Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Ooh Ooh Ah Ah Ah AH AAAHHH!

So Rich has taken up the role of Manager at Budongo eco-lodge in Murchison Falls National Park. It means I have to go to the bush at least once a fortnight if I want to visit him, which given that Murchison is probably my favourite place in Uganda overall, is such a hardship.

The lodge he runs was set up by the Jane Goodall Institute as a sustainable tourism development project, connected to the chimpanzee research JGI were conducting there, so that they could develop chimpanzee tracking as a tourism activity that would generate income for the forest reserve.

Sunshine through the canopy

It's located in a stretch of pre-montane tropical rainforest called Budongo Forest. The area where the lodge is located is just inside the southern gate to the national park, and the concession to manage the lodge is now with a local tour operaror, but it's still run much along the lines of its original model, with 50% of tracking fees going directly to forest conservation.


So while the baking hot grasslands of the delta and crocodile strewn banks of the Nile are only two hours drive away, Rich spends his days in dappled shade, in the relative cool of the forest.

Rainforest vs Sunshine: 0-1

The forest is amazing - having always been such a fan of savannah it's been an eye-opener. You see less - your world shrinks to the trees and leaves and birdsong around you and it has a very calming effect. The lodge is built in a clearing, partly so that sunlight to the multiple solar panels on its roof can do their thing in order to light and power the lodge. But step onto one of the paths that take you to the cabins, or to the chimps, and the trees envelop you in their serene embrace. The sunlight streams through the canopy, creating shafts of light that dapple the shade around you. There is an earthiness to the air, you can almost smell the nutrient-rich mulch at your feet.

Dead tree

The soundtrack to the forest is far from silent - there is a constant background insect hum, rising in pitch and volume at key times of day; now and then you will hear a rustle, as a lizard scampers through the dried leaves, his sunbath interrupted by your passing; occasionally the noise of a baboon squealing somewhere through the trees, fighting with another over some petty primate politics, and the light sabre-like swoosh of a Hornbill swooping overhead. It's true, these ungainly birds sound exactly like a Star Wars light sabre when they fly.

Heart-shaped Leaf

But the best noise in the forest, bar none, has to be the pant-hoot call of the chimpanzee. Chimpanzees live in large social groups. This particular troop can number around 50-60 individuals when they all congregate together, but they spend most of their time in smaller sub-groups, moving through the forest to feed.

We came down from the trees

Whilst this goes on, certain members of the group will occasionally stop to call out to eachother, broadcasting where they are, or that they've just found a tasty fig tree, and sometimes getting a response from other chimps elsewhere in the forest. They stick out their top lip and curl it upwards as they call. The vocalisation starts low, and rises, in a crescendo of rising volume, until it's a primeval screech of climactic excitement that reverberates around the forest. It's called the pant-hoot and apparently Jane Goodall herself does a mean impression of one.

Female chimpanzee

When you see it and hear it in the wild, it's one of the most exciting moments I have ever had watching primates. I can't explain it well, but witnessing a troop of chimps pant-hooting (can this word be 'verbalised'?) starts a sort of adrenalin surge deep inside me. I feel the vibrations of the hoots tickle the inside of my chest, and the blood pulses in my ears - I am suddenly hyper-alert, and invigorated with excitement. I think somehow the pant-hoot appeals to the inner chimp in all of us, and a tiny bit of our common ancestral brain comprehends the messages being sent.


And next week, when I visit Rich, a friend of ours who is super-chimp clever and has spent her phd identifying a whole vocabulary of sign language used by the chimps, will be visiting to train the rangers to learn how to interpret some of these signs. So I plan to listen in and learn to speak chimp.

These are the moments when I realise how lucky we are to be here.