February 2, 2015
The wet soil shifted beneath my feet as I descended in to Kakombe valley, reaching for saplings and vines to steady my unsteady legs. Ferdinand, the group’s alpha male, tore downhill, making his way to an mgwiza tree in search of a mid-morning snack. It was my first day back in the forest in over a year, and the shakiness I felt in each step indicated that it would take time before I felt fully comfortable moving through Gombe. The terrain here, twisted and enveloped in life both on and off the machete-cleared paths, takes some adjustment. When I finally emerge at the base of the hill where both Ferdinand and my field assistant, Baraka Daniel, rest, sweat pours from my body as if I had just swam through the jungle.
Pole pole, Jordan, says Baraka before motioning for me to sit beside him. We begin data collection on Ferdinand and with deft hands and feet he makes his way up the tree. I wipe my face on my shirt, which is already covered in dirt and moss. Fanning myself in an attempt to halt the perspiration, I catch Baraka watching my struggle, a quizzical look on his face. I relay in broken Swahili, I think the white person just sweat a lot.
Perhaps you should do more exercise, he says. Noted.
Baraka is fast and strong, and he navigates the forest with ease. He has managed to maintain pace with Ferdinand while keeping me in tow, and when I fall too far behind he is able to recover my loss and track our target in moments. He catches me before I nearly step in a sample, and takes the pipette from my fumbling grip to collect several drops of urine just in time to record behavioral data at the next beep of my watch. Without him, I would be lost. There is nothing in this place that I can do better than Baraka, and at the end of my time here I will still fall short of his abilities. The field assistants are the life force of Gombe, and one of the reasons this site still functions after over fifty years.
Somewhere to the south, a vocalization is heard and Ferdinand responds with a slow-building sound that culminates in a booming whoo whoo whoo. This loud whooping is called a pant hoot, a call that is thought to assist in long range communication. Without missing a beat, Baraka says Fudgi, and sure enough a small, healthy chimp with a thick black coat emerges from a thicket of vines. Fudge is a young adult male, only two rungs below Ferdinand in the hierarchy, and although he is far from being the largest male at Gombe, he is young and strong. Ferdinand climbs down from the mgwiza and meets Fudge at its base. With a low series of almost breathless utterances, Fudge emits several pant grunts, a formal, vocal indication of his subordinate status. They embrace, and begin a bout of grooming that lasts into the afternoon.
While grooming certainly has its hygienic benefits (it assists in the removal of hard-to-reach parasites), it is also a well-known form of primate social currency. As Ferdinand reclines, comfortable in his dominance, Fudge scampers around him in a concentrated panic, it becomes apparent as to who holds the upper hand in this interaction. In a few years, however, this dynamic will surely shift. Chimpanzees are characterized by linear dominance hierarchies, meaning that rank can be distinguished amongst males from the alpha, beta, and all the way down to the last in line. Alpha males experience profound advantages; during his tenure, a male in this position will sire a majority of offspring in the community. The position is an ideal one, and because of this it is contested. Every three or four years, a new male will ascend the rungs of the hierarchy and become the new alpha. And just as there is variation human leaders, alphas display different dominance styles. Frodo, a famous figure in Gombe history akin to the worst of humanity’s inhumane figureheads (think Stalin, or perhaps Vlad the Impaler), was a severe and ruthless despot. Alongside his brother, Freud, the two wreaked havoc among the group and supported one another via coalitions, “reigning” for many aggression-filled years. Ferdinand, on the other hand, is markedly less violent. He shows an affinity for policing, or impartially disbanding fights between warring group mates– a diplomat for the modern day. But Baraka believes that Fudge is the up and comer, next in line for the highly sought-after alpha position. As I watch him tend to Ferdinand, I can’t help but to wonder whether this is a friendly social exchange, or something more calculated. To paraphrase Robert Greene, does he not destroy an enemy, by making him a friend? Time will tell, and, only a handful of hours into a nine month field season, I have plenty of time.
In what seems like minutes, the final beep in our sampling regime goes off, and my first day in the field comes to a close. We allow Ferdinand and Fudge to travel onward, perhaps towards the waterfall, and with fanny packs slung over tired shoulders, we hike home. I notice that my eyes grow heavy and near to closing, but for the first time in months, they are not weary– I feel a tired euphoria, induced only by physical exertion or a day spent entirely outdoors.
Umechoka? Baraka asks. Tired?
I think for a moment before responding. Ndiyo, lakini nina furaha.
Yes, but I am happy.