Upon arriving at Gombe Stream National Park, you get the feeling that you are landing at a research station more than a park. There's a reason for that: this is the site of the longest ongoing study of any animal population in the world, the study of chimpanzees that Jane Goodall started in 1960. The park is tiny by Tanzania standards at only 52 sq km, and is located right on lovely Lake Tanganyika. There are no roads into or inside this park; the only way to get there is via "lake taxi" from the nearest city of any size, Kigoma, which is about 3 hours away. The lush forest here has made a great habitat for these primates because of its natural boundaries: the lake to the west and the high wall of the rift escarpment (rising about 750 m above the lake) to the east. This small park is packed with 16 valleys containing streams that flow year-round. Besides the chimps, there are several other primates, including red-tailed, red Colobus, vervet, and blue monkeys, but these are harder to see, because they are scared of humans since they are occassionally hunted by the chimps. Baboons are everywhere as well, but we've grown to think of these guys as the racoons of the primates; they're always scavenging around humans trying to steal food, and on one occassion during our stay they succeeded in sneaking into the rest house, running up the stairs, and grabbing a whole bag of bread from a woman who was eating her breakfast!
We had heard from another traveller that tracking the chimps here is just as rewarding if not more than the gorilla tracking that is famous in Uganda and Rwanda (and to a lesser extent the DRC) and it is one-fifth the price, so we decided to include it on our Tanzania itinerary. Chimp "tracking" essentially involves going into the forest with a guide (you are not allowed to enter it without one) who is communicating via walkie-talkie with the researchers to find out where the chimps are hanging out. Then the hard work begins: climbing through thick vegetation on often muddy ground, up and down the steep, humid valleys until you reach the playful primates. There are three populations of chimps in the park, the Mitumba, Kasekela, and Bwavi. The Kasekela are the ones who live in the area closest to the center of the park, where all visitors arrive and most sleep, and where the researchers and staff live. They are therefore the most habituated to humans and the ones most commonly tracked.
We arrived at the park on a Friday afternoon, and we hadn't even been there for an hour when one of the park staff came to our room in the rest house to tell us to come outside because a bunch of the chimps were hanging out nearby. We hadn't been expecting to see any until the next morning when we were going tracking, so the scene we walked into was a wonderful surprise: about six to eight male chimps were sitting right outside the staff and researcher housing, some just lounging, some climbing the trees to snack on leaves, and others grooming each other, an act that we would see a lot of the next day as well. Essentially one male sits behind the other and looks for bugs and ticks in his fur and picks them off. Grooming serves a social purpose, as well as a hygenic one, as it defines and reinforces the community's social heierarchy. We watched them from about four or five meters away for about half an hour or so before they left the area.
The next morning, we set off with our guide and one other visitor. We had only been walking through the forest about one hour when we reached a group of chimps and researchers, and so began our morning of chimp tracking. We followed them as they swung from the trees, stopped briefly to eat, then ran off to their next destination. After about a half hour of following them (not incredibly easy, as they take routes over, under, and through thick brush that we can't nvaigate), they finally settled down and stayed in one place for awhile. We sat about four meters away from them while they groomed, ate, played, ate some more, and even mated! We were lucky enough that this group included an absolutely adorable seven-month-old chimp, who hyper-actively and clumsily played with another young chimp, swinging from trees, jumping on other chimps, and occasionally falling off the branches.
It is hard to put into words how incredible these primates are and what a special experience watching them in their natural habitat is. I'm sure most people have seen them in zoos, but seeing them in their own environment is a completely different story. They are our closest relatives--we share 98% of our genes with them--and this fact is apparent in the way they move, sit, lay down, interact with each other, and in their facial expressions when looking at each other or at us humans. They walk on all fours, but stark differences between us and chimps end there. At one point one of the males was laying on the ground, simply relaxing with his arms folded, fingers intertwined behind his head and legs crossed, ankle over knee, gazing up at the tree canopy--much the way you'd see a human lounging on the beach. They are completely aware of the humans who are watching them, but are unphased by it and carry on as if we were not there. We loved watching the way they groom each other, the way they make loud noises and whoop-whoop calls to communicate to each other where good food has been found, and of course the playful manner in which they interact. We saw happy, scared, and relaxed facial expressions that reminded us of ourselves. Even the way they simply scratch themselves or put an arm around a fellow chimp looked so familiar. We were surprised to see a male and female mate twice, mere meters away from us! Unfortunately, the act only lasted about two seconds-- not long enough for us to switch the camera to the video setting. We were also amazed to see how four younger males ran up to a larger, older male as he approached the area, put their arms around him and led him to a clearing where they sat him down and started grooming him--he is clearly a well-respected elder and therefore carefully and lovingly taken care of. We sat in awe and observed scenes like this for almost 90 minutes (visitors are only supposed to spend an hour with the same group at a time, but our guides clearly lost track of time...) until the chimps gradually moved on to another area.
I'm not sure the photos or our description does the whole experience justice, but it was honestly the most incredible wildlife experience we've ever had. We can definitely understand how Jane Goodall dedicated her life to these awesome creatures, and are so humbled to have been able to spend some time with them here in their home.