Jaraama everyone! I’m Esta, one of the Primate Keepers at Wellington Zoo and I am currently working with the wonderful team of the Jane Goodall Institute Spain on the West African Chimpanzee Conservation Program based here in Kedougou, Senegal.
Chimpanzees are an endangered species and Senegal is home to some of the last Western Chimpanzees of the population. At the last census (2003) the population numbers were recorded between 200 – 400 individuals. One of the biggest concerns for the Chimpanzees here is loss of habitat which is primarily caused by low agricultural productivity, slash and burn methods, an increase in human population in the area, and the unsustainable extraction of wood and fruits. This deforestation is also already affecting rain patterns, which millions of Africans depend upon in the region.
After my first outing in Segou where I didn't spot any Chimpanzees, a group of us head into the forest again to search around the area where other members of our group saw the Chimps the previous evening. It takes some time to reach, but once we are there we find some recent nests and faeces. We record all of this and continue searching the hillside we are on. There is lots of bamboo and we find some that has been chewed and spat out. A member of my group Liliana, tells me that the Chimps like to chew the inside of the bamboo but do not eat it, so they spit it back out. We come out to a clearer area that has a good view down into the heart of the forest and the other side, so we decide to stop and listen. After about 15-20 minutes of waiting, another member of my group, Djiby, thinks he can see something way on the other side, so gets out the binoculars. Way in the distance, sat up eating the yellow flowers of a Bani tree, is a Chimp! It is very far from us, way on the other side of the valley; I can’t even see it without the binoculars. We stay and watch, and after about 20 minutes the Chimp descends and is out of sight. We wait a further 10 minutes but do not see or hear any other Chimps, so we decide to head down into the forest, closer to the river and towards the other side of the valley. We search and search, and find more indirect signs of the Chimps, but nothing fresh and not the Chimps themselves. It is getting late in the morning, close to midday and we still have no fresh leads. I'm asked if I would like to go out for the afternoon shift and I say yes, so we head back to the village so I can quickly eat and get ready to go back out again.
It's exhausting walking back up the hill towards the forest for the second time; it is the hottest part of the day, I am tired from the morning excursion, and I have a stomach full of lunch, however I am excited and optimistic that we will find the Chimps. I am also interested to see how different the afternoon shift is compared to the morning. It is harder being out in the heat, there are lots of areas in the forest that are exposed; we find a good look out point, in the shade, and sit and listen. Paula tells me that the Chimps often vocalise around 3pm when they wake up from their afternoon nap, and if we hear them we will have a better idea of where to go. We don’t hear anything, so head round the hillside to the area where other members saw them feeding yesterday afternoon. The terrain there is rocky, but flat, like big steps up the hillside, and the trees are tall and shady. We head higher up and find more recent nests. There are three that are quite close together, within 5-10m, then one that is over 30m away. Paula tells me that the closer the nests are to one another, the closer relationship or bond those individual Chimps have with one another. I love looking at the nests, it is amazing how well the Chimps make them, just by breaking and manipulating the leaves and branches in such a way that they are secure, high up in the tree. We keep searching but do not find any more signs. I feel tired and disheartened and hope that tomorrow brings better luck.
The next morning is my last day in Segou, so I decide to go out in the morning and afternoon again, as it is my last chance to see the Chimps here. Three of us head off before the sun is up; up the steep road I have grown very familiar with over the week, and towards the forest. This morning we struggle to find anything fresh or recent from the Chimps, even though we search new areas that we haven’t been to earlier in the week. We go high up a steep, cliff face where there is cave that lots of animals are rumoured to use, like Leopards, Hyenas and Porcupines. It is cool to have a look, and we find some remains of a Porcupine who met an unfortunate end! After hours of searching it looks more and more likely that the Chimps are long gone from this area of the forest, so we head back to the village.
In the afternoon we head to a completely different area of forest in Segou, to check some nests there for the nest degradation study that is being carried out at all three field sites. So we don’t head up the famous road to Guinea, (which is fine by me!) and instead walk for about an hour along the flat until we reach a beautiful area of lush forest, with a stream flowing through. I'm told this area is one of the Chimps favourites, as there is always water available, even in the middle of the dry season. In April it's easier to find the Chimps then you can spend the rest of the morning watching them, sometimes up to 24 Chimps! It is amazing to hear that they can spend hours watching the Chimps, and shows how drastically the different seasons determine where and what the Chimps are doing. We find the nests that we need to re-check and record how they have degraded. As we go to leave, I see a fresh faecal a few metres up ahead. We have a closer look think it is from this morning, at least. This is really exciting, so we keep searching for fresh signs. A little further up we find the remains of some eaten Bani flowers, which may be from this morning. The Bani tree is up on the bank, away from the stream, however there is another nest we need to check further upstream. We discuss what the best next move is and decide to go check the last nest, then if we don’t find any more recent signs upstream, we will come back to the Bani tree. It is such a nice, tranquil area of forest, I can see why the Chimps love it so much. As we continue upstream, we find that there are some sticks sticking up out of some small holes in the ground. We have a closer look and see that the Chimps have been hunting for ants!
Chimpanzees will use and create tools to carry out specific tasks, just like humans. This was a ground-breaking discovery of the great Dr. Jane Goodall in 1960, as until that time the supposed ‘defining characteristic’ that separated humans from other animals was tool creation and use. Chimps will break the leaves off of sticks to create them into a long rod, then they will use it to dig into the ant nest which aggravates the ants and causes them to swarm up the stick. The Chimps will pull the stick back out, now filled with ants, and pull handfuls off to eat. Chimps learn to do this by watching and observing each other, which is an integral aspect of Chimp culture. This was really exciting to find; we pulled the sticks out and gathered the ones on the ground to photograph and measure, some were nearly 1m long! We kept the sticks to give to other team members, who will often collect items from the field that the Chimps have used or eaten etc. which can be used for education within the community and scientific purposes for the institute. We kept heading upstream towards the other nest that we needed to check, which was quite far, and in a nice, clear area of tall trees up high on a steep hill next to the stream. While we were checking the nest, we heard the Chimps vocalising, calling to one another and they sounded close by, further upstream. It was getting late in the afternoon, about half-past five, but we decided to walk further up to see if we could see them. We heard them a few more times as we were walking, but it sounded as if they were over the hillside, or heading that way. I felt pleased that we had managed to find the area they were in, even if I didn’t get to see them. We started heading back before it got dark and I reflected on my time in Segou. It had gone so quickly and I loved every minute of it, even though I hadn’t been as lucky with seeing the Chimps as I had been at Nandoumary. Segou is a very special place, and one of Senegal’s best kept secrets; I think it would be impossible for someone to visit and not enjoy their stay here. The people in Segou are some of the most welcoming and genuinely kind people I have met, and a lot of other neighbourhoods and communities around the world could learn a lot from them! Their involvement and support of the West African Chimpanzee Conservation Program is wonderful to see and will make all the difference in a successful outcome.
For my last evening in Segou, one of the group members shows me some footage and pictures of the Chimps that she has gathered over the years, which is really enjoyable; I finally see the Segou Chimps! It is not quite the same as seeing them with my own eyes, but that just means that I will have to return to again one day, which is fine by me! En ontuma Segou, see you later, until we meet again!