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Predator Biologist Report on Tanzania: Touched by a relative and more National Geographic Moments (includes photo link)

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In February I lead a group of 8 (not counting me) to Tanzania with the major goals of seeing chimpanzees in the wild, and experiencing huge numbers of animals in the Serengeti with the migration at its peak concentration during the calving season along with its accompanying potential to see predators run rampant in this gourmet grocery store. This time of year also attracted me because the action is in the Ndutu area of the Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area where off road driving is permitted.

The itinerary was also crafted to provide a unique opportunity for Northern Tanzania to see African wild dogs by including Suyan Camp located in the Maasai owned Loliondo Reserve, which also gave the advantage of being outside of park boundaries and thus allowing for night drives and walking opportunities.

Full itinerary was as follows:

1 nt London – Friends House
1 nt Arusha – Arusha Hotel
3 nt Mahale N.P. – Greystoke
1 nt Lake Manyara Area – Kirurumu Tented Camp
2 nt Loliondo Reserve Southern Location, Piyaya Area – Suyan Camp
4 nt Ndutu Area of Serengeti – Olakira Camp
1 nt Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge

Travel

Flew from Denver to Washington, Dulles where we exited the USA with one last great meal at 5 Guys Burgers. This was covered in my last trip report but for those who may have missed it I remain old school in my believe that the fact that humans have eyes in the front of our heads means we are natural predators and I am in the front of the carnivore line in my love for red-meat products. As such I know what I’m talking about when it comes to top-flight burgers and 5 Guys are some of the best in the USA as are their fries.

Flight to London was an overnight getting in at 10:00 a.m. and then we had an overnight before flying out at 7 p.m. the following day. My group wanted to break up the trip to avoid jet lag and it probably did help some. What was great for me was a couple of very generous Fodorites invited me into their country home an hour and half outside of London for the night, which gave me a fantastic layover. Great dinner and Africa conversation (with biltong no less) as well as a great learning experience about the U.K., including the chance to stroll through a lovely little historic town and a gourmet lunch at an authentic independent pub. Huge thanks to my hosts!

Arusha – Arusha Hotel

We arrived around 10 a.m. after the overnight flight. Unfortunately it was a Sunday which meant we could not visit schools or a clinic as we had desired so it ended up being a day of in town strolling, shopping, and beer by the pool which made for a nice relaxed settling period. The Arusha Hotel had very nice rooms (in the new wing) that were comfortable and well appointed. Service throughout was fast and friendly and the food was solid. Only knock would be the showers in the new wing do not all drain fast enough and thus can flood under the door and all over the bathroom so I’d suggest having an extra towel rolled up to block the crack. A plus is the hotel is right in the center of town so you can easily walk out to stores, etc. but the street hawkers are relentless so be prepared if that bothers you. The hotel itself is free from any type of street touts who wait beyond the property.

Mahale – Greystoke Camp

As luck would have it President Bush was coming to Arusha and actually staying at the Arusha Hotel as we were leaving. This was almost a bad turn of events for us as all flights were grounded after 10 a.m. but fortunately we were flying early (moved even earlier due to the Bush’s visit) so we were able to get up at 6 a.m., eat and head for the Arusha Airport. Typically there are only 2 flights a week to and from Greystoke so you either stay 3 nights or 4 nights and there really would not have been anything else comparable had we missed a night so thankfully it worked out.

The flight went 1 ½ hours to Tabora where you land to refuel and go to the bathroom and then another 1 ½ hours flying. Often times they go via Katavi but we were all Greystoke bound so we didn’t have to do that route. Western Tanzania was very lush with lots of rice farming. As you get to the Mahale mountains it could be jungle anywhere, one of my clients said it reminded him a lot of his flying missions in Vietnam. We landed at a small airstrip and were met by one of the Greystoke guides named Kabeth and then we boarded our Panga boat for another 1 ½ hour ride south on Lake Tanganyika to reach remote Greystoke. Not long after the airstrip you see no sign of people except for the 3 camps with Greystoke being farthest south. African fish eagles and palm nut vultures (beautiful and a first for me) kept us company throughout much of the journey. Arriving at Greystoke is quite dramatic as you round a corner of dense jungle and spy a gorgeous stretch of white sand beach and the Robinson Crusoe castaway style central building. The bandas are built right at the edge of the jungle that engulfs everything past the beach and rises into steep mountains (look more like hills when you come from Colorado but they are steep climbing). We were greeted by the warm staff and co-managers, Anna from France and Doug from South Africa (leaving in March to do research in the Congo), and then escorted to our assigned bandas.

The bandas are extraordinary, open on one side with views out to the lake. They are a funky blend of island rustic and understated luxury. Each banda is two story with an old canoe built into steps to reach your loft area. A short boardwalk connects to each bandas bathroom built about 20 feet behind the banda. The lodge encourages eco-friendly principles and thus they do not leave the pilots lit for hot showers and they must be requested allowing 15 or 20 minutes to heat up water. I never took a shower instead opting for the encouraged option of bathing in the largest, cleanest bathtub in the world – Lake Tanganyika! Not sure who certifies such things but supposedly it is the cleanest lake in the world (also the 2nd deepest) and they provided bio-degradeable soap and shampoo. I thoroughly enjoyed my daily bath in the lake, it was splendid and highly recommended.

Of course funky cool digs and a gorgeous setting were not what brought us here, it was to view chimpanzees as Mahale is reputed to be the best wild chimp viewing available. A Japanese researcher from Kyoto University began a study in the early 1960’s right around the same time that Jane Goodall began her work just a couple hours north at Gombe Stream. The M Group has thus been habituated for more than 40 years and currently numbered 60. The senior guide Kabeth had told us he knew all 60 by their faces and that he would teach us their behavior and their politics! A second guide would lead some of our group as well, Theophil, also known as Too Tall (6 ft. 4) since many people have trouble saying his name. There are a number of rules to chimp trekking and one is the group can only be 6 tourists and thus camp is split into two groups. One group will arrive at the chimps first and have an hour to view them before the second group takes over. On occasion the M group could be spread out and then both groups could view at the same time. There is a government park ranger who supervises the visits and there is one to two trackers from camp who head out early to find the chimps and call it in on the radio. The trackers also help supervise the group. In addition to the size and time limits you cannot have cold or flu symptoms. When in the proximity of the chimps it is required to wear a surgical mask. In 2006 there was a pneumonia outbreak that killed about 15 chimps and is the sickness is suspected to have originated from tourists. Because we share about 98.5% DNA diseases are readily transferred between the species so now masks are required and it is believed they have worked well thus far. Another rule is to remain 10 meters from chimps but it seems often that the guides and rangers feel comfortable approaching closer from time to time and very frequently the chimps ignore this rule and pass by within a few feet.

The first night we were awoken by jarring lightening and morning arrived with a steady downpour of rain. We arrived to breakfast and were assured the visit to the chimps would still happen even if it was pouring but we would go about an hour late to give it a chance to calm down. Fortunately the rain stopped but creeks raged and the climbs up and down were slippery slopes. On this day I went with the 2nd group lead by Too Tall, which would take a longer route to allow the first group to get in most of their hour before we arrive. Creek crossings were tricky and usually Too Tall’s helping hand was needed to keep from falling in off the rocks where we would cross. Unfortunately the first group was actually very slow taking the shorter route and thus we arrived at close to the same time. We waited for about 45 minutes in one place before having our turn to enter in but could often hear the diverse cacophony of calls from the excited chimps. The first group had seen them on the ground and seemed thrilled although their good viewing was short lived. We followed the ranger in and I was having big issues with the mask on in the post rain humidity and my glasses were fogging big time making me have to take them off and see chimps through my camera lens only (tip – wear contacts if you have them). We left the trail to hike through some thick bush and then I couldn’t believe my eyes as the black back of a chimp appeared less than 10 feet to the side of me. This was Orion, a 17 year old male sitting motionless in a tree by himself. In a tree 25 yards out in front of us was a female, Totsy and her 6 year old son Teddy, as well as another female Ruby in the fork to the left. Totsy and Teddy provided good entertainment as they were high out of the vegetation and easy to see as they groomed, hugged, and Teddy foraged for insects. Totsy was in estrus and eventually she went swinging across out of the tree and started to make her way down into the thick bush which started a chorus of pant-hoots and barks from the numerous high ranking males awaiting her. We could hear this tremendous noise coming from just about 20 feet in front of us on the other side of the thick bush but we could not see them at all. At some junctures the bushes would even shake and it seemed as if they could come bursting through but they never did. Orion just sat motionless almost close enough to touch. Apparently his mother died during the pneumonia outbreak in 2006 and he has become somewhat of a loner wandering off and keeping to himself often but more recently starting to join in with the group, liking to fight and beginning to win some rank and earn meat on hunts. The humidity caused condensation between my filter and lens and I had to remove the filter to keep taking pictures and it caused a lot of issues on this day. Further my video camera, which I really wanted to use to capture the amazing vocalizations, would not work due to a moisture in the camera error – my camera and glasses would be fine on day 2 but the video would not. Between the humidity issues and it being extremely dark (no flashes is another rule) I could not even capture a truly good picture of Orion from less than 10 feet away. As we neared camp I could not believe that it was 3 p.m., we had left before 10 a.m. but the time really flew. Being my first time with chimps I did not know what to expect but the proximity of the motionless Orion as well as the antics of Totsy and Teddy, combined with the sounds of all the unseen chimps had my excitement flying high even though I did not think it was a vintage sighting. I asked Too Tall was that about typical of an average experience or how did it rank – he said that was not as good as the average usually is and that they usually do see chimps on the ground. Considering how happy I already felt I was now excited for day 2.

Afternoon activities were variable, for the first two afternoons I walked in the jungle but others in the group went fishing with hand lines and came back with quite a catch that made for an incredible fish curry on our second night, best meal of the trip. It was also possible to go snorkel or sea kayak (more on these later). The walking was similar to other jungles that I have been in on other continents in that there are sounds everywhere but sights other than plants and insects are rare. The guides, especially Kabeth were very good with the sounds and could tell you the bird but to sight them was another story. I did finally spot a trumpeter hornbill about the 4th time that I heard them. Other primates were around too and I caught brief sightings of yellow baboons, vervet monkeys, red colubus monkeys, and red-tailed monkeys between walks and chimp treks. This place was like a butterfly zoo with numerous varieties and almost always one species or another in sight, a must visit for anyone with a heavy interest in Lepidoptera. There were amazing emerald dung beetles, built like the typical dung beetle but in a vibrant shining green! Had one sighting of a duiker and signs of bush pigs were everywhere. Found leopard dung on a trail near the camp and there was a bushbuck (called George) that would hang out in the lounge area and a family of warthogs that were regulars in the camp. Most of the walking focused on plants, how the chimps used them as well as the local people. The chimps used over 100 plants for medicinal purposes and because we are so much alike virtually any plant or fruit that the chimps eat people can safely eat. Most interestingly was learning how the locals make rifles out of bamboo and mix a gunpowder by boiling up the glue of a specific tree with the dried urine from a rock hyrax latrine. You only get one shot as the bamboo shatters but supposedly people were able to hunt even elephant and buffalo with this primitive gun, they just had to jam a lot of powder in it.

Early evening brought more rain but it stopped during the night leaving us clear for our second morning chimp trek. The groups switched the order but I switched groups so again I went second but with Kabeth this time. When we were close to the group of chimps we were extremely lucky as Orion was off by himself and we came upon him while the other group was doing their hour and it was bonus for us not counting on our time. Orion came down a tree very close to us and moved off to eat some fruit. I squatted down to photograph at his level and then to my disbelief Orion starts walking right toward me with a big green fruit filling his mouth (think the Godfather with an orange in his mouth playing with his grandson). As he strutted toward me my lens was too long to focus and I didn’t want to miss any of this experience so I lowered the camera and realized it would be more disruptive and startling if I tried to move so I just remained still as Orion and his large muscles continued directly toward me. He approached with our eyes at the same height and cocked his head to gaze into my eyes from less than a foot between our faces as he passed by brushing his shoulder against mine, never breaking his slow constant stride as he went by me. With years of working with wildlife and some nice trips in between I have had some great wildlife encounters and experiences but I knew before I even stood up that this was clearly the most intimate moment I have ever had with a wild animal!! I could have left at that moment and traveled home completely satisfied with my trip that was just beginning. For that matter my hour with the chimps had not even begun yet. Orion walked a short distance and sat down to wait for me to make the portrait that I had missed the previous day and on his approach to touch me. I took pictures of him that far exceeded any photo expectations I had for chimps and through the glow in his eyes I was continuously reminded that he welcomed me into his world with his gentle approach and accepting touch.

I was reluctant to leave this relative that had rekindled such a soulful connection but the other group had finished their hour and it was our turn to immerse into the activities of M Group. We had a brief exchange with the other group who had smiles ear to ear and talked of amazing viewing right on the path with chimps moving between them while of course I quickly recounted actually being touched by a chimp. As we approached 3 large males were right on the trail and two of them began to hoot with excitement but then they headed into the bush. The tracking scout radioed where the group was heading and we went far down the hiking trail to where it was predicted that the group would emerge. During this portion there was one couple that had not traveled with us as a part of the group that I was leading and the poor woman was having heat stroke so when we reached where the chimps were expected to come out we waited and I gave up my water to help cool down our sick trekker. Typically the group moves as the alpha male (Pimu) dictates but in this case things were going slow. The deal was Totsy was actually leading the group by default because she was in estrus and thus all the high ranking males including Pimu wouldn’t leave her proximity and now she was demonstrating why she was nicknamed Miss Mahale as she likes to amble and take her time and play games with the males. She ends up taking so long, about an hour since we thought our viewing was going to begin that its decided that the tracker will machete us a path into the chimps. Our heat stroke victim stays behind on the path with another tracker but don’t feel sorry for her as she is about to have a Jane Goodall event. We follow the tracker as he hacks us a makeshift trail through the bush arriving in the midst of volatile chimp activity. There are chimps everywhere, you walk a few steps and all of a sudden see a chimp sitting in thick vegetation just a few feet away. In the trees the males are going crazy for Miss Mahale and their drumming on a tree breaks a huge limb clean from a tree and chimps are jumping from it for whatever they can grab as it plunges 50 feet to the ground. Within two minutes they break another huge limb, the sounds, the fury, the breakage it seems like chimp chaos and amazing that no one gets hurt as chimps are falling and hurtling themselves from harms way. Everyone grounded they begin walking around and we move through encountering a Japanese researcher as we go. We find Caesar, a 9 year old adolescent male swinging through the trees. Then we find Kalunde, the 45 year old King-Maker, probably the smartest chimp in the group and definitely its master politician. Kalunde was the number one ally for the last two alpha males prior to Pimu keeping them in power for more than 20 years and ending their reigns when he switched alliances. All the males want him on their side and he is especially powerful because he is ultra-popular with the females and they fight nasty with biting off fingers and toes so know one wants them in the fights. The current alpha Pimu has had his post for a short time and is very unpopular as he rules with force, even forcing his mother to mate with him which is a big no no in chimp society. Kalunde may be scheming to install his next king shortly with number 3 Primus being the likely ally to benefit from this master manipulator who builds alliances to do things his way. From the handsome elder statesman Kalunde we come to a rambunctious 12 year old adolescent named Christmas. Christmas gets very excited and jumps up shaking a tree screaming before pole vaulting off landing three feet from one of my clients and slapping the ground twice before walking off a couple steps. Kabeth tells us that Christmas loves to bluff charge tourists and soon does it again for all of us. The behaviors and individual personalities are so interesting and the knowledge of Kabeth keeps us finding new stories to unfold.

Our next sighting is very special as we spot a 14 month old baby, the third youngest in the group! Amazingly he looks at us and picks up a thick stick and shakes it like a club. This baby was born on Christmas day in 2006 and has yet to be named but should have a name starting with C as his mother is Canato and the Japanese researchers name with the first letter of the mothers name. We have great viewing of this precious young one as he plays while sitting on his mothers back and then he starts swinging back and forth on a vine. Finally our time is about up so we move out toward the path but many of the chimps are moving our way. I reach the path just in time to see Pimu the alpha male emerge onto it. He is an enormous beast with thick black fur and a dark face who has a real gorilla look to him, very different than any of the other chimps I have seen. He is physically intimidating and I can see how he has fought his way to the top and rules by fear. With him is Primus, currently ranked number 3 and an important ally for Pimu right now as he does not want to face a coalition lead by Primus. Christmas makes the mistake of coming up and greeting Primus too enthusiastically resulting in a scolding attack from Pimu as he chases him into the bush and delivers a slap. Christmas then runs out to the trail screaming a pleading call for friends to come to his aid but the event is over as Pimu would rather eat. Primus poses for some good photos and then moves on by as the group enters the bush again and our time has been up. We head up the trail and discover that our heat stroke companion had been sitting on a nice bed of leaves cut by the tracker and then Darwin, a 19 year old male chimp approached and sat down 3 feet across from her just looking at her for over 20 minutes. Needless to say she was ecstatic. Darwin is another loner chimp since his mother died when he was only 3 or 4 years old but a legendary Alpha who controlled the group for 15 years had taken Darwin under his care and protected him but once he died Darwin developed slowly and often remains on the edge. He is Kabeth’s favorite chimp and is considered to be very smart and calm often interacting closely with humans.

Our return trip had to be slow due to our ailing member but Kabeth told me to feel free to hike ahead with my people which I did only to round a corner and find a smashing surprise with a familiar face 10 feet in front of me – there was Orion and behind him was Darwin grooming his back. While waiting for the whole group to catch up we got to finish with another 15 minutes or so of Orion and Darwin exchanging grooming sessions with one another. In all we would be gone from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. but we probably had more than 2 hours all together with chimps encountering the majority of the males, a baby, and tons of interesting interaction. This was a day I will never forget and I can’t imagine a more personal and interesting wildlife experience. On this day both groups had much better than average trekking, in fact Kabeth said it was the best day this February for behavioral viewing and tied with the best for pure sighting with an unusual day that the chimps actually hung out on the beach by the camp so we had extremely good luck.

See the photographs here:
http://www.kodakgallery.com/Slideshow.jsp?mode=fromshare&Uc=jjigq2q.93vko63u&Uy=3izna5&Ux=0

Following this amazing day with the chimps our entire group went snorkeling in a wonderful cove. Lake Tanganyika has 140 species of cichlids, which are some of the most colorful and interesting fresh water fish. The snorkeling was excellent with outstanding visibility and I would guess I saw about 40 species of fish plus a small eel.

We had scheduled a 1:40 flight out with hopes of a 3rd chimp trek but unfortunately Nomad moved our flight to noon meaning a 10 a.m. departure for the boat trip to the airstrip and thus no chimping even though they were only a ½ hour out of camp that morning. After what we had I’m not sure I wanted to go again as we had such a supreme experience but obviously I would have taken advantage if the opportunity was there. Typically they do not trek on your departure day unless the chimps are close and you have not had very good viewing. I went out at 7:30 instead for a nice long solo sea kayak which was good fun and nice solitude as I had the water to myself and gazed into the jungle along the shore.

I have seen some complaints about activities here being too structured but we were given great flexibility for kayaking, swimming, and snorkeling from the beach by yourself and then two guided activities could occur each day. Other things like food, service, and an elevated bar overlooking the water for sundowners were all absolutely tip top. I loved this camp and the entire experience, as did every member of my group. Honestly I would sleep in a hole in the sand or under a log in the jungle for that matter for the opportunity to view the chimps but the camp and its staff is as good as it gets and this is a magical place to stay.

Next up … Lake Manyara and Kirurumu Tented Camp

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