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Chimps in Uganda: Reflections on a Year

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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A year has passed, seemingly in the blink of an eye. My field research studying these chimpanzees has drawn to a close. From here, I’ll prepare to begin my genetic analyses at Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Leipzig will be home for the next year as I delve into the data to answer my research questions and begin writing up my dissertation. Before that adventure begins, however, I’m left with a few moments of quiet reflection on the past year.

It’s not easy to leave Uganda behind. We’ve developed close friendships and have come to feel so at home here. Everyone asks when we will be back. I hope it will be soon, so I find myself trying to appease them with hopeful comments that we will try to come back as soon as I finish my dissertation. The truth is, though I feel deeply invested in doing research here, the funding and logistics are complicated. I don’t know whether I will be awarded a post-doc or other research opportunity that will provide the necessary funding to carry on with this work. I can only hope it works out. I have many more ideas for future research but will need the financial and logistical support to bring them to fruition.

Sylvester, the alpha male chimpanzee of the Bulindi community, Uganda. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.

Sylvester, the alpha male chimpanzee of the Bulindi community, Uganda. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.

I will also be thinking of the chimpanzees every day and wondering how they are faring. In a mere couple of years of my absence, their plight could worsen substantially. My colleague and friend, Matt McLennan, has described to me the changes he witnessed in the gap of a few years between research trips collecting PhD dissertation data and beginning his post-doc in 2012. Deforestation has been rampant in his study site at Bulindi, Uganda, resulting in the partial or complete clearing of many areas of already fragmented forest. Troublingly, the community of Bulindi chimpanzees has also decreased substantially in size. During his dissertation research, there were 30 – 35 chimpanzees in the community. Since then, the community’s size has reduced to 19 individuals (McLennan, pers. comm.). A similar decline is likely occurring for chimpanzees across unprotected habitats throughout Western Uganda and elsewhere.

Despite its challenges, I am very grateful for the opportunity to have done this research. It would not have been possible without the support of many. I thank the Uganda Wildlife Authority, the Uganda National Forestry Authority, and the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology for permission to conduct this project. For generous financial support during my field research, I thank the University of Southern California, The American Society of Primatologists, Primate Conservation, Inc., and The Nacey Maggioncalda Foundation. For invaluable advice, I thank Craig Stanford, Roberto Delgado, Linda Vigilant, Kevin Langergraber, Jess Hartel, and Matt McLennan. For the opportunity to share my experience with Scientific American readers, I thank Robert Perkins and Bora Zivkovic. I am also very grateful to those readers who’ve come along this journey with us.

The research team (L to R): Nicholas Rugadya, Emily Stewart, Maureen McCarthy, Tom Sabiiti, and Jack Lester. Photo: Jack Lester.

The research team (L to R): Nicholas Rugadya, Emily Stewart, Maureen McCarthy, Tom Sabiiti, and Jack Lester. Photo: Jack Lester.

Field assistants are often the unsung heroes of these kinds of research projects. I would not have been able to complete this field research without the skilled assistance of Nicholas Rugadya, Henry Irumba, Tom Sabiiti, Moses Ssemahunge, and Emily Stewart. Jack Lester provided immeasurable advice and support, which ranged from repairing my Land Cruiser to managing spatial data, from processing chimpanzee dung samples to taking field notes. I am so thankful.

Finally, I am grateful to some individuals whom I can never properly thank. The chimpanzees I studied were a constant source of inspiration and curiosity. Their resilience in the face of environmental change is not something they have aspired to, but is nonetheless inspiring. They have provided fascinating insights into their lives. It is now clear that, despite their plight, they remain numerous and widespread throughout Western Uganda. (We don’t know precisely how many inhabit my study area, but an estimate will emerge as I analyze my data.) It is also evident that they are adaptable to change and survive remarkably well with relatively small areas of suitable forest, as long as their human neighbors do not kill them. Finally, it is clear that they display rich behavioral variations among communities. For example, consider the evidence of tool use already observed at Bulindi, which is not seen among chimpanzees in the nearby Budongo Forest. Such variations should remind us that each of these communities is important, that the loss of any community represents an irreplaceable loss of chimpanzee culture. Only if something changes—and soon—will these chimpanzees survive and carry on these behavioral traditions to future generations.

Previously in this series:

Chimps in Uganda: Two weeks and counting….
Chimps in Uganda: “These are a few of my favorite things”
Chimps in Uganda: Home Sweet Home
Chimps in Uganda: Bustling Kampala and Unwanted Houseguests
Chimps in Uganda: Reading the Clues
Chimps in Uganda: Lessons from Washoe
Chimps in Uganda: Travels In and Out of the Forest
Chimps in Uganda: Surprise Encounter
Chimps in Uganda: Rising Conflict
Chimps in Uganda: Conservation Conversation
Chimps in Uganda: Meet the Gents
Chimps in Uganda: Uganda’s Other Great Apes
Chimps in Uganda: Resilience
Chimps in Uganda: Hunting for Answers
Earthquake on Chimp Mountain
Chimps in Uganda: A Visit with Jane Goodall
Chimps in Uganda: The Landmine Snare

Maureen McCarthy About the Author: Maureen McCarthy is a PhD Candidate in Integrative and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Southern California. She received her Master’s Degree in Experimental Psychology from Central Washington University, where she studied the gestural communication of chimpanzees who have acquired American Sign Language. She has more than a decade of experience studying captive and free-ranging primates. Maureen is currently in Uganda for a year to study the behavioral ecology and genetics of chimpanzees in fragmented forest habitats. Dr. Craig Stanford advises her research. This is Maureen’s fourth trip to Uganda—she’s been there several times before to volunteer as a research assistant and to collect pilot data for her dissertation. When she’s not busy collecting chimpanzee poop or getting malaria, Maureen enjoys birding, hiking, and photography. This research would not be possible without the generous support of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, the USC Jane Goodall Center, Primate Conservation, Inc., and the American Society of Primatologists. Follow on Twitter @mccarthymaureen.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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