In conversation with chimps
Sixtus Moshi translates the art of chimp diplomacy
With an easy, ready laugh and always an encouraging word, Sixtus Moshi makes the painful legwork involved in “chimping” (tracking chimps) a little easier. Putting his clients instantly at ease with his warmth, extensive knowledge and obvious love for the chimps, he knows the chimpanzees of the “M group” better than most people. He can recognise who is who by the dark slump of a silhouette 30m in the canopy above – or even by a distant hoot from across the valley.
After an eight hour trek one day we found a small section of the group, but they were high up in the canopy and were resting and feeding, hard to make out against the strong backlight behind them. We had barely caught our breaths when a low, urgent hoot sounded a short distance away. “You can hear that’s a baby who’s lost her mother,” Sixtus told me. “It’s probably Carmen, the daughter of Calliope. She is a youngster.” The hooting magnified into a shrill shrieking. “She’ll find her mother. Calliope is just ignoring her for a while.”
I asked Sixtus how he knew who it was. “Well, Calliope is alone over here,” he said, indicating a dark shadow in the canopy, lazily munching on saba florida fruits and dropping the leftovers on to the floor. “Carmen must have followed the rest of the group to the valley. And that’s definitely a youngster calling.”
Such observations are run of the mill for Sixtus.
The alpha males would start posturing, a series of low gravitating hoots indicating they were getting ready for a show down. Pointing at one of them, he would provide a quickly whispered mini-biography: “That’s Alofu. He used to be the alpha male. Then he got sick and Pim took his place. If Pim picks a fight with him, he’ll act the friendly guy. He tries to stay out of trouble. Watch him, he’ll put his hand to his chest if Pim comes near. That’s his way of saying, ‘I don‘t want to fight’.”
With his insightful narrations Sixtus opened up a new world of chimp politics for me over the time we spent with him and the Mahale chimpanzees. His knowledge of the day-to-day family dynamics and the political machinations, scheming and jockeying for lead alpha position in the “M group”, are intimate.
“All the chimps have different personalities. Like humans they have different body sizes, walking movements, marks and faces,” Sixtus explained.“For example, Pim has a very brutal face. His face is very black, like his character, and he’s aggressive and rude. A lot of the males are distinguishable by their voices. Some have softer voices, booming or strong voices. Christmas has a very strong voice, a very strong pant-hoot, even though he’s only fifteen years old.”
Sixtus has been working for Mbali Mbali since 2000. “Mahale really does offer something unique,” says Sixtus, who has worked as a guide throughout Tanzania. “Many people want to do something different. They start to ask questions about where they can go to see something different. They’ve done the beach and the Northern Circuit. And then they realise that the West really is untouched.”
Sixtus’s knowledge has been built up with the help of many influences. “When I first got here, I didn’t know much about chimps. At Mahale, I got a lot of support from the Japanese research teams and read a lot of books, especially by Prof. Toshisada Nishida and Mike Huffman, [both respected authorities on Mahale’s chimpanzees]. Mzees Yasin and Mohammed, both ex-TANAPA [Tanzanian National Parks] rangers, also really helped me. They had been in Mahale for more than 30 years and were generous with their knowledge when I was new here. He also learnt a lot from Jane Goodall’s books, especially Inthe Shadow of Man. “It’s amazing how you can read the books, and then personally experience what you read when you go walking with the chimps in the forest. It really gets you thinking.”
I asked Sixtus if he had any favourites among the chimps. “Definitely Alofu. He used to be alpha male from 2003 through to 2007. He was born within the ‘M group’ to a very strong female and grew up in the group. He is a very good politician as he knows how to get others to help him. He knows how to apologise and really is just a very diplomatic chimpanzee. Most people working in this forest like him and he has a lot of support from females and the younger members of the group.”
When he lost his status as alpha, the group still accepted him which is unusual, Sixtus explained. “Many males go into exile, but Alofu is still here and he’s still at number two. Alofu doesn’t like problems and he won’t charge for no reason. A lot of the males feel they need to show their power by beating other chimps up. Rather than fight, Alofu normally likes to just apologise. He doesn’t like the big ones to fight with the small ones and he’s normally sympathetic to younger chimps who have been beaten up. At the same time, he is very confident. I like him.”
The empathetic guide is positive about the future: “I think this place can only become more and more famous because of these incredible animals.”