By Maureen McCarthy
This is our last week of data collection. It was supposed to be a laid-back week to collect a few more samples and enjoy a few final days tracking chimpanzees, a fieldwork victory lap of sorts. It didn’t turn out as I’d hoped, though. Instead, things went very, very wrong.
On Tuesday, we ventured back to a forest reserve south of the Budongo Forest. It’s one we’ve visited numerous times before…a much larger forest than most we visit, one which helps functionally connect the fragmented forests of this corridor region to the much larger Budongo Forest to the north. On the surface, chimpanzees here have a good habitat compared to our friends to the south in most forest fragments I’ve been studying. A closer look, however, reveals an abundance of illegal logging and snare hunting sites within the forest. Though snare hunting is illegal, it is a leading cause of injury and death among chimpanzees in Uganda. Up to one third of chimpanzees in forests of Western Uganda have sustained snare injuries (Reynolds, 2005; Wrangham and Goldberg, 1997; Wrangham and Mugume, 2000).
We received news that chimpanzees had been heard far inside the forest early that morning. Jack and I, along with a field assistant and a guide from the National Forestry Authority, began traveling through the forest en route to the area where they were heard. Around mid-morning, we too began hearing pant hoot vocalizations from the chimpanzees, as well as occasional whimpers and screams, which are not unusual, especially among larger parties. We projected waypoints for their location and followed trails in that direction until we knew we were close. It sounded like a large party was present, with a second party approximately 200 meters away.
We decided to leave the nearby party so as not to disturb them, instead backtracking along their trail in the hopes of finding nests from the previous night. After successfully locating numerous nests and dung samples, we followed their trail back to where they’d been calling in the hopes of finding that they’d gone, leaving some dung samples behind. Instead, we saw a number of chimpanzees, which, along with their earlier vocalizations, suggested a large party was still present. More....