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Although less glamourous than many people’s idea of what working with wild chimpanzees entails we’re all very excited that we now have our first fecal samples from the Waibira chimpanzees. These samples will allow us to run DNA analysis which will start to let us know, not only how the Waibira chimps fit into the overall scheme of chimpanzee distribution in East Africa, but also how they are related to our Sonso chimpanzees. From the start of the project we’ve seen some very familiar characteristics cropping up – Waibira’s Hamish is the spitting image of Sonso’s Simon, and the Waibira females’ little white beards are very reminiscent of Sonso chimp Rachel’s. Now we have our first sample from the adult Waibira female Arua (mother to the curious little Andrua); she bears a striking resemblance to the recently immigrated Sonso female Oakland – could this be her daughter? sister? Questions about female immigration are notoriously hard to unravel, and while it will take time to get the results through we’re all really looking forward to starting to be able to tease apart the tangle of family relationships that weave their way through our two communities.

It's hard to pose glamourously while holding a tube of chimp feces but Joe does his best..

In January an ambitious new project started at Sonso: the habituation of a second community of chimpanzees. Habituation of the Sonso chimpanzees began over 20 years ago and we now have a generation of young chimps born to habituated mothers and for whom seeing researchers tangled in all sorts of odd equipment, tripping over their cables and struggling to follow them around the forest is no more odd than encountering any of the other forest primates! Habituation is a slow process though; it took over a year just to start to recognize and identify the core males in the Sonso community, and 20 years later we still have peripheral females who are not fully habituated to our presence.

Our first glimpse of Nora with her new family

This time round we had the advantage that even the neighbouring chimpanzees have encountered us occasionally and so we were not a completely new presence in their environment, but it was always going to be a matter of years rather than months in which we measure our progress. January and February were spent conducting an intensive survey of the forest around the Sonso communities range and finally the group to the north-east was chosen. Now known as the Waibira South community, work has been progressing well and we’ve been managing to track and follow the chimps for several hours a day – something we didn’t expect to happen for many months.

Recently we had a little help in this from an old friend: Nora – the daughter of our Sonso alpha female Nambi, who as a young adult emigrated away from the community (as most female chimpanzees do when they reach sexual maturity). We found a group of WS males in the morning and sat under their feeding tree as, after their enthusiastic pant-hooting, more individuals joined – one of these was a young adult female who as she swung into view turned to look down at us, I’m not sure who was more surprised as we seemed to simultaneously recognise each other! Nora looks happy and healthy with her new family, and we’re sure she had an influence on the others who seemed more relaxed and spent most of the day with us.

In the afternoon she let the rest of her group move ahead and sat with us on the transect, at first we waited, thinking that she would move on with the WS chimps and we could follow her; but she continued to wait and wait with us, and eventually it dawned on us that perhaps, seeing us there, she thought that the Sonso chimpanzees (and her mother, brother, and sister) were close by. In the end she moved on, but before we lost her in a thicket she had definitely been heading away from the WS territory and towards her old Sonso stomping grounds. We’ll be keeping an eye out for her in the future, and are waiting to see if we also bump into Bahati (Kalema’s oldest daughter) who left Sonso at the same time.

Sorry about the break in the news folks but it’s been a busy busy summer here at BCFS, in July we hosted Jane Goodall and a CBS news team who came to film in Budongo Forest as part of the celebrations for the 50th anniversary of chimpanzee research at Gombe. Schedules were tight, but Jane took the time to talk to the members of staff and students who came from all around the forest for the visit.

The field assistants looking sharp in their uniforms for a special visitor

Then, in August, we celebrated our own big anniversary – 20 years of BCFS! Attendees included people from all walks of life and from all corners of the globe – the huge event was kicked off by a serious workshop that covered both a review of the work the project has achieved so far, and an insight into the new work that is going on as the project goes from strength to strength (check out our current projects page here for an idea of what the researchers are getting up to at the moment). Chimpanzee behaviour and health monitoring, forest conservation issues, education and training projects – BCFS is now involved in a huge variety of projects and having everyone together gave us a great opportunity to discuss the exciting plans for the future, including a National Chimpanzee Veterinary Center – lets see what happens in the next 20-years!

After the workshop came the serious buisiness – cue the sound system, light the fires and grab a beer, it’s party time! and the 150 expected guests soon doubled in number as the word spread. The music was loud, the dancing was lively and the food and beers were plentiful, all the ingredients for a classic Budongo party.

Sonso in the news!

May 15, 2010

For a great review of some of the fascinating work into the wonderful world of chimpanzee vocal communication check out ‘Talking Chimp to Chimp’ in April’s edition of Science magazine! Big congratulations to Roman, Cathy and all of the staff and researchers at camp who are helping us to gain an insight into the rich social tapestry of chimpanzee life.

Science 2 April 2010: Vol. 328. no. 5974, pp. 36 – 37 click here to go to the journal.

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