Who are we to them?
I have long been fascinated with chimpanzees, our closest non-human relatives, our next of kin. Since I was young, I’ve wanted to study them, follow them, peer inside their minds to better understand how they see our fragile world. Before I ever saw a chimpanzee, I wondered what it would be like to look one in the eye, eyes so human it’s eerie. I wondered if they’d look away or if they’d stare straight back. I was told that because they have no sclera, it would be hard to know if they were watching. I knew this couldn’t be true—we always know when we’re being observed.
In 2021 I got my chance to find out. For two years now I’ve been traveling to Uganda for my PhD project, scrambling through Budongo Forest after a group of chimpanzees, trying desperately to keep up, take notes, and not get lost. While a lot of my time in the forest is spent tripping over roots and ducking under vines, there are also hours I spend waiting. Waiting for them to make their morning calls, to wake up from a nap, to climb down from a tree and start traveling again. In these pauses, I think:
As much as science rejects the subjective, it is hard not to read primate literature like you would a fable. The narrator, a human lurking in the shadows with a camcorder and a notebook, tells tales from deep in the forest of a creature, not quite beast, not quite human. The story, illustrated for the reader with crafted figures and relics from the quest, always concludes with an offering—a hard-won lesson for other travelers to heed. Having read these accounts, decorated with data and embellished with anecdotes, we depart for the field with narratives, masked as facts. We think we know who these creatures are because we read about them in a book.
Inside the forest, though, the lessons quickly fade and reality sets in. Realities which quickly become new myths; we tell our own stories. Once upon a time I saw a band of males from my community kill a stranger, a brutal, territorial murder of a young chimpanzee who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Hidden close by, I felt for the first time repulsion towards them, a fear of being in the presence of monsters. I caught the eye of the fiercest male, Frank, as he stood beside the corpse. I saw then that everything I had heard about sclera was untrue.
But why do they kill each other and not the bipedal, hairless human following them around all day? What unspoken mutual agreement shields me, and who agreed to it? I wracked my brain. Mutual trust, I wanted to believe, but maybe—more likely—mutual fear.
There are, of course, two sides to every story. Before the research station was established, one of the largest sawmills in East Africa operated on the same land, in the same part of Budongo. The oldest chimpanzee in the group, Nambi, who is sixty now and moves slowly through the forest, would remember the saw mill well. She’d remember the Khaya anthotheca trees crashing down all around her, the chemical poisons being sprayed on the hacked boles of the valuable mahoganies—shipped to Britain on large ships to be used as floorboards in grand opera houses. She’d remember the systematic genocide of the forest elephants who were blamed for trampling the seedlings of new trees planted by colonial foresters intent on more timber—more money.
When Nambi catches sight of an elephant tooth, half buried on the forest floor, does she remember their size? The vibration of their feet touching the ground? The sound of the gun shots? The man who was holding the gun?
When a chimpanzee gets snared by a hunter’s trap, as they often do in this forest, how do they make sense of the nylon string tethering them to the stake? Do they know it was a human who put it there? Do they know that I am one of them? I’d like to think they can sense my good intentions, but I know that’s something that can never be empirically tested.
The group mobilizes, heading off deeper into the forest. I gather my equipment and follow after them.