Over the course of our week at Nyungwe, we got glimpses into the lives of many primate species (vervets, baboons, Mona monkeys, blue monkeys, black-and-white colobus monkeys, grey-cheeked mangabeys, and L’Hoest’s monkeys), and I found myself surprised by how complex and remarkable each species was. But, for me, I knew what the highlight of Nyungwe would be before I even set foot in Rwanda. For as long as I can remember, I have dreamed of my first encounter with wild chimps, and this dream finally came true at Nyungwe. Although it was different from the many ways I’d pictured it would be, that moment was one of the most special moments of my life. And, so that I don’t risk misrepresenting my emotions and thoughts as they were at that moment, I’ll share a snippet of my journal entry from that day (adapted from the full version, which can be read in the Primate Studies Field School Journal)—my last full day at Nyungwe.
The trackers pointed to a pair of trees in the distance. It was then that we spotted a chimp. She was quite a distance away, but our binoculars provided us with a good view of her; she was perched up high between the two trees and appeared to be making a day nest, folding leaves into a comfortable cushion. It was quite a peaceful sight to watch her, without disturbing her calm, careful work. As part of the Commensalism Team, I’m always examining the primates’ interactions with humans, but it is always most wonderful and magical to peek into the life of a primate who seems completely natural, at ease, and peaceful.
As we trekked further into the forest, hoping to find more chimps, some of the trailblazers went ahead, while a few of us took it more slowly. In my daily life, I walk quickly, just trying to get from one place to another. But on a trail, I’ve come to realize, my mindset completely changes. Besides watching my footing, I also like to take the time to look for other things. The forest floor can tell a lot about the animals that live nearby, and, with her trained eye, Professor Steklis—along with one of the trackers—helped me see through the eyes of a chimpanzee. A possible termite-fishing spot hidden beneath the leaves; an old nest up in the branches; a cluster of figs or other chimp treats—these were all things I would have certainly missed if I hadn’t taken the time to take it slow and listen to those already tuned in to the chimpanzee world.
Professor Steklis found another artifact of chimpanzee life in what to me looked like a clump of dirt at first. But, upon closer examination, I saw that it was studded with seeds and other indigestible parts of the fruits and plants that chimps like to eat. Professor Steklis explained how the chimps form this wad in their mouths as they eat and spit it out at the end of their meals. We could even see the arc of indentations from the chimp’s teeth, and I felt so close to the chimps in that moment, even though there weren’t any in sight.
Our bus picked us up at the other end of the forest, where we emerged onto a sunlit road. There was a lonely feeling in thinking about the chimps contained in that little patch that used to be part of a greater forest—but there was a sort of wonderful feeling, too, as I thought about how we had been allowed into their lives, if only for a little glimpse, before heading out of the forest again.