Engaged Anthropology Grant: Dr. Catherine Hobaiter & “Without Words”

Dr. Hobaiter with Makerere University students

Primatologist Catherine Hobaiter received her Ph.D. at the University of St. Andrews and is now a Lecturer in the School of Psychology & Neuroscience. In 2007 she was awarded a dissertation fieldwork grant to aid research on ‘Gestural Communication in Wild Chimpanzees of Budongo, Uganda,’ supervised by Dr. Richard William Byrne. In 2012, she received an Engaged Anthropology Grant to travel back to her field site in Uganda to share the findings of her study of chimpanzee gestural communication, and how ‘without words’ we can understand chimpanzee communication and behavior. Below is the blog post she prepared to fill us in on this exciting step in her research.

Eight-years ago, as a young volunteer, I made my first trip to the Budongo rainforest in Uganda. On the way I traveled through a landscape that was as rich and diverse in linguistic culture as it was in geography and wildlife. Having grown up in many different countries I have a strong appreciation for the usefulness of non-verbal communication. As humans we speak with much more than just our voices; gestures and body language are a universal part of human communication and an ability to explain my intentions ‘without words’ has often come in very useful. In fact the evolutionary origins of gestural communication stretch much further back than our human lineage: they are shared with the other great apes, which use gestures to communicate their intentions. Captive studies of great ape gesturing have found features shared with human language, suggesting a possible common origin.

In my Ph.D. I returned to Uganda to carry out the first systematic study of gesture in wild chimpanzees. Chimpanzees in Uganda are coming under pressure both through increasing human pressure on their forest habitat and increasing international tourism. In applying to the Engaged Anthropology program I hoped that I could use the common window of communication to provide a perspective on the close connection humans and chimpanzees share, and, in doing so, provide knowledge, skills, and a desire to help in their long-term conservation.

Hobaiter at the Nyakafunjo primary school.

One of my first visits was to the Nyakafunjo primary school which sits only a few hundred meters from the edge of the Budongo forest; on a quiet morning the chimps can be heard pant-hooting in the distance, and occasionally seen sneaking into the local fields to raid crops. The increasing chimpanzee-human contact in Uganda is largely unavoidable and children, who are often sent into the forests to fetch firewood or water, are vulnerable to attack. But, critically, with a little basic knowledge of chimpanzee behaviour contact does not have to escalate into conflict and may even generate a lasting scientific interest in great apes. Joined by an experienced field-assistant and one of our wildlife vets, we were armed with a series of slides and videos with ‘fun chimp facts’, and had included time for plenty of questions. Although attentive and interested the children were rather shy and quiet and it was hard getting them to share their experiences or ask questions, I felt like I’d come up against a communication barrier I didn’t know how to get through. Then, only halfway through, we suffered a ‘technical malfunction’ with the projector; after a quick huddle we decided to carry on with a ‘live’ demonstration. As it turns out it is immensely, hysterically, entertaining to see a visiting ‘professor’ stand up and pant-hoot like a chimpanzee, even more so when she pant-grunts and gestures respectfully to the dominant alpha-male – ably portrayed by their head-teacher. Questions and discussion started flowing: what does it mean when they show their teeth? did you know they raise their hands to get attention, or reach out their hand out to beg for food? do they dream? what makes them sick, or angry, or happy? We answered as best we could and only after the planned 1-hour talk took the whole 4-hour afternoon did we say a final good-bye, chimpanzee style: with a pant-hoot and drumming chorus.

A class at Makerere University.

We visited several more schools over the next few weeks, bringing talks, books, and posters; but we realized that there was only so much we could explain in the classroom. We decided to invite 10 of the keenest pupils from each school to join us on a ‘primatologist training-day’ inside the forest. We met early in the morning at the gate to the forest reserve, and over the next few hours, in small groups accompanied by researchers and field assistants, we walked slowly up the trail collecting data on the monkey groups in the canopy above, and answering questions on anything and everything to do with forest life. When we reached camp the group toured our new wildlife health-monitoring laboratory staffed by interns from the Makerere veterinary school, and we sat down together for a slap-up lunch and a screening of the movie ‘Chimpanzee’. A huge success, that will become a regular event at the research-station, we hope that these children will become our ambassadors, taking their new knowledge back to their communities.

A guide demonstrates chimpanzee behavior at a training day.

Another significant part of the program was to offer training days for guides at chimpanzee tourism sites. Often these guides have worked with chimpanzees for years and are extraordinarily accurate observers of chimpanzee behavior, but don’t have the knowledge or vocabulary to explain this to their visitors. Non-vocal cues such as ‘bare-teeth displays’, or ‘nose-wiping’ provide an early, easily observable indication of increasing stress; understanding these not only allows the guides to modify the behavior of their group reducing any negative impact on chimpanzee welfare, but it also allows them to improve the visitors’ experience (a more relaxed chimp is less likely to disappear into a swamp). Initially we had planned to have workshops at our research-station but the level of interest was so great that we decided it would be easier to take our small mobile team to them, and in doing so reach a much greater audience. The sites were extremely accommodating – often closing for a day in order that all of their guides could participate. It was a privilege to be able to share knowledge with people who were as genuinely curious and passionate about chimpanzee behaviour as I am, and who had decades of accumulated observations. One indication of how rapidly chimpanzee tourism is developing in Uganda is that every site we visited was habituating a new community of chimpanzees, and a regular comment from the guides was that they felt that the site-managers were pushing them to follow too intensely (it is tempting to try and follow chimps when they run away thinking it increases your contact time, but the increased stress this causes can actually delay habituation). Having recently completed research on the early stages of habituation, with a particular focus on success through stress-reduction, I was able to leave behind materials and guidelines that our vet team will continue to monitor and develop in their visits to these new sites.

Over the course of the trip we offered more advanced practical sessions at the field-station on behavioral observation and statistical analysis for university students, and a class at the campus on research opportunities in chimpanzee behavior, but it is hard to top standing with 80-children pant-hooting and drumming our feet on the concrete floor until the noise bounced off the tin-roof. Hopefully the positive energy that spilled out of the classroom that day will continue to motivate and encourage the generation who will inherit responsibility for the forests to remember their chimpanzee cousins with whom, without words, they share so much.

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