Samantha Russak: Tanzania #8–Changing Seasons and Gombe

I was hoping to write a new blog entry while I was back in the US at the beginning of May, but being home for only ten days with many things to do and people to see did not allow me the time to do so. I was extremely happy to be back in a place with constant access to my own bed, hot showers, real toilets, and good food. I was even happier to be able to see my family and help my cousin celebrate her Bat Mitzvah. But, honestly, it was a bit overwhelming to be constantly surrounded by people and technology (internet, television, cell phones that always get signal…) after months of being in the forest with only six other non-English speaking field assistants. It is a very weird feeling to be going through culture shock from your own culture!!

Upon returning to Tanzania, I easily fell back into my routine of collecting data in the field during the day and entering data or reading a book at night before bed. Since my return in mid-May, things here at the field site have changed drastically as the wet season has given way to the dry season. Rivers are no longer raging waters, but only small trickles of water moving along rocky riverbeds; the grass has grown extremely tall and dry, ready to be burned and give way to new shoots when the natural fires come through the area, and many trees are losing their leaves to also partake in the new growth cycle.

woodland patch rainy-sm

Woodland patch during rainy season

Woodland patch-dry

Woodland patch during dry season

My original thinking was that all of these changes would make my fieldwork a lot easier, with no more rivers to cross or muddy slopes to slide down. Well, I was wrong. The rivers are just as hard to cross by jumping from stone to stone, but if you fall (which inevitably happens every now and then), there is no water to cushion you, and the result is getting to watch your bruises heal and change colors over the next few days. The sloping terrain is also just as difficult to maneuver; instead of slipping on mud, it is the presence of dry leaves and small loose pebbles that discourage proper traction. Thankfully, after 7 ½ months, I am getting very good at  “controlled slides” down the mountains—think surfing, but on land! Of course, sometimes I am not so “controlled” and end up adding to my collection of small bumps and bruises.

This time of year is also when there are many fires, both natural and man-made. People in the area will burn the grass now that it is dry, in order to clear the areas around their houses in hopes of improving security; tall grass makes a good hiding spot for dangers of all kinds, ranging from fellow humans to predators like leopards and lions to other hazards like snakes. Local people will also burn grass in areas where they like to hunt and set snares; burning the old, dry grass allows new grass shoots to begin growing more quickly in that area, which will then attract animals. We have already encountered many burnt areas in and around our study site that are the result of these fires. Natural fires do sweep through the area and would have likely resulted in these same areas being burned, but the effects of the man-made fires quickening this natural process are unknown.

Aftermath of man made fire

Aftermath of manmade fire

This week I was happy to take a break from hiking, falling, sliding, and sweating to once again meet Dr. Don Johanson and a group from National Geographic in Kigoma. Much like the last time in February 2011, I met them at their hotel for dinner and began chatting with them about what I am doing here in Kigoma. Also like last time, I was extremely impressed with their questions and knowledge about human origins, primatology, paleoanthropology, and many other topics. The next day I met them in the morning, and we made our way to the hotel’s boat. The one-hour boat ride to Gombe was great; the weather and scenery were just perfect. After our arrival, and group picture, we split into groups and ventured into the forest in search of the chimpanzees.

NatGeo Gombe June 2011-sm

National Geographic tour led by Professor Don Johanson

Everyone had a great day and got a lot of time observing the chimpanzees. My group had the pleasure of watching Ferdinand, the current alpha male, along with Pax (an older male in the group) and Tarzan (a young adult male). We first came across Pax and thought that he was alone. After a minute or two, figs and leaves started to rain down from above; Ferdinand was at the top of a fig tree and was letting us know that he was there watching us. He came down when he was finished feeding and allowed Pax to groom him for a while. Tarzan showed up at this time, happily shoving fallen figs into his mouth. After a while, Ferdinand decided it was time to move on and the others followed. We stayed with the group for a little while longer before heading back to the boat for lunch. The group I was with also got to see red-tail monkeys, red colobus monkeys, and lots of olive baboons in the morning on the way to find the chimpanzees, so it was a really fantastic day.

Pax groom Ferdinand w Tarzan in back-sm

Pax grooming Ferdinand with Tarzan in the back

young Gombe baboons-sm

Young Gombe baboons

After lunch at the Gombe Safari Lodge, we headed back to the boat and started to make our way back to Kigoma. We were delayed a bit by rough waves and heavy wind, but eventually made it to the hotel. Since we were short on time, it was decided that instead of giving my prepared powerpoint presentation, I would partake in a Q&A session along with Dr. Johanson and Dr. Anthony Collins (who had come back with us from Gombe). This session went very well and included some interesting questions about early hominin coexistence and diet, the current distribution and status of chimpanzees, and even a question about possible human-chimpanzee hybridization! (All three of us agreed that hybridization between sperm and egg has probably been tried in a lab somewhere at some time, but nothing has been officially documented or published on this issue.)

Afterwards we had a very nice barbeque dinner on the beach, where I had the chance to continue talking with some of the group members. At the end of the night, we said our goodbyes and I headed back to my hotel (unfortunately their hotel does not fit with my limited budget!). After picking up a few things here in town, I’ll be back on the road and headed to camp to once again fall back into my usual routine of fieldwork, data entry, and reading. Hopefully I’ll have some interesting stories to share next time. Until then, I hope everyone is enjoying summer and I wish you all (well, all you Americans) a Happy Fourth of July!


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