Among the Apes

Sunday 12th July 8.00pm

Charlotte Uhlenbroek concludes her quest to study some of the world’s greatest primates in their natural environments. In the last episode of the series, Charlotte travels deep into the dense jungles of Uganda for a close encounter with the largest and rarest of all apes – the mountain gorilla.

Charlotte’s final primate experience takes her to Uganda in central Africa, a mountainous, fertile country home to 26 million people, seven million cattle and the rarest ape on earth. From the city, it is a two-day trek to a protected gorilla habitat dauntingly called Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. With just 600 mountain gorillas left in the world, this ancient montane forest is one of the only places they can be found – but spotting them is far from guaranteed. To assist her on her quest, Charlotte is joined by local porters, rangers and an armed guard. Also in attendance is Martha Robbins, a respected research scientist from the Max Planck Institute.

The first task is to penetrate the forest. “I’m ready for a hard slog,” says Charlotte. However, within an hour a keen-eyed ranger spots some movement across the valley. Shifting into view from the dense undergrowth is a huge silverback called Ruchina. “Even at this distance, Ruchina has an awesome presence,” says Charlotte. This tantalising glimpse of the Bwindi gorillas makes the team hungry for further contact, but heavy rain and tough terrain make progress difficult. After a promising start, the expedition heads back to the village without another sighting. “I’m feeling madly frustrated,” says Charlotte. “We were so near and yet so far.”

Early the next morning, Charlotte and the team rise early to put the washout of the previous day behind them. However, a problem with the generator means the camera batteries have not charged properly. Undeterred, Charlotte gets back on the trail of the elusive Bwindi gorillas. “With minimum battery power and maximum optimism, we set off,” she says. Once deep into the forest, the team splits into two. Owing to the gorillas’ shyness and susceptibility to human diseases, only five people can descend into the valley for a close encounter – and they just have four hours to complete the trip.

With an expert ranger leading the way, Charlotte and her curtailed team follow a trail of gorilla droppings and have soon located a nesting site where they deduce Ruchina spent the previous night. They then encounter the nests of two very different animals – fire ants and wasps. “I can’t help but feel that this forest is having a laugh at our expense!” says Charlotte. However, the explorers are rewarded for their tenacity when they stumble upon Ruchina and his family out in the open. Martha advises the team to stay still as they come face to face with the huge beast, but the silverback seems unconcerned – even allowing his three young children to play around him. “This is the perfect introduction to him!” says an excited Charlotte.

As well as the youngsters, Ruchina’s 17-strong family also includes some older juveniles and a harem of six females. Hanging around the outskirts of the group are several blackbacks – teenage males who will one day seek dominance of a group. Among the blackbacks are Marembo, a large, confident gorilla, and 14-year-old Bieza who is smaller than his brother but full of attitude. “There’s definite tension between these two,” says Charlotte. As Ruchina leads his family away, he gives the humans an impressive display of strength to show them that he is the king in this part of the jungle. “What an extraordinary end to the day,” says Charlotte. “I just can’t wait for tomorrow!”

Before her Ugandan adventure ends, Charlotte is treated to another breathtaking encounter with the Bwindi gorillas. After a final trek through the undergrowth of the Impenetrable Forest, she and the team enter a clearing to find Ruchina and his whole family at rest in a huge tree. “It’s an absolutely extraordinary and very rare sight,” says Charlotte. Once again, the apes seem indifferent to Charlotte’s presence. “I think that’s what we can call true acceptance,” she says.

Sunday 5th July 8.00pm

Charlotte Uhlenbroek continues her quest to study some of the world’s greatest primates in their natural environments. This week, she heads to Borneo where the native orangutans are fighting for survival. Charlotte visits a unique project to release three orphaned animals back into the wild, before travelling deep into the dwindling rainforest on a quest to catch sight of an adult male.

Charlotte begins her Bornean adventure with a helicopter flight over the rainforest. By counting the orangutan nests in the treetops, scientists are able to estimate the number of animals left in the wild – and the results are not good. Orangutans once thrived all over east Asia, but they now only exist in a few pockets of forest in Sumatra and Borneo. By clearing huge swaths of native trees to make way for oil palm plantations, humans have wiped out 90 per cent of orangutans. However, researchers from British charity Orangutan Trust hope to put a stop to this population freefall.

At an orangutan orphanage in Sabah, northern Borneo, Charlotte meets three seven-year-old animals who are part of a bold experiment. Researchers hope to teach these youngsters the survival skills they should have learned from their mothers so that they might survive if released into the wild. “If the experiment succeeds, it could be the beginning of a new generation of wild orangutans,” says Charlotte. But the two males of the group, Toby and Brock, seem more interested in eating handouts and playing than learning how to forage or nest. “Monkeying around like this is all very well,” says Charlotte when she and the crew are mobbed by the boisterous males, “but if they are going to stand a chance of surviving in the wild, they have to stop hanging around with humans.”

The majority of Charlotte’s first day in Borneo is spent looking for Suzanna, the female of the group who has been missing for several days. Suzanna’s disappearance is both good and bad news for the orangutan charity: the fact that she made a bid for freedom shows she has the impulse to live in the wild; but surviving alone in the forest where food is scarce is a risky business. After hours of searching, Charlotte and her guide, Aldrin, can see no sign of the ape. “I return to camp hoping that somewhere in the 1,000 square kilometres of wild rainforest, Suzanna is surviving,” says Charlotte.

Early the next morning, Charlotte helps prepare Toby and Brock’s breakfast of fruit and vegetables, before heading back out into the forest to look for Suzanna. Along the way, Aldrin points out some of the food orangutans eat in the wild, including leaves, fruit, seeds and even some tree bark. With food relatively scarce in the rainforest, the orangutans must make maximum use of every potential source of nourishment. Throughout the expedition, Charlotte is followed by the inquisitive and affectionate Brock. “I think he might have some kind of schoolboy crush on me!” she says.

Charlotte is beginning to think that Suzanna has disappeared for good when Aldrin suddenly spots her in a nearby tree. She is clearly much thinner than the others, but she is alive and has made herself a nest. “While I’m shocked at how thin and vulnerable Suzanna looks, she’s at least having a go at living out here on her own,” says Charlotte. “If she succeeds, she holds hope for the future of her species – quite a responsibility for such a scrawny little thing!”

The next leg of her quest sees Charlotte team up with a photographer friend for a trip up the Kinabatangan river in pursuit of an elusive wild adult male orangutan. With the help of an in-depth knowledge of the fruiting cycles of various trees, a keen-eyed guide who spots recently used nests in the treetops and some hi-tech audio equipment, it is not long before Charlotte and the team are on the trail of the king of the Bornean jungle. After receiving a call in the middle of the night from a tracker who claims to have spotted an adult male, Charlotte and the team leap into action and begin the hunt once more. “If he’s still there,” Charlotte says of the orangutan, “I’m about to witness one of the rarest sights in nature.”

Sunday 28th June 8.00pm

Charlotte Uhlenbroek continues her quest to study some of the world’s greatest primates in their natural environments. This week, she travels to Tanzania for a close encounter with a troop of wild baboons. In just seven days, the primatologist hopes to be accepted by the monkeys to such a degree that she can observe their society from within the troop.

In the second instalment of the series, Charlotte heads to Mikumi National Park in Tanzania to meet with an 80-strong group of wild baboons known as the Viramba troop. During an action-packed week, she and the team will walk, eat and sleep among the primates in an effort to learn as much about their ways as possible. In the process, Charlotte hopes to dispel some myths about baboons and illustrate the complexities of their society. “Although baboons are not apes, our close cousins, they can give us an insight into the challenges faced by our own early ancestors,” she explains.

On the surface, baboons lead a lurid lifestyle full of violence, tension, unappealing eating habits and sex. But this, explains Charlotte, is only part of the story. Baboons actually live in a matriarchal society with a strict social hierarchy based not solely on physical prowess. For the females of the species, privilege is awarded to those born into the right families, while the males must fight amongst themselves for dominance. The queen of this troop is Kitovu. “She goes wherever she wants and eats whatever she pleases,” says Charlotte.

Since the Viramba baboons have been studied a number of times, they are relatively accustomed to humans. At the end of her first day in Mikumi, Charlotte has managed to get close to the animals and is soon treated as an unthreatening presence. From close up, she is able to identify individual members of the troop and explore the intricacies of their body language. But existing so close to these primates comes with its own risks, as Charlotte discovers when she is hit on the head with an empty tamarind pod. “With the exception of a sore head, it’s an encouraging start to my mission,” she says.

Next in line to the Viramba throne is Chelewa, eldest daughter of Kitovu. Much like her mother, Chelewa is always the centre of attention – especially when in season. Since baboons do not mate for life, the females copulate with multiple partners in order to increase the chances of falling pregnant. “And given that baboons are not bashful about sex, I suspect we’re going to see a lot of it over the next few days,” says Charlotte. But baboon society is not all fun and games. For alpha male Evander, life is a constant struggle to stay on top amidst regular challenges to his authority. With the canines of male baboons measuring some 6cm – the same as those of a lion – battles for dominance can be fatal.

The relative peace of one afternoon is interrupted by the arrival of an adult male from another group. As with all males, this baboon has spent his adult life roaming from troop to troop, fighting to enter the ranks, and then fighting for dominance. His arrival in Viramba territory is a clear threat to Evander, and it is not long before a fight breaks out. “It’s hard to see exactly what’s going on,” says Charlotte as she races to keep up with the action, “but it’s likely to involve bloodshed.” Sure enough, the scrap ends with both parties sporting fresh gashes. However, it seems Evander has done enough to protect his position for now.

In an attempt to experience how tough life can be for the Mikumi baboons, Charlotte decides to live as one for a day. This involves walking across the plains with them, eating what they eat, and only drinking when they go to water – a factor that proves quite a struggle in the 40C heat. In the constant hunt for calories, baboons can walk up to ten kilometres a day, eating anything from seeds, fruit, dead animals and grubs. Though she has set herself up for a difficult day, Charlotte feels the experience will give her a better understanding of the baboon’s success in a harsh habitat. “Perhaps it was this kind of tough environment that drove the ingenuity of our ancestors,” she says. But will she make it through the day?

This brand new documentary series sees renowned primatologist Charlotte Uhlenbroek undertake one of the biggest challenges of her career. Over four episodes, Charlotte travels the world on a quest that brings her face to face with some of the world’s greatest primates. The first episode sees Charlotte visit Uganda for a close encounter with a group of wild chimpanzees.

In the opening instalment of this new series, Charlotte heads to the Budongo forest in Uganda to meet a large group of chimpanzees known as the Sonso community. With the help of experts from a nearby research centre, she attempts to get to know the chimps as they fight to survive in an ever-declining forest. During Charlotte’s two-week stay, rival chimp groups threaten to encroach on Sonso territory and internal conflict jeopardises the community’s stability.

Though wild chimps are wary of humans and difficult to follow, Charlotte has a close encounter with a female and her baby on her first day in the Budongo. “This is such a great start!” she enthuses. Before long, she has managed to track down the rest of the group and begins to familiarise herself with the members. “They’ve all got their own individual characters,” she explains. As well as having distinct physical appearances, chimps also differ in terms of their personality traits – much like their human cousins. Within the Sonso group, there is Zed, a cheeky young orphan who always hangs around with the big boys; Tinka, a grand old man seemingly loved by all; and Musa, a strong teenager who seems only interested in sleeping.

The alpha male of the group is Nick, a large, heavy- set chimp with a reputation for aggression. Since taking power six months ago, Nick has created tension and fear amongst the community. With at least two other adult Sonso males potentially strong enough to vie for control, Nick’s position is a precarious one. Charlotte gets a rare chance to observe Nick from just a few metres away while he enjoys a siesta. “You get a sense that he could fly off the handle at any moment, which makes everyone wary,” she says.

Tellingly, Nick spends much of his time alone and is rarely groomed by the rest of his family. To climb to the top in the chimp world, it is important to be aggressive and power-hungry, but it is also key to be popular. In order to resist threats from neighbouring chimp communities, the Sonso males need to act as a solid gang.

As the days pass, Charlotte begins to be accepted by the Sonso community and is able to get ever closer to the action. While observing a family grooming session, she hears Nick calling from afar – a sure sign that he wants attention. But the other members of the group ignore him. “Now, for the first time, I’ll get to see Nick’s infamous belligerence,” she says. Sure enough, the alpha male soon shows up and begins to throw his weight around. “It’s like he doesn’t have any political nous at all,” says Charlotte.

Before her time in the Budongo is over, Charlotte notices a marked difference in Nick’s behaviour. After a series of scraps and some tense standoffs with the other males, Nick apparently attempts to win over 22-year-old male Bwoba by spending some relaxed time with him eating figs. But Charlotte cannot be sure that there is not another fight brewing. “Male chimps can be positively Machiavellian,” she says. “The mercurial flow of enemies and allies can take place in the most subtle of ways.”

However, Nick earns some real respect when he catches a colobus monkey in the trees and shares the meat with his entire family. “That’s going to win him a lot of support,” says Charlotte. And it seems this consolidation of power could not have come at a better time. Shortly after the meal is over, the chimps are unsettled by distant cries from a neighbouring community intent on encroaching on Sonso territory. “If Nick is ever going to step up to his alpha role, he needs to do it now,” says Charlotte.

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