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They're just like family, only hairier

At Tanzania's Mahale Mountains park, `chimpers' get to know the local clan on a first-name basis.

July 16, 2006|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

Mahale, Tanzania — AT age 16, Orion is a handsome chimpanzee, a primate hottie. Despite his status as a creature of the wild, his glossy black coat looks as if it were combed and fluffed by a personal groomer. It gleams in morning sunlight filtering through towering forest trees.

Orion remains oblivious to the spell he casts over his observers -- also primates, but this species clad in dusty hiking boots, safari wear and a thin coat of sweat. He doesn't notice when one of them, clutching a camera, breaks from the group and scrambles halfway up a tree to get a better shot.

Orion cares only about the ants.

Cocktail ants, to be precise. The creatures are nicknamed cocktail ants because the distinctively large end of the abdomen can be cocked over the thorax for protection.

With his right hand, Orion pushes a slender twig into the insects' nest buried in the bark; he clutches a set of spare twigs in his toes. Ants cling to this natural utensil as he pulls it from the nest -- only to be polished off by the chimpanzee, who punctuates his enjoyment with much lip smacking and the occasional passing of wind.

By the end of our three days at Mahale Mountains National Park in Tanzania, Orion feels like one of the family. So do the other chimpanzees that make up the 65-odd habituated animals that researchers from Kyoto University in Japan have studied for about 30 years.

My husband, Alan Feldstein, and I expected to see chimps in this remote area on the western border of Tanzania, East Africa. But we never dreamed we'd come to know them by name.

There is Gwekulo, the "spinster"; her limping gait suggests she may have broken a leg or pelvis and either become barren or been rejected by the males. Now she serves as nanny to the babies of other females. There is Opal, who has a bald spot on her forehead.

There is strong Alofu, the reigning alpha male, and wise Kalunde, "the King Maker," at 53 the oldest of the group and a former alpha. (A chimp's average life span is 50 to 60 years.) Kalunde did not suffer the rejection typical of most deposed alpha males. That's because he teamed up with Alofu's mother in negotiating Alofu into power.

Christina, another female, shamelessly flirts with Alan, showing off her squishy mouthful of figs.

These habituated chimps -- the "M" group -- are a subset of the chimpanzees, numbering about 700, that live in the Mahale Mountains above Lake Tanganyika, the second-largest lake in Africa. Across the lake lies Gombe National Park, another chimpanzee preserve and home of the Jane Goodall Institute for Wildlife Research, Education and Conservation.

The people who come to Mahale, say the managers of our posh but tantalizingly wild lake-shore camp, represent a subset of the many tourists who visit Tanzania on safari every year. They are travelers for whom checking off the requisite "big five" -- elephant, rhinoceros, lion, leopard and Cape buffalo -- from the inside of a Land Rover is no longer quite enough.

Australian Teena Payne and Englishman Steve Chumbley, who manage Greystoke Mahale Camp -- run by Nomad Tanzania Safari Camps -- call the standard Tanzanian safari "the milk run" because it tends to include the same stops: Arusha National Park, Tarangire, the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater.

Five years before, we had done just that, through Thomson Safaris, based in the Boston area. That's how we fell in love with Africa. All it took was the first sight of a female giraffe in Arusha, bending her graceful neck to munch leaves from an acacia tree right outside our vehicle -- well, she had us at jambo (Swahili for "hello").

But this time we were, indeed, ready for something new. On this trip, as a 50th birthday celebration, Alan wanted to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. (He made it.) Not yet having reached that birthday milestone, I decided not to, but if I was going to join him after the climb, I wanted to venture off-road, so to speak. Thomson Safaris suggested Mahale.

Most travelers, including us, can't afford to travel to Africa just to visit Mahale, so they add it on as an optional extension to a more conventional safari. Between the Kili climb and Mahale, we spent five days on safari, revisiting Ngorongoro and the Serengeti.

At one Serengeti camp, we took a hike through the bush, led by a local Ikoma tribesman. He carried a poison-tipped spear, which, he explained, could take down an elephant, lion or Cape buffalo in 30 minutes. We don't know much Swahili, but a hushed conversation between the tribesman and our safari guide included the word simba -- making us think that 30 minutes is a very, very long time.

But if that hike was a walk on the wild side, Mahale was a walk on another planet -- the planet of the chimps.

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