Published by The Atlantic on November 20, 2011. To read the original article, click here.
We are crouched low to the ground, hovering like flies.
Caesar rolls onto his back, exposing his belly as he scratches his brow. At this distance, I can see the individual lashes, so like ours, surrounding his coffee-colored eyes. For a while, he watches us; poses for us; seems to want to communicate with us.
Hamza, our trusty guide, whispers words of warning and encouragement from further down the trail, “Be still. Don’t make any sudden movements. Make sure your camera flash is off.”
This is not my first time seeing apes, but it’s certainly the most dangerous. These are wild chimpanzees, not baboons or other monkeys I’ve encountered while traveling. They’re bigger, stronger, and wiser: their social hierarchy has more to it than brute force and genetics. Manipulative chimps often reach the upper echelon of chimp society. Such is the case with Pimu, the current alpha, a tyrannical leader whose rap sheet includes raping his own mother.
Thankfully Pimu isn’t here. He’s several hundred yards away in a clearing, commanding attention from more subservient members of his clan. Caesar was relegated to solitude after improperly addressing Pimu and just before we happened upon his dunce’s corner.
Caesar hasn’t been eternally cast out, though that sometimes happens with chimps. He will rejoin the community within minutes, maybe hours, and they’ll continue feasting on the lowland fruit planted by Japanese researches when they occupied this terrain for scientific study in the 1960s. By luring the monkeys to lower ground, researchers increased the amount of time they could spend monitoring chimpanzee behavior, simultaneously paving the way for tourism. Mahale is one of the only places in the world where humans can witness chimpanzees at close range. Or at all.
At sunrise, the trackers at Greystoke Mahale, the camp I’m staying at, embark for the forest, guided by expertly honed senses. They see and hear slight shifts within the forest, recognizing masses of black within opaque treetops. When nothing appears, they listen for vocalizations before pressing toward the source.
Back at Greystoke are expectant tourists, awaiting news by radio. Getting to Mahale is a grand feat: five hours on a bush plane from Arusha are followed by an hour-long boat ride to Greystoke, a sublime lodge built upon the sandy beach of Lake Tanganyika, the second largest freshwater lake in the world. Once there, tourists are restricted to an hour of chimp viewing per day, lest tourism disrupt the wildness of the chimp community or ongoing research efforts.
All of a sudden, Caesar rises. Before I have the chance to summon Hamza, Caesar approaches me with a large stick in his hand, something he discreetly snatched from the forest without any of us noticing.
For what purpose I’m not sure.
Having been attacked by monkeys while volunteering at a wildlife sanctuary, I know better than to make any noise or movement. I avert Caesar’s gaze as he ambles toward me: Direct eye contact can be tantamount to instigating a physical challenge, and there’s no way I’m winning this fight.
Although 99 percent of our genetics match, chimpanzees enjoy bigger teeth and stronger muscles than humans. Researchers estimate that male chimpanzees are between three and five times stronger than a grown man.
I nervously breathe through the ill-fitting medical mask provided by Greystoke staff, a requirement that prevents us from passing human diseases to chimps. When researchers began studying the Mimikire clan, no one thought to afford such protections. As a result, some chimps died after contracting illnesses to which they’d never built immunity.
Staring at the ground, I slowly count to five, feeling Caesar inch closer. Without warning, the stick smacks the bridge of my nose. Although I experience negligible pain, I momentarily allow myself the self-pity that accompanies feeling bullied: Why me?
Humiliation soon morphs into relief, then wonder, then unabashed exuberance. As a child, I dreamed about venturing to Africa, surveying its prolific game from within a Land Rover, but I never imagined that I’d see one of the most intelligent and endangered species face to face.
That humans can observe the Mimikire clan without causing undue annoyance is itself incredible. That I could personally agitate a member of the group is almost unfathomable: it signifies the creation of a curious bond, the type nurtured by Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall.
Caesar is the only chimp to engage with me, but we see many of his brethren while snaking through the forest. Some are families, others friends and foes. As our time runs out, we stumble upon two teenagers in love, playing together atop mossy stones. They have sequestered themselves from the group even though it means delaying their ascent.
We quietly observe them and continue on our way. Hamza carves our course by bushwhacking, careful to steer clear of buffalo beans, camouflaged plants that irritate human skin until flushed with water.
Despite Hamza’s best efforts, one tickles my arm as we approach the white sand beaches of Lake Tanganyika. I bolt ahead of the others, leaving the forest and its chimpanzees behind, before diving into the crystal clear water.