Tracking the Sonso Community of Chimps

On our first day of chimp tracking, we follow Alf (shown) and Bahati.

Seeing chimps in the wild was the main reason that I came on this trip to Uganda. I have had a fascination with chimps since I discovered how closely our social networks are to theirs. Really, Facebook is a glorified Pant-Hoot, the vocalization chimps make to one another. Many of us humans tend to cry out into cybersphere to let our friends and family know where we are and what’s going on. Chimps do the same thing in the forest. Day and night we would hear their calls. The field guides told us that they were letting each other know how far away they were. As though the Sonso group may separate during the day, they would join together at night to make their night nests and would keep track of each other’s movements during the day.

The Budongo Conservation Field Station
After our work with the trees, we were ready to track the chimps. The Budongo Conservation Field Station (BCFS) is surrounded by the greatest variety and concentration of primates of any forest in East Africa. The importance of the forest can’t be overstated as it is the largest remaining tropical rain forest in Africa.

It has been a research field station for the past 20 years. The chimp group that we followed consists of around 60 individuals, known as the Sonso Community, who live near the site of a former sawmill.

During the early 1990s, researchers habituated chimps by following them over the course of five years. The Sonso Community slowly began to trust humans and allow them to watch their activities. The researchers came to know these chimps as a family, naming them and watching the soap opera of their lives unfold. Foraging patterns, births, injuries, deaths, fights, political power struggles, immigration and emigration are all part of the chimp story that they’ve studied and documented over the years. Nowadays, graduate students from around the world and university students from Uganda are engaged in chimp and other scientific research at the site.

A Typical Day
We had two days of tracking chimps, where we headed out in the early morning darkness with experienced field guides to find them waking up in the forest. The field guides were primarily young men from the local community who had been trained to collect data on chimp activities.

We followed their path, watching them move through the forest, primarily eating, grooming, mating and posturing to one another, not unlike our daily activity.

On the first day, I spent my time watching Bahati, an adult female who was eating figs in a large tree with her infant, Belvin. This tree was at the end of its fruiting season and had few figs left so she was the only one feeding. They knew our field guide and so trusted the strange faces that were watching them. We sat below the towering tree with binoculars and recorded their actions every five minutes for the eight-hour shift.

Bahati pulled the figs off the tree, stuck them in her mouth and sucked the juice out of them. She seemed to pile a bunch into her mouth until it was full with fig-meat and then she would spit out the meat. They only want the juice from the figs as the meat was difficult to digest. Alf joined her later on and also consumed the figs in a similar manner, spitting out the meat on top of our heads as we stared at them through our binos.

In the early afternoon, the hottest part of the day, she created a nest out of leaves up in the top of the tree. She grabbed a bunch of figs and brought them into her nest with her infant.

During this time, we craned our necks to see what she was eating. What this ripe fruit? New leaves? What type of tree was she in? Was she grooming, defecating or taking photos? Whatever her actions, we would record them every five minutes. I came to appreciate the guides’ patience and stamina as the muscles in my neck felt like broken rubber bands by the end of the day.

I am going to stop here for now as there is much more to say about the Sonso Community, a group whose power structure was in flux with the alpha male Nick being challenged by two other chimps. I will save those details for my next posting, which will feature a bit of video from the field.

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