Chimp Stories

The main reason we stranded on this tiny island in Lake Victoria is the Chimpanzees. While neighbouring islands are populated by fishermen and their families, the majority of the inhabitants on Ngamba island are rehabilitating chimpanzees. In total, there are 49 chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) living here at the moment. Only three of them are born here at Ngamba, the rest have their origin in the wild in the rainforests of Congo, Uganda and South Sudan. These chimpanzees have a tragic history from their younger years before they were rescued by the Wildlife Authorities of Uganda. Every year around 5000 chimpanzees are killed by poachers throughout Africa and fall victims for the illegal “Bush meat” trade. As a consequence of these criminal acts many chimpanzee infants are taken away from their mothers and land at another market of illegal pet trade. During that time under these illegal businesses or the entertainment industry most individuals are mistreated and been locked in in small space or feed very poorly. A couple of other individuals have been found by soldiers in war zones, and thus these have lost their mothers most likely to poachers.

Today they all live in safety here at Ngamba island, where they have been through an extensive rehabilitation process regarding both their mental and physical wellbeing. Most likely none of them will return to a truly wild life again, as sad as it is. However, at least here at Ngamba they get to live their lives together with other chimpanzees. They spent the majority of their days in a semi-tropical rainforest, where they can also choose to nest and overnight, if they feel like it. A few of them do so occasionally. However, most chimpanzees here are too dependent on human provided food and therefore return on their own will to the facilities, where they get fed three times a day and can sleep under a roof in their hammocks. During feeding time, it is very easy to distinguish between their different personalities and how they have developed their own unique ways of telling the keepers exactly how eager they are to eat. Hand waving, clapping, feet drumming and a bunch of different sounds are produced to get any attention from the food providers.

95% of the islands surface is dedicated to the chimpanzees and the boarder to the staff and visiting tourist consist of an electrical fence. Sometimes it heats up quite heavily within the chimpanzees in the group. They all form their alliances with their best buddies and occasionally someone gets attacked. This can even be so severe that the attacked individual chooses to climb the stinging electrical fence and escape to the other side where we humans are. So far, we have had three such escape situations during our five weeks here. Kalema the second strongest male jumped over the fence in such a fight and he took his time to inspect all corners of the station, especially the kitchen area 😊

The chimpanzee overnight facility is literally just wall to wall with our bed room, so for five weeks now we have had the “privilege” to fall asleep to an orchestra of farting black haired cousins. Which isn’t as bad as it sounds their noise interruptions while they are dealing with their social lives is quite entertaining and not many nights in life do you wake up to real dreams – chimp neighbors.

The reason Mike and I came to this island is my research project. With all the practical work involved I am extremely grateful that Mike could join and assist me through this amazing experience. I am used to testing zoo groups of apes but those are rarely larger than a Dossin apes. Here we are studying the behavior of 40 of them, so very intense days it is. The research project is designed to test different aspects of curiosity, reactions to new things, exploration behavior and problem-solving skills by these chimpanzees but also to later compare them with their relatives living in different zoos across Europe. I am interested in finding out how their background histories and their living conditions influence their experiences and if these in turn affect their explorative behavior or their cognitive skills. To do so we are presenting them every day with a new challenge in form of some “Puzzel Box”. Sometimes they have to choose the correct tool to get to a Honey source, and other tests are looking at how fast they learn as well as their flexibility in reverse learning. So far the chimpanzees solutions have amazed us in some tasks and surprised us with their absence in other skills. One thing is for sure, they all deliver very variable results and it is super interesting to dig into this data set later on. What is most rewarding is seeing their enthusiasm as they literally wait for their turns to partake and then rush into the test room – such great working colleagues!


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