Chimpanzee …

The farflung margins of the ancient world were occupied by all sorts of amazing creatures, chimpanzees included, half real half legend.

Crouching Apes in Chains. Church of San Quirce, Burgos (Spain). 12th century. Photo: Fco. De Asís García García.

From about 1640 onwards the animals themselves took more tangible form as they slowly found their way into European menageries.

Darwin Published The Descent of Man in 1871. In it he identifies the great apes as our nearest relatives, Africa as the location where our common ancestors lived and he espoused the view that we differ merely in degree rather than in kind. Darwin’s personal experience of apes seems to have been limited to meetings with an Orangutan at London Zoo in 1838. You can read about his encounters <HERE> it’s an interesting story.

That was just about as good as it gets until 1960. By then Chimpanzees were in Zoos, circuses and laboratories. The following year there would be one in space (Ham, January 31, 1961)  but no one had studied them in their natural habitat. It is possible that no one had even photographed them in the wild at that point.

That year three different young scientists took themselves to the forests of Africa and set about observing the behaviour of chimpanzees. Jane Goodall who went to work in the Gombe Stream National Park in what is now Tanzania became the most famous. Less familiar pioneers were Adriaan Kortlandt working in what was the Belgian Congo now DRC and Vernon Reynolds in the Budongo Forest, Uganda.

Reynolds and his wife Frankie spent a year at Budongo. The only trails there would have been for logging purposes, the chimpanzees would have fled screaming as the humans approached. It would have been hard work. Nonetheless the exercise culminated in the book Budongo: a forest and its chimpanzees and Vernon went on to a successful academic life eventually becoming Professor of Biological Anthropology and a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford.

Uganda meanwhile fell on hard times. Two major civil wars brought governance to a halt in the 1970’s and 80’s. In 1988 Prof. Reynolds read a report in the New Vision, the main Ugandan newspaper, that chimpanzee infants were being captured in Budongo Forest and smuggled out to wealthy pet-owners in Dubai and elsewhere. In 1990 Reynolds returned to Budongo and with a local researcher, Chris Bakuneeta, set up a base to see if there were still chimpanzees to be found.

There were. The base evolved into the Budongo Conservation Field Station and its work centres on understanding what it takes to make sure chimpanzees will always live in this beautiful place.


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