Distant Relations

Sparrow and baby Sandi, from original photo by Larry Goldman taken in 1974
Sparrow and baby Sandi, from original photo by Larry Goldman taken in 1974

It was a routine day in April 1975–as routine as a day spent in central Africa studying wild chimpanzees could be. I awakened before dawn to join up with Rugema, one of the Tanzanian rangers/guides, to follow a chimp mother with her 3 year old and 8 year old offspring on their travels for the day, recording their location and activities every minute on a check sheet and into my tape recorder, to be transcribed later on return to camp in the dark.

Our target chimpanzees were nested high in a tree atop the ridge called “Sleeping Buffalo” a sloping rounded back mountain which rises abruptly from the shore of glistening Lake Tanganyika. Arriving at the nest before the first light of dawn, we sat beneath the tree, waiting for the chimps to stir as the tropical forest awoke before our eyes. It was as if we beheld the dawning of the First Morning. The forest of verdant greens unfurled to the touch of the sun, highlighting spots of brightly colored fruit and flowers. The pungent smell of moist earth mixed with the musk of animal scent and fragrance of foliage.

There is a strong undercurrent of life flowing in such a forest–everywhere there are living creatures above and below, breathing a collective breath, vocalizing in collective voices from the liquid tones of tropical birds to the barking “wahoo” of the baboon. Each individual breath, whisper, song, and call joins the others, until like the rushing streams of Gombe, they form a river of voices, overwhelming to the senses.

As the sunlight filtered through the foliage canopy high above our heads, the three chimpanzees moved in their nests. They rustled in their leafy bed as a chorus of chimpanzee voices was heard across the valley and up the next ridge—a clear invitation from afar.

Our targets raced down the tree and off into the brush to join their comrades. Able to follow only the vocalizations, we plunged after them, occasionally glimpsing the white tuft of hair on the baby’s bottom as he bobbed up and down, jockey-style on his mother’s back. Chimpanzees are expert at traveling through impenetrable thickets, leaving no trace of their whereabouts. I clamored slowly along, listening for the excited voices up the hill, as my shirt caught on countless thorns and vines reached to trip me. About the time I was ready to call it quits, I found myself atop the slope and was rewarded with a sight which made the hard climb well worth the struggle.

Above us and around us were no less than 25 chimpanzees from various interrelated families: brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, celebrating an early morning extended family reunion amidst heavily fruited trees with a tremendous din of shrieks and hoots. They jumped from branch to branch, slid fireman style down tree trunks only to race back up again, shaking and breaking off pieces of foliage in their excitement.

As they settled into smaller feeding groups, sitting happily in small circles eating fruit and lazily grooming each other’s fur, I realized how similar their gathering was to the family reunions I attended at home. There would always be lots of hugs and excitement as family members arrive and greet one another, sometimes quite noisily with shouts and claps on the back. Children would run together as reacquainted cousins skirmished and played. The adults would settle into smaller conversational groups to compare lives and reestablish life long bonds, in essence “grooming” each other emotionally as they offered support and advice.

I realized this particular morning in Tanzania was a reunion I could only observe rather than participate in, not being a member of this particular family, although a few of these apes looked awfully similar to people I loved back home. As I pondered that thought, I felt a clunk on the head from behind and realized something or someone had clobbered me with a branch from a tree. I turned around to see a grinning adolescent male chimp, wielding a leafy branch. He was about to wallop me again. At that moment he really did remind me of my brother.

I left that observation out of my written report that night. Months later when I returned home I told my brother I was sure I’d met a distant relation of his in Africa. He reminded me that any relative of his would be a relative of mine. Right.

So it seems we’re all just one big extended happy family.