Samantha Russak: Tanzania #7–Second Visit to Gombe and a Typical Day of Fieldwork

Editor’s note: Between posting this to the editor in April and today, Samantha was able to take a quick break from her work in Tanzania to come to the U.S., which by great coincidence was the week that Don Johanson and Richard Leakey were on stage together at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City (see a video of the evening here—moderated by Dr. Sanjay Gupta). Samantha was able to attend the event and dinner afterward, before heading back to Tanzania. I am glad she got another great meal that wasn’t rice and beans!

The second week of February 2011, I arrived in Kigoma to meet IHO’s founding director Dr. Don Johanson and the rest of his National Geographic Expeditions group ( so that I could give a short presentation about my research and explain why and how chimpanzees can be used as models for our early human ancestors. There was one slight problem—I knew where the group was staying, but did not know at what time they were arriving or when/where I was supposed to meet them. So, I went to their hotel, Kigoma Hilltop, and was surprised to see three zebras that are allowed to roam freely on the hotel grounds. Apparently, there are a few more zebras that stay closer to the beach, as the hotel is right on Lake Tanganyika. I left my name and number at the front desk and was promised a call when the group arrived. I got the call to come by for dinner, so I made my way back to the hotel and met Carol, the expedition manager, and some members of the group before seeing Dr. Johanson. We had a wonderful dinner (I was especially thankful to see the menu did not include rice and beans!), during which I was able to chat with many of the group. They were all extremely nice and seemed to be enjoying the trip immensely.

NGS group

The National Geographic Expeditions group, led by Don Johanson.

The following day I met them at the hotel, where we all departed by boat across the lake to Gombe National Park. It was a pleasant ride and took even less time than my first trip to Gombe, as we were in a slightly newer, and therefore faster, boat.

russak-Goodall staff

The staff of the Jane Goodall Institute with Don Johanson and Samantha Russak.

When we arrived at Gombe, I went to find Dr. Anthony Collins (senior representative at Gombe Stream Research Center), who has been an invaluable resource about living in Tanzania. After a few minutes of catching up, he greeted the group and thanked National Geographic for all of their contributions to the Jane Goodall Institute and research at Gombe over the years. We then we split into smaller groups and headed off to find the chimpanzees.


Gombe chimpanzee and baby

We had to climb some steep trails, but finally came across a group of about eight chimpanzees near Jane’s Peak that included the current alpha male, Ferdinand. We spent some time watching them rest and groom each other before Ferdinand decided it was time to go; of course, when he went the group followed! We lost this big group, but came across Tarzan, and later his brother Titan. Then at some point we ended up in front of the group, because Ferdinand came charging (and displaying) down the path towards us. We quickly moved out of the way, and he continued along without even a glance back at us.


What a face!

After climbing a bit more, it soon became evident that the chimps had gone high up the mountain, where we would not be able to catch up with them, so we headed to the waterfall instead.

russak-feeding house

The old feeding house

We rested for a little while at the waterfall taking in the beautiful scenery before it started to rain, which prompted us to head towards the old feeding house (where chimps were provisioned with bananas until 2000) for some shelter. When the rain eased up we made our way back to the main entrance. There, Dr. Collins took most of the group to see Jane’s house while I stayed behind to chat with a fellow grad student researcher who had just arrived at Gombe to study the baboons there.

When the group returned, we got back onto the boat to make our way to Kigoma Hilltop Lodge in the park for lunch and then back to Kigoma. After a little downtime, it was time for me to “earn” my trip by giving my powerpoint presentation. Everyone was really enthusiastic about my research, which was a great boost in confidence about my time here in Tanzania. After my talk, it was time for another fantastic dinner and chatting with more of the group members. I got back to my hotel late that night, with a care-package of apples and cookies from some of the group, feeling lucky to have been able to meet such great people and share my research with them.

russak waterfall

Beautiful waterfall

During my presentation, someone asked me what a typical day of fieldwork was like for me. I thought that was a good question to share here in case others were also wondering the same thing. My day usually starts between 6:00 and 6:30 am when I get up and get ready for the day. After making sure my fieldbag is packed, it’s time for breakfast—the field assistants usually eat cold rice and beans, but I cannot bring myself to do that so I usually have some bread and tea or oatmeal.  We pack food (usually rice and beans) to take with us for lunch and head off into the “bush.” Here is where there is some variation in the routine—on some days I need to “establish” a patch; this means that I go to a particular location previously determined by selecting random GPS coordinates within the study site and make a 50-meter by 50-meter (or sometimes 30-meter by 30-meter) square plot. Once the edges are marked with flagging tape, my research assistant and I begin to document and measure all of the trees within that patch. Other days involve monitoring these patches, which means sitting somewhere near the patch where I can observe what, if any, animals enter the patch and what they do while there. During the middle of each month, I also spend a few days checking the 22 digital camera traps that are located throughout the study site; this means making sure the camera is working and downloading the photos/videos onto a small laptop before redeploying the camera. Each of these tasks usually takes the full day, so that I arrive back at camp between 5:00 and 6:00 pm. Then it’s time for a nice bucket shower and then dinner, which is….rice and beans! After dinner I either read or join my field assistants in watching a movie on my computer before going to bed. Every now and then I take a “day off” from going into the field to stay at camp to wash laundry in the river and enter data into my computer. Fieldwork is certainly a full-time job!

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