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Strange Chimp Behavior Alerts Researchers to Poachers

Gunshots pierced the silence of the forest. The shooters were not far away. Could they be poachers? But poachers don’t carry guns, I reminded myself. Not unless they are elephant poachers, which have become an increasing threat in Kibale National Park, Uganda.

It was 5 p.m. and I was walking back to the Ngogo Research Camp with Rachna Reddy, another Ph.D. student studying chimpanzees here. As soon as we heard the staccato cracks of the guns, we stopped along the trail. Then we noticed two people weaving their way through the trees about thirty feet away. I walked closer to get a better view. They crossed the trail and took off at a run. Poachers. We ran after them, heading south along the trail. They dropped two bags, which we stopped to collect. Poaching dogs trotted absentmindedly around in circles. I was able to get service on my cell phone, and called the staff at camp.

Aaron Sandel and Rachna Reddy after the chase with the bags that the poachers dropped (Photo by Kevin Langergraber)
Aaron Sandel and Rachna Reddy stand after the chase with the bags that the poachers dropped. (Photo by Kevin Langergraber)

The Poachers’ Cache

It turned out the gunshots were from the Uganda Wildlife Authority rangers. They had been trying to scare the poachers. Led by “Big James” Tibisimwa, the head of the Ngogo Chimpanzee Project’s Snare Removal Team, a group of rangers and researchers were tracking a poaching party. When the shots were fired, the poachers dropped their meat and supplies and scattered, with two of them passing near us.

Rachna and I met up with the researchers and rangers and found a stockpile of other items the poachers dropped: 20 hunting nets, 17 spears, and over 14 dead red duiker, a type of forest antelope. It must have been a huge hunting party, approximately twenty poachers, who illegally entered Kibale National Park with dogs and drove the duikers into nets, and then speared them dead.

The pile of dead red duikers dropped by poachers (photo by Aaron Sandel)
As they fled, the poaches left a large pile of dead red duikers. (Photo by Aaron Sandel)

The Backstory

This forest has a long history of illegal hunting. In the 1970s and 1980s, before Kibale became a national park, it was protected by one person: Tom Struhsaker, a primatologist and ecologist who initiated long-term research in the forest. Thanks to his hard work, Kibale is now a national park, and the Uganda Wildlife Authority oversees research and law enforcement.

But poaching remains a problem. Local poachers still illegally enter the forest to hunt duiker, bush pigs, buffalo, and other wildlife. They kill these animals with nets and spears like those we found. They also set wire and rope snares that catch any animal that happens to step in them, even those not targeted by poachers. Chimpanzees occasionally are caught in these snares, and can lose fingers and limbs, or even die. Animals killed by poachers are typically sold as luxury meals to people in the nearby villages and towns.

The Ngogo Snare Removal Team was started in 2011 to combat these threats to wildlife in Kibale Forest. Since then they have removed nearly 1,000 snares in addition to other poaching paraphernalia—though confiscating a cache like this one is rare. The mere presence of researchers is also a deterrent to poachers. And sometimes it is the researchers—or the chimpanzees they are following—who find the poachers.

Kevin Langergraber surveys the dead animals and supplies left by poachers (Photo by Aaron Sandel)
Kevin Langergraber surveys the dead animals and supplies left by poachers. (Photo by Aaron Sandel)

Chimps Gave the First Clues

The day had started like any other day. Rachna and I traipsed after adolescent males who skirted in and out of the group of chimps. We moved to the northern part of the territory through thickets with thorns that scratched our hands and pulled at our hair until we eventually reached a swamp where the chimps decided to rest.

Kevin Langergraber, a professor at Arizona State University and co-director of the Ngogo Chimpanzee Project, was following a similar route to the east with a different subgroup of chimpanzees. They travelled north through hills and valleys. Then Kevin noticed Cecilia, an adult female, sniff a broken branch. They continued north, until he saw a group of chimps huddled together sniffing the ground. Chimpanzees regularly sniff the ground when they are patrolling the boundaries of their territory looking for signs of neighboring chimpanzees. But the group with Kevin didn’t appear to be on patrol. When he went to see what they had been sniffing, he saw blood.

“Then I heard a a bunch of bells, and a group of people talking loudly,” said Kevin. “The chimps appeared scared and moved quickly to the south, and I followed the chimps.”

Kevin realized that he had come upon a large group of poachers with their hunting dogs, some with bells on their collars. When he got reception on his cell phone, he called people at camp. Big James led two Uganda Wildlife Authority rangers and Sam Angedakin, the project manager, to where Kevin was waiting. Big James soon found the poachers’ tracks, and they silently followed them. Then the poachers were nearly in sight. One of the rangers shot above their heads as a warning, and took off after them. The other ranger fired in rapid succession to scare the poachers so they would drop their belongings. This was when Rachna and I were walking along the trail and intercepted two of the poachers.

Big James Tibisimwa in front of the burning poacher contraband (Photo by Kevin Langergraber)
Big James Tibisimwa is silhouetted by the burning contraband. (Photo by Kevin Langergraber)

The Aftermath

We took the bags that they had dropped, which were full of cassava roots, cooking materials, and other camping supplies, and brought them to where the poachers had left the nets and dead duikers. The hunting dogs continued to circle around us, unsure of what to do since their owners had left. The rangers built a bonfire to destroy the nets and meat. The hunt was a big hit to the duiker population, but since the poachers dropped the meat and supplies, it was also a huge economic loss for the poachers.

Big James picked up one of the cassava roots, skinned it with a machete, and ate the root raw. A way to stick it to the poachers, perhaps. Kevin, Sam, Rachna, and I walked back to camp, each carrying a spear to keep as evidence. At 7 p.m. the sky began to darken. Cicadas started their ear-splitting chorus, breaking the silence of the forest.

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