How To Watch a Chimpanzee

In the Kibale National Forest in Uganda to watch chimpanzees in the wild you have to stand perfectly still and crane your neck until it hurts. This is because they choose to spend their mornings in the highest points of the highest trees. This is not an accident. The top of a eucaylptus tree is to a chimp what a penthouse is to a rich man. It is where the best fruit is. That’s where the strongest chimps hang out. I mean that literally. They hang out over tree limbs maybe sixty feet above the ground, picking figs, crushing them, sucking in the juice of the pulp and then spitting out the rest. They spend a great deal of time doing this, either eating or arranging themselves along a tall tree in a complicated dance of domination. In other words, they are quite like us.

The morning is spent listening to their screeching calls. The chimps are telling the larger community that the fruit is good here. Most of the chimps are acclimated to human beings sixty feet below craning their necks to look up at them. However, one, a newcomer attracted by the advertisements for fresh fruit—she is a mother carrying a year and a half old baby—becomes unhinged at the sight of us. She stops and stares. She reshapes her face, protuding her extensive lips like a trumpet bell. Then comes the call, a low-pitched woo'ing sound that begins low and rises, picking up speed as it goes. Soon her vocal tract has taken charge of her nervous system. Her larynx is calling all the shots. She screams; she jumps; she hoots; she skitters along the branch like a balloon losing air. At the fork where the limb joins the main trunk, she slumps back onto the limb, exhausted.

We both are.

Click here to listen to the mother chimpanzee's warning cry.

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