Sunday, November 27, 2011

Visiting the relatives

We share around 98% of our genes with chimpanzees, according to the San Diego Zoo. In Kibale National Park, Uganda, these relatives rule the forest.

Chimpanzees construct nests to sleep on at night

We visited five different forests between Uganda and Rwanda that are known to support populations of chimpanzees. In our experience, they are not always easy to find and even when you do see them, it may only be a brief encounter. Most tracking hikes give you just a brief shot at observation in the wild. However, in Kibale, you have the unique option of tracking them for the whole day. On November 5, at 6 am still in the dark of morning, Michele and I jumped off the back of a motorcycle and began our search for Pan troglodytes.

Our guide had been a ranger in the park for many years. We started searching for a group of chimpanzees not-yet-used to people but discovered only smashed figs from a recent meal. We later found a lone mother and child collecting and eating fruits in a tall fig-like tree. We eventually followed a habituated group (used to human observation) as they wandered the forest. We counted 18 individuals in the group, but a few more could have been out of sight. Because they were used to humans, we could sit/stand around ten meters back observing them while they ate, groomed, played, climbed, and rested. We even saw a skirmish with olive baboons!

At around 2:30 pm, it started to rain. A flurry of excitement filled the chimpanzees, and our guide told us "the rain dance" was imminent. Male individuals ran back and forth on two legs and used their hands to shake and pull young trees (normally they walk on all fours using feet and knuckles). Other individuals crowded close to big trunks to avoid the bursts. We watched until every chimpanzee had seemingly ran off or vanished into the rain. 

Even though chimpanzees and humans appear very different from each other on the surface, consider that our cells are nearly identical in form and function, and we have nearly identical internal anatomies. Check out more similarities and differences between humans and chimpanzees

Humans are in such a different world than chimpanzees, but we share the same earth, the same biology, and a common history. Various populations of chimpanzees in Africa total up to two hundred thousand (200,000 chimpanzees). We are at a population of seven billion (7,000,000,000 humans). Our worlds collide as our demands on the forests of Africa grow. Is the earth big enough to support both species? Will we be able to visit our closest genetic relative in the future? I do not know the answer to these questions, but I hope the answer is yes. 

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