“Gombe Stream National Park has, for a very long time, been an enigma for me. Ever since I was young I have dreamt of the mist covered-mountains floating on Lake Tanganyika and the resident chimpanzee family that Jane has always described so vividly. That’s why, for two
hours on a rickety fisherman’s boat, zipping along Lake Tanganyika on my way to Gombe, I sat silently perched at the stern with the biggest grin on my face and tears in my eyes; my childhood dreams were coming true. I didn’t need a sign to tell me when I reached Gombe. The stark transformation from the surrounding farmland into a lush green rainforest with colobus monkeys hanging from the canopy was enough of a sign for me. It is in this contrast you can see how influential Jane has been in protecting chimpanzees and helping establish a strong environmental conscious in the community. It was only with the help of Dr Jane’s TACARE (TakeCare) initiative and Roots & Shoots programs that local Tanzanians began to strongly implement chimpanzee conservation and sustainable agricultural practices.
Arriving at Gombe, I was warmly welcomed by primatologist Dr. Anthony Collins. Dr. Collins started working with Jane in the 1970’s as a research assistant on baboon behaviour. Just like Jane, he fell in love with Gombe and has stayed on to become the Head Researcher for baboon studies and works alongside Dr. Deus, Director of Chimpanzee Research, and Dr. Shadrack Kamenya, Director of Conservation Science. Following an afternoon of interviews with the Gombe research team and chasing banana thieving baboons from my bedroom, I collapsed into bed and drifted off to sleep, counting imaginary chimpanzees swinging over my head.
It was then that I felt complete admiration for Jane’s courage and perservance, for Gombe’s arduous inclines and high humidity leave very little time for rest when chasing the much more nimble chimpanzees. Nevertheless, all my perspiration was rewarded when ahead of me a black flash hurled through the bushes. This fuzzball, who I later found was Nasa, was followed by the rest of the Kasekela Chimpanzee community – they very community Jane studied. The group is lead by the recently appointed alpha-male Fudge, who gained power last year after a heated coup d’etat which resulted in the overthrow of the old tyrant Ferdinand. Most of the chimpanzees that Jane studied have passed away, but remaining stars include Gremlin, Gaia, Gizmo, Nasa, and Fudge. Surrounding them are their children and grandchildren, direct evidence for Gombe’s success in protecting chimpanzees for future generations. I spent one peaceful hour following the chimpanzees alongside the Gombe researchers who recorded their vocalisations and interactions. I will never forget how connected I felt when I would cross eyes with one of the chimpanzees, or when I heard the “human-like” giggles of the juvenile chimpanzees as they tussled in the leaves. After leaving the chimpanzees to finish their breakfast, I knew I was not just saying goodbye to the infamous chimpanzees of Gombe, but also my relatives, for they truly are are, in so many ways, our not too distant kin.
From there I climbed to Jane’s Peak where, at the start of her studies, Jane would peer through her binoculars to locate the elusive chimpanzees. I also visited the feeding stations where Jane had her first and career-making encounter with David Greybeard and made amazing scientific discoveries about chimpanzee intelligence. Fortunately, my trek ended just as the storms rolled in. I sought refuge from the rain in Jane’s beautiful home tucked in the forest on the beach, sitting in her lounge room, drinking tea and absorbed in her excellent primate literature collection.