Grooming the Man and Other Stories

Chimp in the Budongo Forest Reserve, Uganda.

The complex social relationships and bonds among chimps have been written about by many authors. Seeing their interactions in person creates a stronger impression than any words could describe. While tracking these chimps in the Budongo Forest, there were several scenes that we came upon that stand out in my mind:

  • Nick, the current alpha male, lounging on the path while Musa and Howard groom him. He is lying on his back, his legs splayed outward as Musa picks parasites off of him in what appears to be very intimate gestures. Our field guide tells us that Nick is on his way out of power as alpha male but that the other two want to remain friends. They groom him as a way to assure a smooth transition.
  • The mother Bahadi feeds with her infant in a fig tree. He moves away from her for some time and then climbs back into her lap. In one moment she wiggles her foot, sticking it out with a playful gesture for him to hold onto.
  • The guide explains how a new alpha male takes power: He must convince the top-ranking females that he will be a good leader. He does this by bringing them to the good food sources and protecting their babies. If the high-ranking females support them, then all of their offspring will, too.
  • Squibbs pulls a parasite off of Nick after grooming him. He plucks a leaf from a local tree and puts the parasite on it to examine it. The field guide tells us this is an inspection leaf and that they do this all the time to inspect the bugs and such that they pull off one another.
  • Zed grabs a leaf and puts it inside a hole in a tree that has rain water in it. He drinks from the leaf.
  • The veterinary Wyclef tells the story of the baby chimp who is in a jar on the shelf of the laboratory. It was killed by Musa, one of the more powerful males in the Sonso Community. He watched what happened that day in the forest when he heard screaming. Another male was holding a new baby chimp, and trying to protect it from Musa. It was unclear who the mother of the chimp was. Musa grabbed the baby and threw it against the tree, killing it instantly. The guess is that it was not Musa’s offspring and that perhaps it was from another community. Chimps will often kill offspring that are not fathered by one of their own.
  • A crowd of nearly 15 chimps gathers together in a fig tree above where we are all sitting. They ascend the tree swinging from branch to branch, making grunting noises as they eat. They drop fruit, leaves, branches and defecate on us. They pause to itch their backs and peer out over the trees for many moments. One of our volunteers wonders out loud what they are thinking about. Our field guide tells us that they are just relaxing after a long day. That they like to look over the countryside.

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