etc. I guess being hunters at one point themselves helps a lot. So I follow them for about 5 hours and don’t have much to contribute to the situation except to tell them to wait to write down the coordinates until the accuracy is 18 feet or less. I tried to explain the satellite thing to them but I don’t think they got it. On Monday I will meet with the rest of the team and have a GPS training session so that they will be a bit more comfortable with them. All they really know now is how to turn it on and look at the UTM coordinates displayed on the screen (they write it down instead of taking waypoints). They seem very enthusiastic about learning more though, luckily. They seem to think that it is a tiny computer and carry it like if it somehow drops then it will shatter and they will be forfeiting their salary for the next 2 years. I try to convince them that it is more like a cell phone in its durability and interface. Monday will be interesting.

I will try to write more about my work later – most of it is somewhat boring like filling out grants for software and attempting to round up all files with geographical components for use in the GIS. I’ll be doing some software tutorials at some point, so trying to prepare myself for that as well.

Sorry to write so much without including any photos – I picked up 2 disposables in town yesterday so hopefully I can develop them and include a few once I get back to the US.

Friday, July 17, 2009

February 2009

My work schedule became a little more relaxed as summer faded away – not that it wasn’t damned HOT (45C almost every day), but the days were getting shorter and I have a hard time getting out of bed when its not bright outside (I know, what am I going to do in Germany?!?). I did, however, come to the realization that due to the nature of my work I had no real need to get up early anyway, as long as I still put in 8 hours of work every day, which wasn’t a problem considering that’s about all we had to do anyway. Learned a lot more about GIS over the last few months thanks to the books I brought (thanks Brian, you rock my world!), and trial and error. A huge relief. Spent more time at the Wildekrantz River waterfalls to avoid the heat – they were sheltered by Afromontane Forest and the water coming from the mountain is super cool. In the photo you can see it’s brown from all the tannins in the fynbos. Took me a day or so of flushing and reflushing the toilet to realize that.

Steven and Sarah arrived – Steve was originally from South Africa but has been living in Ireland I believe, and Sarah was from Wales. Nice to have such a diverse group. Unfortunately they were also followed by Michael – the most obnoxious Aussie I have ever met in my entire life. Scratch that – most obnoxious person. One of those people where if I was in a different situation I would put up with him for a day then do everything in my power to avoid him at all costs. Fortunately we didn’t have to live together – Diego Elodie and I stayed at the Heron House while Michael, Steve and Sarah moved into the Weaver’s Nest. Unfortunately I had to work with him almost every day (he was there to help create a new trail system). Opinionated, ignorant, vegan (ok I have nothing against that but it was like a religion to him and he was like a Mormon about it), loud mouthed, intrusive…. Aahhhh. Paula heard about this baboon sanctuary over the mountains, Cape Center for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife and the Joshua Baboon Sanctuary, AKA The Manger. She agreed to let me tag along on one of her trips to speak to the owners, Peter and Nola. They know more about baboons than a lot of primatologists, so she was hoping to talk to them about our wild troop and just make general acquaintances because they seemed like amazing people (Pete was a homeopathic doctor, they are both extremely spiritual, and they managed to raise like 90 orphaned or injured baboons even though they had no background in anything related). She was right – they had great insight into the minds of the baboons. Maybe not as much as they would like to believe – they have an ‘animal communicator’ who can talk to some of the baboons so the baboons can speak to Nola and Peter if they need anything. Aside from that, the whole thing was very legit – orphaned babies start out being hand raised, then they are put in a small cage with a few other babies, then the babies are put in with an adult female who has already reared children and will adopt the babies and an adult male who as long as he has another female around, will not partake in infanticide.

Its all a lot more complicated in that but basically they are able to create troops of baboons from individuals who were brought to the sanctuary. Once a troop is formed they can take on more and more baboons. The ultimate goal is to release them into a large enclosure – either 5 hectares or 100 hectares. They cannot release them back into the wild because it is not safe for them. In the large enclosures they are able to assimilate into a hierarchical troop with an alpha male in charge. The only big difference is that they are protected from the outside world of farmers who shoot anything that moves and they are support fed twice a day by Nola and her workers. It’s an amazing system. I already wanted to give them all of my money, and then I met Caitlin. I have never felt any kind of attraction to primates the way people like Paula do – they are amazing creatures; smart, fun loving, adorable – but the fascination wasn’t there. Caitlin changed everything. She was almost 10 weeks old at this point, still a little black ball of fluff with an adorable pink face, and still in the hand rearing stage.

We all sat on the porch to talk and have tea when Peter brought her out. She was very shy at first, and clung to him in her little diaper, hugging her bottle, looking at us wearily. Eventually she felt comfortable enough to venture a few feet away from his leg, where she would fiddle with something that caught her eye (shoelaces, shiny things…), then scramble back to safety. At one point she caught sight of my ring. She wasn’t brave enough to get close to me, but she sat on the edge of Pete’s chair, looking at my face, then at my ring. She was so mesmerized that she dropped her bottle to the floor, which I picked up and held out to her. She reached for it immediately, and then in a moment of hesitation, looked up at me, only she just sat there, looking at me, and I cannot explain how it felt. It was like looking at a human baby in a fuzzy little body – the curiosity on her face, the emotion in her eyes. Eventually our little moment was over, but she came back a few minutes later with a bit more courage, on a mission to steal my ring. She stepped forward tentatively, on 2 feel because she clutched her bottle to her, so I put my hand on the floor next to her. She immediately tried to pick up my whole hand, began fingering the ring, twisting it around and biting it with her tiny little teeth. Her little hands were so dexterous! I could already imagine what a handful she could probably be, the trouble she could get into if given the chance.
Unfortunately that was the extent of my monkey bonding at the time, but it gave me a huge newfound appreciation for baboons, and Nola invited me back to take care of Caitlin for a few weeks since Peter had been ill and couldn’t care for her as much as she needed. I thought I was going to pee my pants I was so excited…

January 2009

Back to work. Paula and I began working on a biomonitoring project which ended up being a total pain. Luckily about halfway through a botanist from Spain arrived – Diego – and we were able to finish identifying every tiny little plant in each of our plots. I never thought I would be able to think of a reason that having the highest plant diversity in the world would suck. There you go. Glad I won’t be here next January for the followup, even though the results should be interesting as the vegetation heals from previous disturbance.

Diego arrived with his girlfriend Elodie, who is from France and was here to study the geology and soils at Wildcliff. It was awesome to have them here – they are extremely nice, very talkative, love wine, and know how to assert their opinions in a discussion without trying to strike everyone elses down. And there wasn’t the usual couple drama, either.

(This is how excited I was when the biomonitoring project was over...)

To be honest I don’t think anything important happened in January, just lots of work balanced with lots of wine, which we reserved for the weekend, even though every day is the same here. It basically just gave us an excuse to keep track of the days of the week and to look forward to something.