Sunday, July 14, 2013

Revenge of the Tsetse Fly

Since we left DC, we have been looking forward to a trip to Uganda to meet up with our wonderful Tucson friends, Jake and Corey. The last time we saw each other was a week before we left the US at a Thankschristmasgoingaway family and friend reunion. This was the end result:

Hardcore mistletoe hunters.
Jake and Corey left for Africa within weeks of us. Corey, who is the worlds most awesome primatologist, received a job offer to work for the Simliki Chimpanzee Project in the western part of Uganda. Jake came along to help out as her assistant. The camp/research station is set up on the Congo-Uganda border and aims to both gather genetic observational and behavioral data and materials (read: feces) to gain a better understanding of the Semliki chimps and in turn, a possible glimpse into the past.

Most chimps are found in closed canopy rainforests, but this particular group of chimps use a much drier mosiac of riverine forest, woodland and savanna habitats-- very much like that of our earliest homonid ancestors, Australopithecines. The behavior of these chimps, along with their anatomy and physiology, are influenced and shaped by this dry habitat and differ somewhat from "normal" chimps. These responses to their environment are presumably comparable to those of earlier humans under similar conditions, making Semilki chimps of particular interest to geneticists, paleontologists and primatologists, like Corey.

(Don't worry, those pangs of jealousy you feel when you read about Corey's awesomeness are normal and expected.)

The chimp camp is located 6 hours away from Uganda's capital, at the base of an escarpment which is surrounded by savanna, grasslands and multiple rivers and streams. Cape buffalo, baboons, Vervet monkeys and Kob accompanied by their large harems can be seen grazing and playing as you drive along the bumpy dirt road. 

To get to the camp, you take a sudden right off the dirt road, unto an unmarked foot-path and into the shoulder-high grasses, at which point your entire body tenses, hoping you don't get stuck in the black sticky mud, break down or worst of all, come face to face with an angry buffalo. The week prior, during a rain storm Corey and Jake found a log in the middle of the path that had not been there before. As they descended from the car to try and move it from the path, they quickly realized it was a crocodile. They quickly got back in the car and waited for it to pass.

Tsetse flies, trying to eat us.
As we started into the grassland path, I heard an incessant tapping on the roof of the car. I looked at the windshield, sure that it was raining, and on the verge of losing it because I didn't want to get stuck in a big, muddy, crocodiley mess. There was no rain. I looked out my passenger window and saw instead a large swarm of tsetse flies. They surrounded our car and repetitively slammed into us, hoping to get inside and have a nice tsetse fly dinner.

Finally we drove out of the grassland and up to the clearing of Similiki camp. Jake and Corey ran up to us and as Corey embraced us, Jake took a fly swatter to the car and killed as many tsetse flies as he could, saving us from the pending doom of the tsetse attack.

Finally, Jake successfully exterminated the majority of the flies and ran over to greet us, swatter in hand. After giving us a little love, he immediately broke several branches off the nearest tree and showed us how to use them as swatters to keep the tsetse flies off our backs. Our adventure had begun!

Every day we woke up early and hiked around, swatting the flies and looking for chimps or evidence of a recent chimp visit. At noon, we stopped under a fig tree to rest for awhile, quietly eat some lunch and hope that the chimps would get the urge to eat some figs at that particular tree and come hang out. We hiked up, down and along the escarpment, sludged through rivers, and the clumsiest one of us (me) slipped and fell in the mud multiple times. Along the way we encountered snakes, frogs, monkeys and unfortunately, on a daily basis, evidence of poachers.

Top left: Chimp print!; Bottom left: Corey and Mich chimp tracking;
Right: Corey fighting some dung beetles for a sample.
In the afternoons each couple took turns going to the open shower. Two-person, combined-effort showers were necessary at chimp camp-- one person showered while the other stood guard with a fly swatter, chasing the tsetse flies and their voracious appetites away.

In the evenings we hung out in the dining area, drinking from a large box of wine, playing cards and catching up. The boys stayed on edge all night, binoculars and spotlights close by, ready to run out into the tall grass to investigate each and every small noise. The girls were also on edge, knowing that in all likelyhood there were some hungry carnivores lurking in the grass nearby, just waiting for a noise to send the boys running toward them.

The last night of our trip, we sat down for dinner and discussed the day's events. Although we had not found any chimps, we found ourselves with several minor injuries. I had received a large thorn embedded in the side of my foot and multiple tsetse fly bites. Corey found herself with a few new mosquito bites and a close encounter with a night-adder. Jake had discovered a caterpillar on his face and was hoping the area wouldn't swell. Mr. Kate had no injuries. In fact, he bragged, he hadn't been bitten once by a tsetse fly-- or any other insect on this trip!

The next morning, we took our last shower. Unfortunately right as Mr. Kate soaped up his hair and face, a tsetse fly slipped by me and bit Mr. Kate right between the eyebrows, causing him to wail and jump around, violently thrashing and hoping to hit the offending tsetse fly. Everyone came running towards the shower, worried Mr. Kate had found a snake. When they got near, they heard my laughter and knew immediately what had happened.

They stood outside the shower and as we exited, I got a round of high fives and pats on the back. Although I accepted them, I still swear it was an accident. A wonderful, lovely, karmic accident.

See you guys soon!!

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