Chimp Sighting on a Conservation Trip in Tanzania's Mahale Range

Before I have a chance to summon my trusty guide, Caesar rises and approaches me with a large stick he quietly snatched from the forest


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.

Having been attacked by monkeys while volunteering at a wildlife sanctuary, I know better than to make any noise.

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.

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Millie Kerr is a freelance writer and creator of An Expat's Guide to London. A former attorney, Millie now primarily writes about travel and issues pertaining to wildlife conservation.

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