As we track the chimps through the dense forest, Mugisha leads the way with his machete, followed by Hodaka – the camp manager, and me. The chimpanzee Black is now on sight but a big dead tree trunk blocks the way. It’s my turn to pass it. While looking for where to put my feet next on the trunk, I realize that something appends to my shoe. Something, that my brain took quite some time to identify. Something, that slowly moves its head up. A head with a black triangle and with horns on it… A rhino viper! Here it is – always when you don’t expect it! Not sure it will appreciate that I take my camera out so, at this point I just yell: “Oh, WAOOO, there is a rhino viper right next to my shoe! What should I do?! Should I jump or should I freeze?” Stupid question. Hodaka and Mugisha: “Juuump!!” So, did I.
Deadly dangerous but also in dangerous decline, population estimation of B. nasicornis across western and central Africa, where it is found, remains scarce. Because of its reputation and not because of its attacks frequency (at least in Kalinzu forest), some humans would prefer to kill it to prevent potential attacks; a practice that doesn’t support the conservation of this still mysterious animal.
Two days ago, Natsumi – Master student at KUPRI researching on mother-infant relationships in Kalinzu chimpanzees showed me a video of a massive rhinoceros viper! The latter was crossing the path while Natsumi was observing the chimpanzees. Bitis nasicornis is flat and large like its close relative, the Gaboon viper (Bitis gabonica). Its skin patterns are, however, more colorful and geometrically different than B. gabonica. In addition, it owns two distinctive small horns at the extremity of the head. One bite and a lot of pain later (due to the hemotoxic and neurotoxic venom), your heart might just stop beating. Encounters are apparently frequent in Kalinzu forest. But, it has been almost a week that I’m here and so far, I haven’t seen any…
“Robert, Robert, over?” It’s early morning in Kalinzu forest, western Uganda. The Vieillot’s black weavers sing as if it was their last song; the weather is cool; and the camp life awakes slowly. Robert is a chimpanzee tracker working for the Kalinzu Primate Research Project, led by Dr. Chie Hashimoto, assistant professor at the Primate Research Institute of Kyoto University. We connect with him from the camp via walkie-talkie to know whether he located the chimps already – and yes, he did. By recording with their GPS where they left the chimpanzees the previous day, the trackers have a rough idea of the area where they should look for.
Dr. Hashimoto, Mugisha – another chimpanzee tracker and I, start walking from the camp in the direction indicated by Robert. One hour and half later, we are deep in the young secondary forest, and Robert tells us that the chimpanzees just started hunting. My excitement overcomes the bites of the Dorylus molestus that invade our entire bodies. There is no red colobus in Kalinzu, and other monkey species (red-tailed monkey, blue monkey, and l’Hoest monkey) are supposed to be too fast for the chimpanzees to catch so, unlike other communities, Kalinzu chimps go for black-and-white colobuses. When we reach the scene, chimpanzees already circle a Ficus tree where a group of colobuses was feeding. Suddenly, I see a subadult male chimpanzee getting down the tree trunk… chased by a colobus vocalizing! Male black-and-white colobuses are quite imposing and very defensive so, chimps have better to watch out! In fact, the targeted preys are the white infant colobuses, but a successful hunt is rather opportunistic explains Dr. Hashimoto. This time the hunt lasts for 30 minutes, after which the chimps give up and move away on the ground. Over the past two days, the group attempted 3 times to catch a colobus but none was successful.
Flight Dubai-Entebbe. On my right, the window, I can admire the landscapes slowly taking shape. On my left, a Ugandan missionary priest working in Australia and going back home for some vacations. For him too, it is a long journey. Few more hours and we will be delivered. As he jokes about African politics, I start laughing, with my eyes full of erupted blood vessels and my hair looking like Edward Scissorhands. Then, he asks me questions and we end up talking hygiene in non-human primates. I explain him all the theory about the origins of hygiene without pronouncing the word "evolution". He finds it interesting. As the plane lands in Entebbe, we exchange contacts, I give him my card (with an illustration of myself picking up a macaque poop…) and he invites me to the East of the country – where he comes from. “[…] If you come, you will discover real Ugandan life, everybody will dance and we will kill the goat!” “Ah… great… Thank you! I mean you won’t need to…” I accompany him till the customs, we shake hands and then, we split. Two hours later (30 since we left Japan), I finally hear behind the glass of the customs: “Welcome to Uganda CecilÉ, enjoy your stay with us!”