Meet the Gents

Though my study covers a broad geographic area, encompassing the home ranges of numerous chimpanzee communities, we have focused substantial attention on one community in particular. This community serves as a focal point for ecological data collection and, when possible, behavioral observations. After months of tracking these chimpanzees in an effort to collect fecal samples, we’ve had the opportunity to repeatedly observe some of the individuals in this community. In such instances, it has been helpful to give them names rather than to refer to them as “the one with the scar on his back,” “the one with the freckled face,” etc. With that in mind, I introduce you to a few of the males we’ve met.

Mzee

His name means “old man,” which seems fitting given his elderly appearance and behavior. He’s a bit rough around the edges in the looks department…yellowed teeth, scraggly hair, and a weathered face. He also has what we refer to as shoulder pads, meaning the hair on his shoulders sticks up in a disheveled-looking way. In addition, he is easily distinguished from the other males by his pale, freckly face.

Mzee. Photo: Jack Lester.

Mzee. Photo: Jack Lester.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nonetheless, he has his charms and seems popular among the other chimpanzees in his community. Just check out the trust he has in fellow male Caesar as he grooms a…shall we say…sensitive area. (See photo below.) Males groom to cement social bonds, and such a delicate task surely requires great trust among friends or kin. Indeed, male relationships are very important among chimpanzees. Because they remain in their birth community through adulthood, males have long-lasting relationships with other males who are sometimes kin members. They often form coalitions with other males, which may thereby serve to aid a male’s status in the social hierarchy.

Caesar grooms Mzee. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.

Caesar grooms Mzee. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Caesar

In stark contrast to Mzee’s eccentric appearance, Caesar is a very handsome chimpanzee with an extraordinarily hairy face. This characteristic always reminds us of the character from Planet of the Apes, hence the name.  He was one of the first chimpanzees we saw from this community, and his appearance left a strong impression. He appears to be of prime age, and we suspect he is very high-ranking. Only with more observations can we begin to tease apart the complexities of the social hierarchy with any certainty, however.

Caesar. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.

Caesar. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Porkchop

So named for his distinctive and bushy “porkchop” sideburns. The hair on his shoulders sticks up just like Mzee’s, leading me to wonder whether Mzee in his younger days bore a strong resemblance to the present-day Porkchop. Perhaps they are closely related.

Porkchop. Photo: Jack Lester.

Porkchop. Photo: Jack Lester.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tyson

Caesar’s ally, and a charismatic male in his own right. He seems to be a nice fellow, though his typical relaxed facial expression portrays more of a frown than a kind smile. He also appears to be a prime male in his peak healthy years.

Tyson. Photo: Jack Lester.

Tyson. Photo: Jack Lester.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clayton

Clayton is a young adult male who seems to be attempting to work his way up the hierarchy. We have observed him at times interacting with the other males, while at times keeping his distance from the confident swagger of the older fellows.

Clayton. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.

Clayton. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Newton

This young male remains somewhat of a mystery to us. We have only a couple of good observations of him. From this, we’ve gathered that he is roughly in his late teens. On several occasions when the other adult males were present, Newton has been absent (or at least not visible to us). We hope to get to know him better in the coming days.

Newton. Photo: Jack Lester.

Newton. Photo: Jack Lester.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We are only just getting to know these males, so there is still much to learn. How are male relationships affected by this degraded habitat? For example, in larger forests where chimpanzee communities neighbor each other, males often patrol their boundaries to look for outsider males. Do these males engage in patrols, and if so, how? Unanswerable questions also come to mind. For example, what must an old male like Mzee think of all of the changes in his habitat since he was a youngster?  We can only speculate and enjoy the opportunities we get for a sneak peek into the life of a male chimpanzee here.

Porkchop, Tyson, and Clayton pant hoot. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.

Porkchop, Tyson, and Clayton pant hoot. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This post was originally published at Scientific American.

Conservation Conversation

Greetings are very important in Ugandan culture. Where we work, it is customary to greet those you encounter with a standard exchange in Runyoro, the local language here. For example, if we find a farmer working in his garden in the morning, we might initiate the following conversation:

“Thank you for your work.”
“Thank you for your work also. You are welcome here.”
“How was the night?”
“The night was fine.”
“What is the news?”
“No news.” (Note: It is important to respond in this way even if you do have very big news. You will go on to share that news later in the conversation, but for now, this is the standard reply.)
“How is this place?”
“This place is fine.”

This typically marks the end of pleasantries as well as the end of Jack’s and my conversational repertoire in Runyoro. From there, field assistant Nick continues the conversation by chatting with people and finding out whether they’ve seen or heard chimpanzees recently.

So began an unusual conversation a few days ago. In our unending quest to find evidence of chimpanzees, we turned onto a dirt trail that runs parallel to a surprisingly intact strip of riparian forest. A farm borders the forest strip, and our path led us to the home of the farmers who own that land. There we found an old man, a young man in his late teens, and several small children. Nick made some initial inquiries in Runyoro, and the young man, named John Mary, began to speak in an animated way. He switched to English and explained that this patch of forest belongs to his family. Nick implored him not to cut their trees. He replied that, ah no, they were cutting trees here some years back, but a couple of NGOs came to educate their family about the importance of protecting natural forests. They stopped cutting and hope to plant more natural trees there in the near future. He said that it is difficult to convince others to do the same. We shifted our gazes across the river, where people were busy cutting down trees for timber and to make way for crop fields. He said that the older landowners around here rent out their land for farming, and that as long as they receive their rent money they don’t mind what people do with the land. He expressed frustration that they don’t think about the impact of forest cutting on their children and grandchildren. They only want to get the money to fill their bellies now, because soon they will die and then they cannot eat, he said with a laugh.

Photo 1

Riparian forest is cut for timber and agriculture. Image: Maureen McCarthy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The topic shifted to where he heard the chimps vocalizing that morning. We thanked the family and said our goodbyes, continuing along the path in the direction where he heard them. His words echoed in my mind as we went on our way. He is a great example of the power of education programs. His family stopped logging and is committed to the notion of forest conservation. All this talk of forests wasn’t mere rhetoric for our benefit. The evidence is easy to see—it’s leafy, green and, still standing tall in remarkable abundance.

A satellite image shows a network of riparian forest fragments in the study region. Image: Google Earth.

A satellite image shows a network of riparian forest fragments in the study region. Image: Google Earth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

John Mary will leave his farm soon to resume his schooling in town. In the coming years, he will continue to fight an uphill battle to protect his family’s bit of forest. From impoverished local individuals to large multinational corporations, many have a stake in what happens to community-owned forests like these. Because of conservation organizations and people like John Mary, however, the value of natural forests to the livelihood of chimpanzees, humans, and entire ecosystems cannot be ignored.

This post was originally published at Scientific American.