Piki piki

The island encompasses 250 square kilometres and there are some parts which can easily be reached by foot. But to get to the vast majority of chimp areas we use motorbikes  here are just some of the pictures taken during 2012 field season.

returning from the forest with JL, and L

Last week some new vehicles arrived to replace our dying Yamahas.  Thank you so much AE, JW and JF for sending these out to us.


SS taking a bike out for a test drive


Climbing trees

For my research on chimpanzee nests I am measuring thickness, depth, width as well as the number of plant parts used in nest construction. In order to do this we have to get inside the nests. This  is done in two ways, either by free-climbing the tree to reach the nest or by using ropes and climbing gear adopted from rock climbers.

     Above SO is free-climbing a nest 8 metres above the ground  

It was interesting to watch SO climbing this tree because he did it with such ease, looking utterlycomfortable up in that tree. After several months I still get nervous 5 metres off the ground.

Free climbing can be risky, and some of the nests on the island are located more than 20 metres high. So we are also using the double rope technique to reach the higher nests.

   Above JL getting some practise in using ropes. 

SS hovering above the ground 

JS inside a nest

Above is a photo of me climbing up to a nest 25 metres, I am about halfway there in the photo. The pic was taken by JS who was 8 metres off the ground. 

After a long day of climbing we get very tired and often take naps. Fortunately the chimp nests are very comfortable when they are green (newly built).

Lastly above is my first photo of a Rubondo chimp inside a nest … two in fact, there is another chimp just hidden out of view by the leaves on the left hand side.

The return

After an extended break from the island–2 months–I am now back, London was great because I had a chance to see my friends and family. But I have also missed Rubondo and my little chimpies. So after a month of October of not seeing the elusive fellas I had a wonderful end of the month when the chimps decided to stay with us last Friday.
We heard the chimpanzees calling on several consecutive days, and saw them briefly for half an hour on Thursday. Then because we knew roughly where they were sleeping on Thursday night, we travelled early in the morning at 5AM to Kamea on Friday; on entering the forest at 06:25hrs we heard load chimpanzee calls and walked closer towards their sounds. We observed the chimpanzees dropping from their nests and walking along the forest floor. It was very dark at this time and so it was difficult to see them clearly. But we think there were about 6 chimps in total.. The chimpanzees kept vocalising for half an hour. Several of them started to move up the hill, and my trackers followed them up onto the top. We saw one chimpanzee climb back on top of a tree. So together with a field assistant I stayed back and waited for it to drop back down. We waited for nearly an hour. It was difficult to see the chimpanzee because the tree in which it was located in was very bushy/dense-we patiently sat and waited.

Then suddenly there was a commotion in the tree and two chimpanzees climbed out and onto another tree. They crossed several trees and finally settled down to observe us. There was one adult male and one juvenile male. They continued to call intermittently for around 3 hours. They were feeding and resting for some of the time. The chimpanzees remained with us for 10 hours and even built a proper day nest up in the trees. I had to send one of my boys to fetch me some lunch at midday. Eventually at 16:30hrs they moved off to join their fellows and we lost them in the thick lianas.

ants in our pants

This month I had the pleasure of walking in the forest with VS, AE, ME and HN, who came from Germany, Kenya and India to visit the project.

One morning we travelled out by boat to reach the northern parts of the forest in search of the elusive Rubondo chimps. We walked for several hours and climbed right to the top of a hill, but we didn’t hear any calls or catch a glimpse of them.

During our forest walk we learnt from VS that army ants (or Siafu in Kiswahili) live in colonies, but unlike most ants, they do not have a permanent home. Instead they move to a new place when they have eaten all the prey in an area. They form a highway as they travel from their old lair to a new nest.

Siafu hunt by sensing the carbon dioxide that animals breath out. You can tease the Siafu by blowing on them, then watch as they burst into activity, pincers held high, in search of prey.

Siafu, though aggressive and painful, are not at all a bad. If you live in Africa and Siafu swarm into your house, they eat all of the other ants, cockroaches, spiders, and everything else that slithers crawls or creeps.

VS also showed us the two different ways chimpanzees eat army ants.

1. In the ‘‘direct-mouthing’’ technique (‘‘ant-dip-single’’), a chimpanzee dips for ants with one hand and then sweeps the wand directly between the lips (‘‘swiping’’) or nibbles the ants directly off the stick.

2. In the ‘‘pull-through’’ method (‘‘ant-dip-wipe’’), a chimpanzee holds the wand in one hand, dips it into the army-ant nest, waits for the attacking ants to crawl up the tool, then withdraws it while sweeping off the ants with the other hand, and rapidly transfers the mass of ants into the mouth.

The birds

Egyptian geese and egrets on the rocks

Water thick knee

Slender billed weaver

Pied kingfisher

chimp mornings

On Thursday afternoon I took VS to the forest. It was just the two of us and VS was rather concerned that we might get lost, I assured him that I knew that part of the forest extremely well. Whilst taking a break from staring at chimpanzee nests by having a little nap, we heard the chimps calling. We attempted to follow their calls for half an hour but then decided to head back to the land rover. We got a little lost on the way back, but I managed to find the correct path.

On the following morning we left at 05:30AM and returned to the same place as the day before. Sunrise is at 7am so it was still pretty dark when we entered the forest. At half six we heard the chimps calling and tracked them to a spot near a hill side. We saw 4 chimpanzee shadows travelling on the ground, we continued to follow them for some 5 minutes until they stopped and sat down. We remained with them for about 1hr and 15 minutes. It was wonderful to see the chimpies again. The group consisted of a very large adult male, a female and her infant and a sub-adult male. We remained at a distance of 20-m the entire time and the group was calm during the contact. At one point the adult male stood up on two legs with his hair bristling on end, and I thought he may attempt a mock charge at us, but luckily he swung around a liana and sat down . He hid his face a little from us, and the adult female was hidden for some time too. Then after half an hour the female moved closer the adult male and was in full view (see pic below).  They gradually moved off to forage at 8AM and we tracked for 10 minutes until they disappeared into a tick mass of lianas.



Last week we had a visitor at the tourist bandas, an elephant doing demolition work behind the kitchen area.


We were coming back from the forest when I took this photo about 300-m from my house. He glanced at us briefly before walking off to push down a palm tree.

The elephants on the island originate from the Serengeti, 14 were introduced in 1972 and today there are around 50-100 of them. They roam freely across the entire island and we often hear them whilst working in the forest. For the most part they don’t give us any problems, but a few times they have charged and we have had to drop everything and run in order to escape their fury. 

They knock down many trees in the forest, including chimpanzee nesting trees and fruit trees


Pic of SY clearing the road  after the elephant had knocked down a tree

feeling fruity

The northern hills of the island currently have an abundance of fruits. The largest fruit is called Mpira or Saba comorensis. Saba c. has a hard outer casing which stops the worms from entering inside, you can chew the seeds but it tastes extremely sour and I haven’t managed to eat a whole one yet, although JL loves them.




These little fruits resemble apples both in appearance and taste. Their latin name is Parinari curatellifolia. I made a jam using them and bananas last month, and it was delicious. JP couldn’t get enough of it.


These smaller fruits are more palatable than mpira, from top to bottom you have Salacia sp., Carpolobia conradsiana, and Pancovia turbinata. Although Pancovia tends to have a lot of worms so you have to be careful when you try to eat one.



Above is Uvaria sp. which is very sweet.


I am excited to taste some of the other fruits which the chimps eat, but I’ll have to wait until next month when they ripen.

If you want to know more about the diet of Rubondo chimpanzees read Liza Moscovice’s article titled:

Fruit Availability, Chimpanzee Diet, and Grouping Patterns…, published in 2007, in AJP.