Photo credit: David Dunkerley
Being the most sentient form of life on a planet can be a lonely business. We humans are constantly looking for our reflection in the animal kingdom — we want the sea otters holding hands to be “in love” and our dog’s smile to mean it is happy. Our urge to anthropomorphize is compulsive, but it is especially distracting when it comes to observing our closest animal cousin, the chimpanzee, which is something I discovered firsthand when I had the chance to join the primatologist Dr. Catherine Hobaiter and her team studying the communication of wild chimps in Uganda.
Our expedition began at the tail end of the night in order to catch the chimps as they woke in their “sleep tree,” and before they disappeared into the depths of the forest. Sneaking into the sleeping jungle was an exercise in sensory deprivation. Under the cover of the canopy, it was dark, still, and uncannily quiet, the steady thwick-thwack
beat of rubber boots — standard issue to protect our ankles from the toxic retaliation of any snoozing snakes we might disturb — providing a spartan soundtrack for our thoughts. But sunrise is fast in the tropics, and before too long the first shafts of light began to illuminate the morning fog with a warm yellow glow, revealing the riot of life all around us.
I’ve always felt that the rain forest is my cathedral, the place where I feel closest to my god: Evolution. And the Budongo forest is an impressive place of worship: 310 square miles of dense jungle that hugs the eastern edge of the Albertine Rift, part of the Great Rift Valley where man himself is thought to have evolved. It is the largest indigenous rain forest still standing in East Africa, and although many of its magnificent mahogany trees were uprooted by the Victorians to deck out London’s Royal Albert Hall, a smattering of old-growth trees still stand, some 20 stories tall and almost half a millennium old.
Filing silently though the mists beneath these ancient trees felt like stepping back in time. Then came a crescendo of distant pant-hoots. This rising whoop
that signals a chimp’s excitement can penetrate the forest for miles and seems to go right through you. Hearing it gave me goose bumps — much the same effect it can have on another chimpanzee. We were getting close. I felt a flush of adrenaline. Chimps have a fearsome reputation. Although reports of their being 10 times stronger than humans (with the ability to rip off a man’s arm with ease) are overblown (they are merely twice as strong), I still felt apprehensive about arriving on foot to wake them without so much as a banana as a breakfast offering.
My reverie was shattered by the sound of a fart.
The research team stopped underneath a towering fruit tree and pointed upwards. At first, I couldn’t see anything; the chimps’ black bodies blended into the infinity of the forest. But my eyes gradually adjusted, and as though I were looking at a magic-eye painting, the chimps emerged from the gloom: a dozen of them studiously munching away on their morning repast. I’d seen chimpanzees countless times before, acting up at the zoo or playing sidekick to truck drivers or Tarzan on TV, but this was totally different. They were somehow familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, like us, but not like us. The effect was mesmerizing and strangely emotional. It was such a poignant scene, a window perhaps into our distant past, made all the more meaningful by the increasing rarity of seeing these endangered creatures in the wild today.
My reverie was shattered by the sound of a fart. Wild chimpanzees, it turns out, suffer from profuse flatulence — loud, loose, and unrepentant, the sound of an animal that subsists on unripe fruit and doesn’t give a fig about being polite. The team told me the sound of distant trumpets is one of the best ways of locating lost chimps in the vast expanse of trees. I was unprepared for this particular dawn chorus, which was more like a scene from a Mel Brooks movie than anything I’d seen in a natural history documentary.
Hobaiter aims to study chimp behavior in its purest form, away from the polluting influence of humans. To accomplish this, she and any human tagalongs, like me, have to become invisible, figuratively. That means thinking like a chimp and following strict rules — first and foremost, no eye contact. Staring is an act of aggression among chimps and picking a fight with your study subject isn’t a great move for those trying to be inconspicuous (or, for that matter, trying to avoid serious injury).
Silence was the second requirement of Hobaiter’s fieldwork — a state I struggle to sustain at the best of times. What I hadn’t anticipated was how hard it would be to hush my body language. Chimps lack the vocal dexterity of humans and most of their intentional communication is made up of subtle hand gestures and facial expressions. Their chatter is unusually peaceful, and I was struck by how they reside in relative quiet, aside from the farting. It is these gestures that Hobaiter is trying to decode in order to compile the world’s first chimp dictionary.
Hobaiter has been shadowing this troop of chimps for almost 10 years and has become intimately acquainted with the daily soap opera of their lives. My visit coincided with a particularly thrilling episode — the arrival of a newborn baby in the group, something Hobaiter has only witnessed herself half a dozen times. Chimp mothers give birth alone in the forest and wait a few days before introducing the latest member of the clan. Their arrival causes much excitement among the other chimps, who all want to inspect the newborn — just like in any big human family. But unlike humans, these events are flushed with fear and apprehension for the mother. Chimps are known to practice infanticide with males and even females killing babies for reasons that we can only speculate upon. Knowing this made the atmosphere seem especially charged and no more so than when the dominant male came to greet the infant.
We were sitting only a few feet away from the mother and her baby when the alpha male came barreling out of the bushes and into the group. He was screaming his superiority at the top of his lungs and his hair was standing on end, giving the impression of being even larger than he was. It was an absolutely terrifying entrance and I felt scared first for myself, and then for the mother and her tiny vulnerable newborn — the real subjects of the alpha male’s attention. As he charged towards the mother she hunched her body over the baby, bowed her head, and held out an upturned hand towards the male.
I recognized and immediately related to this submissive body language. And later in the day, as we analyzed the video footage in the relative tranquility of her jungle lab, Hobaiter confirmed to me that this gesture was indeed what it seemed — a beg for peace. So far, she has translated around 70 gestures for her groundbreaking glossary. Many of these are strikingly similar to our own. A kiss is a common greeting and a handshake is a sign of affiliation, just as it is for any businessman closing a deal. But she told me that it’s dangerous to assume our hairy black cousins are communicating just like humans. Hobaiter has to constantly work to shed her human preconceptions and think like a chimp. “We tend to think that chimps are very much like us. It’s very easy to fall into that trap when analyzing the gestures — to assume, for example, that a handshake has a different meaning to an arm shake, because that makes sense to us,” she said. “Maybe the chimps don’t care what limb you shake. It all has the same meaning.”
Some of the chimps’ body language registers as quite the opposite of what it looks like to a human observer. “A bare-tooth grin means I’m nervous, worried, or afraid,” Hobaiter told me. “That’s the horrible thing about all those greetings cards where you have smiling chimps — they are definitely not smiling
.” But despite these curveballs, Hobaiter believes that studying ape gestures provides valuable clues to the evolution of our own language skills. An exercise that may help make us humans feel less lonely after all.
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is an award-winning filmmaker who has written, produced, and directed several popular documentary series for the BBC, PBS, Discovery, and National Geographic. Her first book, A Little Book of Sloth
, was a New York Times
bestseller. She holds a MA in zoology from the University of Oxford. She lives in London. The Truth About Animals
is her most recent book.