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.
The week we headed out into the valley in Nandoumary to conduct our fieldwork and look for signs of Chimps and maybe the Chimps themselves. After speaking to some of the other volunteers I didn’t have high hopes of actually seeing any Chimps; some volunteers had been here months and months before seeing their first, brief glimpse of them. So it was a truly incredible moment for me when we saw Chimps on the first day, the second day, and on my last day in Nandoumary!
On the first day I met up with Justin, Samba, and Liliana and we headed down into the valley to start the day. There is a large rock that overlooks most of the valley, making it a perfect spot to listen and look for signs of the Chimps. Within just a few minutes of looking, Justin beckoned me over to where he was standing with the binoculars saying he had just spotted a Chimp. I headed over to him to take the binoculars, my heart racing, and tried to find the spot he described, but didn’t see anything at all. I looked again, and after a few desperate moments of searching I could just make out a black figure in the top of the canopy of a leafy, green tree. I could see her better for a second when she reached up to pull some leaves off from a higher branch. It was an incredible moment for me on a personal and a professional level. I felt so humbled and ecstatic to see this amazing animal in her natural habitat, it truly was an experience I will never forget.
As we were watching we heard at least three other Chimps calling much deeper in the valley. The initial sighting and the following calls gave us our co-ordinates of where to head first. Justin and Samba have incredible knowledge of the lay out of the valley, which helped in mapping out where the Chimps were likely to be, so with that we headed off to see if we could get closer. The terrain in Nandoumary is steep and rocky and at times it was quite tricky for us to walk along. The habitat in some areas is very open and dry with bare, short trees and little shade, which I found quite surprising. As it is the dry season the river and streams that run through the valley were nearly all completely dried up, but the trees were greener and bushier around the water.
As we neared the area we had first spotted the Chimp we crouched down and slowly came to a stop, well away from the tree so we did not make her feel threatened. I couldn’t see her, but Samba told me she was still there, but she left swiftly after we arrived. Part of the habituation process is to communicate to the Chimps that we are not a threat, so that they will be use to our presence in the forest and will continue to display natural behaviours while we observe from a distance. The team does this by having a consistent habituation sound that is used by all the researchers at all of the sites that they will make when approaching the Chimps. As the research team go out every day, over time the Chimps can make the associate between the habituation noise with humans who are safe. We did not see any more Chimps that day, but heard them calling to each other in the forest, and found lots of other fresh, indirect signs of them which was really exciting. I really enjoyed learning some of the ways the Chimps will get into certain fruits in the forest.
As it is Baobab season at the moment and Nandoumary is filled with Baobab trees, we found lots of empty shells of Baobab fruit which had been cleaned out. The shell is hard, so the Chimps will hold the fruit by the long stem and hit the shell against a rock or the tree trunk, which generally opens it in half, allowing them to access all the yummy fruit inside. The Baboons on the other hand, will bite at the shell with their large canines, so you will see lots of bite marks on the outside of the fruit and lots of fruit still remaining in the shell. At around lunch we called it a day and headed back to the village to rest and later upload the data from the day. In this heat the Chimps are often resting in the middle of the day which can make them extremely difficult to track.
The following day followed a similar structure, and we were lucky to spot some Chimps again, first thing in the morning! This day was much cooler in temperature and we heard the Chimps vocalising a lot more and they seemed more active. We headed to where we had seen them from the lookout point and found very fresh signs of them being there in the form of faeces. Chimps will eat a hugely diverse range of seeds, fruits, flowers and leaves depending on what is seasonally available. This can all generally be seen in the faeces so we examine each faecal closely for what we can find. We found lots of baobab seeds, tamarind and ficus seeds and also termite heads, all clearly visible, and recorded it down. We followed their fresh signs up the dry river bed and eventually came to a nice open field to the right of the river, so we headed up there as it would make a good look out. After some time had passed we heard a ‘clunking’ sound a little further upstream that Liliana told me was the sound of the baobab fruit being hit on a rock. We got out the binoculars and I looked in the direction of the sound. It was hard to see the riverbed as there was so many branches and foliage in the way, but in a small gap I saw, for a fleeting moment before they were covered again, the backs of two Chimps as they knuckle walked up the riverbed. It was really exciting to be so close and to have been so lucky to see them again. We waited about 15 minutes before we headed back to the riverbed and continued following them upstream. We found more fresh faeces and also the cracked baobab fruit and seeds that had been chewed and spat out. We also found foot prints and hand prints which was really cool, as you can clearly see the indent of the knuckles on the hand prints. We continued up and then veered slightly off the riverbed and back into the forest and up the hill. We came across an area that had large, shady trees and found that there were lots of recent nests up in the trees. We recorded how many we found and also the size (small or large) as this information can help determine how many Chimps are around and also if there are juveniles or infants. We climbed higher up the hill and heard the Chimps again, and they sounded closer, but were not visible. As we continued we made sure we took a wider route so that we were approaching from the side, rather than front on. Once we reached a nice, open, clear area we got the binoculars out to have another look. Off in the distance one of the Chimps was quite visible briefly, amongst the foliage of a leafy tree, but was descending and out of sight fairly quickly. We stayed and waited to see if any more climbed back up, but no luck. As it was late in the day and the Chimps had retreated from us both times we had been near, we decided to call it a day to ensure the interactions remained positive or neutral.
The next day I learnt that if the Chimps don’t want to be found, you won’t find them. Other than hearing them call first thing in the morning, we found no other fresh signs of them as we travelled. It was like trying to find a needle in a haystack! We carried out the rest of our field work as normal, and still had lots of data to collect. The research team at each site is also monitoring the decomposition rate of certain nests, so there were some specific nests we had to go and investigate and measure. This meant taking pictures, recording the size and the degradation of the leaves used in the nest, and if it had been re-used. I was becoming more familiar with the layout of the valley and starting to recognise areas as we moved around. The days out in the field were long and tiring as there was lots of physical exercise, walking, climbing and trekking through rough terrain in high temperatures, but I was really enjoying being out in the forest and learning about the Chimps.
On Thursday we teamed up with the agroforestry team to go and place a camera trap out in the forest in Guinea. Nandoumary sits right by the border of Senegal and Guinea, and the team are sure that the Chimp community here has contact with other Chimp communities in Guinea. They want to know which ecological corridors inter and intra communities will use and Camera traps can be a really useful way of capturing information like this. So we left Nandoumary early in the morning and headed for a mountain in Guinea called the Nyaka-Nyaka. From previous camera trap footage, the team knows that Chimps will go around one side of the mountain, so we want to know if they use the other side too. The Nyaka-Nyaka is amazing; it is really steep and made up of huge boulders and rocks, and the top of the mountain is flat and clear of trees or foliage. The sides surrounding however are thick with bamboo and trees and offer much more complexity and shade. As we approached the mountain we saw and heard a harem of Baboons climbing up the rock face towards the top; it was amazing to see how easily and quickly they moved up the rough terrain! Once we got to the base of the mountain we started to climb and move around the side, looking for a suitable spot to set up the cameras as we went. We wanted somewhere that was relatively open, but narrow and ideally that already had signs of Chimps being in the area. After a lot of searching we found an area that had an old nest and had some really nice height variation. So we set-up the two camera traps, one facing towards the old nest and another one higher up and facing in the area towards and behind the first camera, giving us different angles. The team will leave the cameras up for at least two weeks to increase the chances of capturing Chimps on the footage. It was a long journey and by the time we got back to Nandoumary everyone was ready for a rest. The team showed me some of the camera footage from previous traps once we got back which was really cool to see; they have captured Chimps, Baboons, Vervet monkeys, Warthogs and lots of other animals too, which really shows some of the diversity in the forest.
My last day in Nandoumary was by far my favourite, and I was lucky a third time to see one of the Chimps. We reached the lookout rock and stopped there as usual to have a look and a listen. This time it looked like we were going to be unlucky as we waited, and waited, and didn’t see or hear anything. After about 20 minutes of waiting we were about to head into the forest anyway and make a start when Samba spotted a little black speck that stood out magnificently against the yellow flowers of a tree in the distance. We looked through the binoculars and there was one Chimp, at the top of a tree not too far, picking and eating the surrounding yellow flowers. After watching her for a while we headed down into the forest to approach. As we got nearer we started to go a little slower and crouch down again. It is important to all move as a group together and be nice and relaxed while still being deliberate with movement. We settled about 70m from the tree and saw that the Chimp was still there. From there we could see she that she was an older (perhaps in her thirties) female and had a greying back and beard. The team made the habituation sound and she stayed up where she was in the tree. She stopped eating and just sat up in the canopy for a while, then started eating again. We watched her for about 5 – 10 minutes as she ate before she descended from the tree and was out of sight. As she went to climb down she turned and stared at us for a long time, then slowly climbed down and left. This was a really special moment and a really fantastic result in the habituation process. To know she was completely aware that we were there and watching and that she left when she was ready, rather than because of our presence, was really wonderful to see. After another 10 minutes or so we went and investigated under the tree she was in to collect more data. We didn’t see or hear the Chimps again that day, but the morning had been such an amazing experience that I didn’t mind. As we headed back to the village in the afternoon I felt sad to know that my time in Nandoumary was already over; the week had gone so quick! I will remember Nandoumary for lots of reasons; the kindness of the people, the intricate landscape and habitat of the valley, learning from, and working alongside the wonderful research and agroforestry team, but it will always hold a special place in my heart as the first place I saw wild Chimpanzees.