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.
This week I said farewell to Dindefelo once more and accompanied by Amanda and Carina from the Jane Goodall Institute Spain we all headed off into the night, Segou bound. I was really excited to go; everyone had told me how different it was to Nandoumary and I was curious to see how.
It is about a 5km walk from Dindefelo to Segou along a main road joining the two villages. The road is mainly flat, very dusty and dry with arid, sparse trees. There were a few areas on the side of the road that had been completely cleared and burnt away, with ash and charcoal still on the ground. I remember seeing the same in some areas of the valley in Nandoumary.
This is a method of agriculture called slash and burn, where wild forest is cut clear and burnt away for crop fields. The layer of ash resulting from the fire provides the newly cleared land with a nutrient rich layer to help fertilize crops, however, this is only beneficial for a few years. This means farmers will abandon the plot, now degraded, and clear a whole new area to start the process again. I talk with Amanda and Carina about it as we walk and Amanda says how shocking she found it to see when she first arrived here.
Amanda is on the research team at Segou and Carina works in the communications department. I ask them what they can do about it and how they work with the community on issues like this. Amanda tells me that it can be really difficult but that she has seen an improvement since the presence of JGI Spain in the community and the creation of the Reserve. It is one of the primary roles of the agroforestry department here to work closely with the community to find sustainable solutions for farming that will benefit everyone.
They are currently working on lots of projects, one being the restoration of the abandoned crop fields in Nandoumary. In theory this sounds simple, as the land has been abandoned, however it is very important to present ideas to the community in the right way, to ensure understanding and gather support and co-operation. As we continue to walk, Amanda and Carina tell me how different everything looks in the wet season; green everywhere! It is hard to imagine that when some areas look like a desert at the moment.
We reach Segou just as the sun has gone down, and head to Paula’s house, who is the other researcher here with Amanda. Liliana joins us later that evening, and they show me where I will be staying for the week, which is just down from Paula’s house and with an extension of her family. After I am settled in we head back to Paula’s to join her family for dinner before heading to bed.
The research in Segou is conducted slightly differently as there are two researchers (Paula and Amanda) as opposed to one like at the other sites, (Justin at Nandoumary and Irene at Dindefelo). This means they have someone monitoring in the forest most of the day, split into a morning shift and an afternoon shift. So early Monday morning I headed off into the forest with Amanda, Carina, Liliana, and Djiby one of our field assistants.
Each field site has a local field assistant who have incredible knowledge of the forest and can guide the researchers. Last week the team had not had so much luck finding the Chimps, but on Sunday afternoon Paula had heard them vocalising, so we had high hopes Monday morning and an idea of where to head first. The walk to the forest meant following the road that joins Guinea and Senegal; Liliana tells me that people, motorbikes, cars and trucks will all use this road. The road looks completely unusable for most of those things; steep, rocky, huge potholes, and completely uneven terrain. I wouldn’t have believed trucks could use the road if I didn’t see it for myself that afternoon, although what I saw was a truck stuck and nearly hanging off the cliff, with about seven men attempting to push it back onto the road!
The road was much easier for people to use, but still was a long, tiring climb first thing in the morning. It was a relief to reach the forest and have some cover. The first thing I noticed as we walked was how different the habitat is compared to Nandoumary. The hillsides closest to the road are quite dry and arid which was similar, but as we got deeper and started to descend, we were immersed in dense, thick, bamboo before coming out to lush, green, forest nestled between the steep hills. There is a river that runs through the middle of the forest and even though it is the dry season, there was still a small amount of water flowing. The trees and vegetation surrounding the water are tall, and offer lots of shade, diversity and complexity.
It is amazing to see how different the habitat is in Segou, and also shows the diverse range of forest that Chimps can survive in. Information regarding indirect traces is collected, and additional data about the Chimpanzees reactions to researchers is also taken to evaluate their degree of habituation. Paula and Amanda have already identified the individuals within the Segou group, and estimate there to be around 24 Chimps. This does not mean that those Chimps are exclusively in Segou however; Chimps live in a fission-fusion society which means that the composition and size of the social group changes as individuals move throughout the environment. This might mean splitting throughout the day to forage and feed and joining back together in the evening to sleep in the same area. The Chimp communities within all 3 field sites may travel far to access different resources and will have contact with one another.
It was interesting trekking through the forest as we searched for signs of the Chimps, as even the trees and food sources available were different in Segou. This was evident in the faeces we found too. In Nandoumary the faeces were full of seeds, particularly Baobab! Here they were generally full of ants, termites, leaf matter and ficus seeds, which was very different. There were lots of Palm trees here and Yohe trees; which both provide food for the Chimps. The Yohe trees have big orange flowers that the Chimps will feed on. They pull the petals off to access the base of the flower, then bite and suck out the nectar. We found some fresh scraps of the Yohe flowers on the forest floor and could clearly see the Chimps had been getting into them, which was really cool to look at up close.
For all the fresh, indirect signs we were finding we were not getting any closer to finding the Chimps; we covered a lot of the forest and stopped numerous times to listen, but no luck. As we were following a trail next to the river, Djiby stopped abruptly and crouched down. We all followed his lead and he told us he had seen two Chimps in the distance, on the other side of the river. We waited for a while on our side, before crossing the river and heading up the hill to an open area to watch and wait. By being in an open area it means the Chimps can see us easily and do not feel like we are trying to sneak up on them. So we waited, and waited, but did not see or hear them again at all. We were quite a large group, which may have been why the Chimps left as we approached, but it also depends on the individuals. Amanda tells me there are some who are much more relaxed and comfortable around them than others.
As it gets closer to 1pm we head out of the forest and back to the village. It is awfully hot on the walk back on the open road; even though it is downhill it is completely exposed and the sun is beating down on us. It is nice to get back; the village has lots of magnificent Mango trees everywhere and they provide excellent shade. Once we get back we catch up with Paula to do a handover so she can plan the afternoon shift, then she and Wandoo, another field assistant, head off up the hill and towards the forest.
The afternoon shift starts at the worst time of the day as it is so hot, but the shift is shorter than the morning. Amanda and Paula will rotate what shift they do each week, so they will do one week of mornings then one week of afternoons. After a much needed shower, some lunch, and a rest, Amanda comes to pick me up and show me around. The village of Segou is small, but there are over 1000 people living there. The houses are even more squished together than Nandoumary, but there is something really comforting about it, like everyone is one big family. We head to the garage, which Amanda tells me is a nice place to hang out and socialise, as everyone passes by there and there are always people coming and going. As we walk along everyone is calling out greetings to Amanda, with big, genuine smiles and asking how she is.
Segou just feels happy; everyone seems to radiate kindness and will go out of their way to take care of you and each other, because they enjoy to. We sit at the garage and watch the sun go down and everyone who passes by comes and introduces themselves to me. Some of the high school kids were trying out their English on me and it was good fun trying to communicate in Pular, French, and English with one another!
As it gets later in the evening we head back to Paula’s house to see how the afternoon went. They didn’t have any luck finding the Chimps either. Paula tells me that this is often the case at this time of year; December, January and February they travel much further during the day searching for food, making them harder to track. You can walk 20km around the forest and not find them, while in April, when the temperatures can be as high as 50 degrees celcius, they are usually always in the forest around the river.
As we go to leave, Paula’s family insist we eat with them first, even though me and Amanda have our own families to eat with too. That’s how it is in Segou, you walk around the village around dinner time and get called in to every house to share some food or maybe a cup of Senegalese tea. So after a belly full of rice, couscous, and sugary tea I head home for a good sleep.