The single word that motivated me to fly across the world. Our closest living relative, the crown jewel of Tanzania’s Mahale National Park, and the animal I have most wanted to meet since I was a kid.
I met a chimpanzee once before, in a dark research laboratory cage while I was thinking about specializing in laboratory animal medicine. He peered at me through the bars with such heartbreaking knowledge, sadness, and resignation, that within 5 seconds I knew that I could never, ever do that for a living. They are so beautiful, so intelligent, and so very like us. This was where I needed to meet them.
Seven days a week, ten months a year, the trackers rise at 7 am, and they run.
They run because there are three camps that allow visitors in Mahale National Park, and each has eager tourists who can’t wait for the chance to meet the chimpanzees of the M community, the only one of the 20+ communities in Mahale that are habituated to humans. Tanzania is understandably protective of the chimpanzees, particularly after an influenza outbreak in 2006 that killed several chimps. The night before our first trek, the guides outlined the rules to which we must adhere:
- Surgical masks when within 50 feet of the chimpanzees.
- Stay at least 30 feet away (though if they approach you, you don’t have to move.)
- No more than six people allowed to watch a group at any one time.
- You must leave after one hour with the chimps.
So it was that at 8 am on September 27th, I anxiously hooked a water bottle over my shoulder, set my iphone to video setting, and took my first step on the journey to find the chimpanzees.
I embedded the YouTube video but you might be able to see it a little larger if you view it on YouTube.