A stormy week

March 19, 2011

It’s been an unsettled week in Sonso with the first big storm of the rainy season followed by a day of earthquakes that shook us out of bed at 6am and then, unusually, kept rolling through for most of the day. Not far from the Rift Valley fault line we’re used to the odd rumble here; in a big one we’ll here the chimps calling out with their distinctive waa bark alarms, but they usually settle quickly back down. This time though the repeated tremors kept everyone unsettled, until by the end of the day chimps were alarming left, right and centre, and poor Squibs was seen wandering about in confusion trying to work out where the problem was!

The storm that tore through was also a big one, with wind and hail lashing at the houses all afternoon. The rain that filled our water tanks must have also been a welcome arrival for the dry forest, but it also took out many trees, with a couple of big ones down on our road alone. Tragically one of them must have been the sleeping tree for a group of Black and White Colobus monkeys. Three of them were killed outright when it fell, and another two, including the male, died during the day from their injuries. As they were by the road that goes down to the village we sat with them to keep an eye on them, but it was a sad day as we could do little but wait and then drive them up to camp once it was over. Towards the late afternoon we saw movement in a thick patch of leaves and to our surprise we found a tiny infant hiding inside. We have no idea how he survived, at about 6-months old and only just into his black and white coloration he would still be weaning, so perhaps he was protected by his mother’s body, or maybe he was just light enough to tumble free of the main tree when it came down. He didn’t seem badly injured, just cold and wet and miserable.

It broke our hearts to see him there knowing there was little we could do. While we do sometimes intervene in situations where direct human influence has caused harm (such as snares injuries), big storms, and their consequences, are part of the natural cycle of things. Despite that, we didn’t feel we could just walk away, and Gideon, one of our snare-removal team offered to stay and keep an eye on him until dark. We went back down at first light not really expecting anything other than another sad drive back, but we found him still cold, still wet, but very much alive and much more active. At midday he was resting in the sun drying out, but as they day wore on and he didn’t feed or move away we started to worry again, would he survive another night alone on the ground? In the afternoon we were busy helping our camp vet Caro autopsy the adults, and at 6pm had just jumped in the truck to head down when we saw Gideon walking to camp. We feared the worst, but it was to be a happier ending to the day. That afternoon the infant colobus had climbed back up to the canopy and fed happily on leaves. Later on he came back down, and after one last rest, disappeared into the forest. He’ll still have a lot of challenges ahead: eagles and other predators, and the arrival of a new Colobus male now that there is an open territory and females to claim. But well fed and well rested he has a better chance than we had dared hope for, and Sonso was a more cheerful camp that night for it.

The rains have returned to the forest and as we walk in the steamy quiet mornings we’re accompanied by the regular crash of trees and branches that, having died off in the dry season, are now waterlogged and too heavy to stand and come down in a tangle over the forest trails. It was with mixed emotions last week that we caught our first glimpse of Juliet’s new baby. We’ve known she was pregnant for some time and were overjoyed to finally see the new addition to our Sonso family, but we also had serious misgivings, remembering that her first baby son was killed by the community.

The introduction of a new baby is a critical period for any female chimpanzee, they usually leave the community to give birth and may not return for weeks or even months. When they do it creates great excitement and every one is desperate to see and smell and touch both the female and the new infant. At the same time these introductions can become aggressive and infanticides can happen within a community. With Juliet’s first baby son Nick and the female Nambi’s eldest daughter Nora were the leaders, with Nick attacking the mother and Nora tearing the baby away from her, both then cannibalising the body. It’s not clear why it happened; we have had several previous cases at Sonso, and this time we suspected that as Juliet had spent long periods away from the main group then the father may not have been a Sonso male. It’s also possible that competition between the females, for whom the new infants represent competition for their own offspring, could play an important role. This time we suspected that the father may be Zefa, the Sonso beta male, who took Juliet away on a long censorship at about the time she conceived; and we hoped desperately that this might work in her favour. In the end both our concerns and our hopes were justified in their own fashion.

We found her resting in a ficus tree in the morning, and for several hours it was only when the young male Fred approached that we had a moment’s concern. He was curious at first, but seemed far more interested in continuing his morning feeding, and they soon both settled down in the same tree.

everyone wanted to see the tiny infantNot long after this we heard the calls of a larger group approaching, and, more worryingly, recognised the calls of Nick and Nambi amongst them. In the end it was Simon who started the attack, climbing up and chasing her though the canopy. We don’t know why, he had no obvious motive and usually appears fond of the community’s infants, regularly playing with them with great care. Soon Nick joined him in the chase and eventually the exhausted mother fled down the the ground, by this time others had arrived and crowded round, desperate to touch and smell mother and baby.

As Nick approached again and started to display, shaking and snapping branches. He attacked her five times, biting, shaking and kicking her while she screamed and desperately tried to shelter her baby as he tried to tear it away. However, assistance came to her from an unexpected quarter; as we watched the group separated into those openly supporting Nick and those on the sidelines, one voice was clearly barking in support of Juliet: Nambi. Nambi, who has been the dominant female in the group for many years, and who has been involved in her fair share of infanticides including that of Juliet’s first son.  But Nambi is now over 50years old, and as each year passes without her falling pregnant it seems less and less likely that she will have any further infants of her own. Perhaps that influenced her choice to support the new mother, barking at Nick and sitting between him and Juliet.

Nambi sits next to Nick

When Zimba arrived, another of our dominant females known for her aggression towards the young infants of new mothers, and who may well herself be pregnant, Nambi actually embraced her, seemingly to try and calm her down before she approached Juliet. What ever her reasons Nambi bought Juliet the time she needed, and she escaped back into the trees followed by Hawa who sat with her, grooming her quietly. The rest of the group waited below, occasionally climbing up, but with no further serious challenges they eventually drifted away, leaving her to sit and gently groom her baby. As we left them both seemed in relatively good health, there was blood splashed on the ground after the fight but no sign of serious injuries. Not surprisingly we haven’t seen mother or infant since, and it may be some time before she takes another chance at introducing her precious charge into the group again. Hopefully they have now surveyed the first critical hurdle and the next time she will finally receive the warm welcome that is so long overdue.

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