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Chimp Encounters in the Forest

And some times when going unnoticed just wasn’t possible.

Key points

  • The key to good wildlife observation is non-interference.
  • Chimpanzees are deeply observant and curious, making it almost impossible for us to go undetected.
  • Notes from fieldwork offer great insight into how chimps see us.

A central goal in field research is to be witness to chimpanzee behavior, as untarnished by ourselves as possible. The rainforest is dense, the ground is wet and full of holes, and chimps spend a good amount of their time in trees, sometimes a hundred feet off the ground, usually in spots nearly impossible to see. You try your best to walk the line between their visibility and your own invisibility. It means standing for hours in uncomfortable conditions or squatting if you’re lucky, as quiet and as motionless as possible.

I wear long sleeves pulled tight every moment I step off the trail. This doesn’t help with the thorns or biting ants or ticks, but it helps some with the rashes, tiny poisonous plant hairs, and oils. All my clothes are forest-colored except my backpack, which is red and attracts butterflies every time I set it down.

The difficulty of silent watching

The chimpanzees at Ngogo are accustomed to being seen, thanks to the difficult, decades-long work of researchers before me. But they wouldn’t choose to be watched, and the 20-foot-away rule protects both their autonomy and their respiratory health. Chimps do notice a new watcher immediately with a double-take and then stare if they’re male. If they’re female, and especially if they’re protecting an infant, they’ll make a wide, hesitant arc to keep you in view (if you’re lucky) and disappear altogether (if you’re not). Despite your best efforts, you sometimes end up making yourself known.

Once, at midday, I sat watching a group of chimps grooming gently together on the path. My gaze fell peacefully downward just in time to see an ant, big-as-a-soybean, sprinting up my thigh to disappear under my shirt. In my frenzy of stamping and flailing, my compass and my notebook both sailed free—when it was over, all seven chimps were 10 feet further away, staring at me with their mouths open.

Interfering by mistake

Once I set down my backpack on a log and walked around a tree for a moment. When I returned 45 seconds later, Joya had my water bottle in one hand and my orange in the other. She watched me, steely-eyed, and I raised up my hands to demonstrate that I have nothing, that I am bereft and pitiful.

“Please do not take that, Joya,” I say quietly. “That bottle is pricey, and you won’t like it. Please enjoy an orange; it is delicious inside.”

My water bottle should have been tethered to my bag—it must have slipped off—and I was extremely thankful that the bag itself had not appealed to her (yet). If she took my binoculars, I could try and chase her down until she dropped them, but if I did, her mother would kick my ass. And she’s here somewhere for sure, reclining in the ginger, resting with one eye open, like moms do.

Joya pushed her little chest out and rocked from one foot to the other, her kind of threat, and it made me smile. I lowered my hands and then my eyes. In a moment, I saw movement, and she was gone with the orange. I re-tethered my water bottle and hoped she wouldn’t get sick. Or worse, come into camp looking for another one. She was 5 years old and headed for big things.

Bergl is an orphan, 6 years old, who beat the slim odds to survive after his mother’s death. He’s now sort of group-reared. One day, he appeared unexpectedly on the other side of a downed tree, about 15 feet away.

“Oh, hey, Bergl,” I murmur. “Didn’t see you there, big man.”

He tossed his chin at me, and to my astonishment, he advanced, stamping his tiny feet. It felt risky to let him think he had the upper hand, so I leaned slightly toward him, which may have been a mistake. He startled and coughed with alarm, and three different females rose onto their elbows to level at me a look that can only be described as a stink eye. Here, too, I backed away and hoped he had not learned anything, that I could simply disappear again and not be thought of at all.

Leaving lessons behind

On a very slow day, as G. and I sat quietly waiting for chimps, I began to juggle three fuzzy, round fruits from the forest floor. After a few minutes, I let them fall and discovered that Abrams had silently arrived, collecting the fruits to eat, and had taken a seat very close to me, almost within arm’s reach. He was interested, no other way to describe it. G. thought it best that I stop, and we turned our backs to collect our things; the show over, Abrams left as silently as he’d come.

It is a simple rule, not difficult at all: take nothing but notes, leave nothing but, well, nothing. For those who ask about it afterward, it seems hard to imagine leaving nothing. “Will they recognize you when you go back?” they ask. “Did you take a picture? Did you write it down?” Memory would be at least something, for having spent months away. I hope I didn’t change Joya or Bergl. I like to think of them still there, five years wiser and more themselves. Here’s to rainforests, someday, with no people at all and the rich complexity of other lives unfolding uninterrupted.