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The Chimp and the Colobus

“Welcome to Mr A.K.”

I looked around me trying to identify which of our group was the celebrated Mr AK.

Then I realised that he was in fact, inanimate and none other than the rather battered AK47 slung over Joel’s shoulder.

Joel, a wildlife ranger with the Uganda Wildlife Authority, continued patting the rusty rifle, “Mr AK is our friend. He is here to protect us in case we meet Mr Hippo or Mr Leopard.”

Mr Hippo, Mr Leopard! I glanced around me for a second time, nervously. I thought we were here to track chimpanzees.

As if reading my mind, Joel continued, “Today we will track chimpanzees in this small area called Kyambura Gorge,” pointing at a map with the aerial of a radio. “The gorge is sixteen kilometres long, at its widest point five hundred metres across and one hundred metres deep. It is a tear in the earth’s crust that has been carved out of the savannah over centuries by the waters from the surrounding mountains.”

“The savannah, part of Queen Elizabeth National Park, is the lair of the lion whilst a hundred metres below is the forest, the domain of the chimpanzee. It is unique in Africa that within minutes and a mere matter of metres you have the chance to see lion and chimpanzee.

“The chimpanzee is man’s closest relative and seeing one in the wild is a privilege. Today we hope to be privileged.” Joel smiled proudly at this point. Judging by Joel’s smile and his enthusiasm what we were about to do was clearly something very special and all of a sudden I too became very excited.

Thoughts of bumping into hippo were forgotten; that was until I heard this most disconcerting “Urg, urgh, urgh,” a loud rolling croaking roar.

“What’s that noise?”

“Colobus monkeys. See over there,” Joel pointed.

Standing at the edge of the gorge the tops of the trees were at eye level and not far in front of us were a small troop of colobus. Their beautiful black fur contrasted with their long white whiskers and beards and their bushy white tails.

“The black and white colouration is camouflage. It breaks up the silhouette of the Colobus and makes it difficult for predators to see them. They sit at the top of the tree as protection from the chimpanzee,” Joel said.

“Why as protection from the chimps?” I asked, naively.

“Because chimps eat colobus,” he replied. “Chimps are not the cuddly animals that many people think they are. They are our closest relative and like us they are omnivores. Chimps eat meat. They hunt in groups for food and prey such as the colobus monkey.”

This revelation about the dining habits of chimpanzees in no way lessened my enthusiasm for seeing them. With great anticipation, I slipped and stumbled down the steep slope to the bottom of the gorge, where we waited in silence as Joel studied the ground looking for tracks and signs of chimps passing by this way. My heart was beating excitedly.

The air was still and close. Sweat dampened my shirt as shafts of sunshine streamed through the canopy above us. There was the constant ringing of insects. Butterflies, in their thousands, flittered and fluttered colourfully in the dappled light.

Suddenly there was a far-off thud thud thud. It sounded like a distant but agitated bass drum.

“Chimpanzees beating the buttress root of a tree,” whispered Joel as he motioned for us to move forward.

Suddenly, a screaming crescendo of chimpanzee shrieks and calls erupted. A cacophony of noise far more active and animated than their larger terrestrial cousins, the mountain gorillas.

Walking back out of the gorge, I was not really concentrating on where we were headed. So absorbed and amazed by what we had just seen and heard, I was simply following Joel’s feet. When Joel stopped abruptly, I was in too much of a dream to notice and bumped right into him. He looked round and motioned for me to be silent. He was staring intently high above into the trees.

“What is it?” I whispered.

He remained silent.

“What is it?” I said with greater urgency.

“There are two chimps up there. But there is something strange……Aaah I see now,” he added.

“What?”

“They are hunting. Look a little higher there’s a colobus. They are hunting that monkey.”

I was straining to see where Joel was pointing, when there was a sudden burst of activity, a flash of movement. I thought at first that the colobus was chasing the chimp until I realised that the chimp was dragging the colobus by its tail along the branch.

“Look, look. The chimp has caught the colobus,” Joel exclaimed.

The colobus was screaming, trying desperately to cling onto the branch, literally for dear life. But the chimp was too strong – an adult male chimpanzee is much stronger than a human – and there was a dull sound as the colobus was thrown unceremoniously to the ground by the chimp to his accomplices waiting below. A ghoulish scream from the colobus was followed by excited hooting from the chimps. And then nothing.

All this took a matter of seconds but it seemed like an age. I stood in stupefied silence, mouth wide open in awe, not really able to piece it all together, to appreciate what I had just witnessed. The noise, the intensity of the moment, it had all been so sudden. The stifling quiet made it all the more dramatic, and I was reminded how ridiculously vulnerable I was in this habitat and indeed was a little grateful that Mr A.K was still walking with us.

Are you ready to meet the relatives?