Chasing butterflies

Biologists make the best travel buddies. They’ll probably be excited about obscure and wonderful things you haven’t heard about before, and most will be happy to tell you all about it. For better or worse – many an unsuspecting traveler sitting next to me on planes/trains/buses hears all about fluorescent genes shuffled from species to species. Did you know that the genes that signal an eye should be made are incredibly conserved, but in flies, they will make a fly eye, and in chickens, they will make a chicken eye wherever they’re expressed? Anyway, I digress.

Meet Simon Martin (@simonhmartin), from the Zoology Department at Cambridge. Simon is studying butterflies. Here is a biologist in action, chasing butterflies in Nairobi:

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It turns out that butterflies of the genus Simon is interested in are fast, and remarkably difficult to catch. They also move around in a really non-linear manner, so they’re really difficult to take pictures of. During my one lunchtime of shadowing a field biologist, I took lots of pictures, and only a few by sheer luck ended up in focus with a butterfly in them.

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The next step is to identify the butterfly species and see if it is the interesting one he is trying to study. In good news – there are butterfly enthusiasts all over the world, and some of them have incredibly elaborate collections and databases, including pictures and data on the spread of specific butterfly populations. However, what makes it really difficult is that even within a specific genus or species, there can be a huge amount of diversity. Furthermore, a lot of butterfly species rely on mimicry to defend themselves from predators, so that makes them even more difficult to recognise correctly.

Some of them are easier to take pictures of though.

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In general, there is a huge diversity of animal life here, even in the city of Nairobi. We have so far seen a variety of birds, an amazing caterpillar, and a whole range of other insect species. We also met some stingless bees, which are nice and gentle, and make great honey. I’m looking into stingless bee UK imports as we speak :)

Marabou storks are everywhere too. I find them really impressive, so it’s very strange seeing them in cities.

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We have a whole group of biologists here, so in effect we all end up chasing different creatures. Richard Smith-Unna (@blahah404) is a plant biologist, but seems to be on good terms with a whole range of creatures including singing frogs and praying mantids. Behold another biologist in action:

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Autumn in Woodstock

This year I had the pleasure of visiting my family in NY state during foliage season. I think I might have missed the brightest of the reds by a week or so, but auburn and golden leaves still greeted me in the sunshine. And this was a happy photo-taking Sunday spent with my dad in one of my favourite places. Allow me to introduce you to the village of Woodstock.

street-musicians

While the famous 1969 music festival actually happened 43 miles south west in a field somewhere, the 60s peace and love atmosphere drifted into Woodstock, and somehow just never left. There is always live music drifting through the square, and along with the smell of incense, the widespread use of tie-dye, you can almost feel yourself transported through time, to that summer almost half a century ago.

golden-leaves

The bookshops cater to a specific range of people including those with a mystical slant, though this time I mainly walk out with books about “conscious money” and making charities sustainable. And a few beautiful notebooks. Something for everyone. There is a Zen Buddhist monastery just outside of town, and a number of shops focus on yoga and meditation.

dharmaware

My inner hippie is out to play for the day. We wander slowly through the village as I play with my camera, with blissful free time and space to do so. We drink amazing organic fruit juice, wander into a flea market, and pop in and out of colourful shops.

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And everywhere, there is golden, golden autumn.

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The sunshine dances on the leaves, vibrant and playful.

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And as the sun begins to set, the residents of Woodstock gather in the main square for the community drum circle.

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And with those last few rays of sun, what else is there left but to dance. Dance to the beat of the drums.

drumming-circle

Mountain genetics part 2: Reaching the summit

My friends and I, along with an inflatable elephant called Paula, climbed Kilimanjaro and fundraised for Tsavo Trust – an elephant conservation project. Thank you very much to everyone who supported us! https://www.justgiving.com/elephant-trek/

Emily and Paula at Big Tree Camp:

emily-and-paula

In Mountain Genetics part 1, I wrote about the ACE gene, and the genetic test that all 4 of us took as part of our Kilimanjaro preparations. There were 3 genetic possibilities: super resistant to altitude (II genotype), medium resistant (ID) and sensitive (DD). And out of our group, 2 people tested as II, and my partner and I tested as ID. We were all very curious to see how the genetic tests will play out in practice when we actually climbed the mountain. This post is a breakdown of the differences and challenges we encountered during the trek.

view-from-the-clouds

How the trek went

First of all: we all reached the top. Not only that, but we all reached the top together at the same time, which is something we really wanted to do. You’re only allowed to spend up to 15 minutes on the summit because after that the lack of oxygen can make you ill. While we were prepared to split up if need be during the final night, the whole thing was a joint adventure, and we did really want that photo together. We weren’t particularly fast (it took us 12 hours to get to the summit: 1am to 1pm), but we made it.

hike-to-stella-point

Secondly: we all found it difficult. On the 4th day when altitude sickness first hit me properly, I joked “No problem – this is still easier than finishing a PhD”. On the 7th day, with the lack of oxygen and the endless shifting sand, I made no such proclamations. I would now put it on par with that PhD final year (in difficulty if not in length), while everyone else in the group said that reaching the summit was the most difficult thing they’d ever done. I would now even recommend summit day to prospective PhD students as a quick simulation of the experience, which might help them make a more informed decision about future career plans :)

struggling-onwards

Those things being said – I don’t think everyone found it equally difficult, and also, all of us hit difficulties at different times. So while it was a challenge for everyone, I was incredibly impressed with people who found it particularly hard and encountered a lot of difficulties, and still somehow managed to keep going. I felt like it was a real triumph of determination and will, and found it really admirable.

struggling-to-the-top

Mountain genetics in practice

In terms of how the genotypes and the difficulties played out: from the results, we expected that the IIs would breeze through it, while my partner and I would struggle with our ID genotypes. The reality turned out to be a bit more complicated than that.

The genotypes played out to the letter in the sense that my partner and I did get symptoms of altitude sickness at various points, like headaches and nausea, whereas the IIs barely even had a mild headache. Luckily noone experienced anything actually medically serious, only things that are in the “normal” range of unpleasant responses to altitude. But it’s true that the genotypes accurately predicted the occurrence of these. However, altitude sickness is just one of a number of factors that determine how well you cope on the mountain.

geraint-and-jelena-at-the-summit

In terms of relative difficulty – two of us, me and one of the IIs, got off comparatively easy. I felt that I really breezed through it up until about 4500m altitude, with basically no symptoms and even quite a lot of excess energy. After that, the altitude did start getting to me, but the difficulty was manageable. The II in question did struggle and freeze with the rest of us, and found sleeping during the cold nights particularly difficult. However, they managed not to get too sick, and were the only person on summit night to manage to carry their daypack all the way to the top (for the rest of us, the guides took them off us when we started getting particularly exhausted). The people who found it more difficult were the other ID, and surprisingly, one of the IIs.

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Hitting altitude

If you haven’t been at that altitude, it might be a bit unspecific what I mean by “difficulty”. The more active altitude sickness symptoms like headaches and nausea are something that only happened occasionally to two of us, they weren’t a persistent thing. Instead, the difficult thing was just how exhausted we were all the way through, more so the further up we went. And it’s not really physical exhaustion I’m talking about – for example, my muscles weren’t sore in the slightest at any point during the trek. Instead, the lack of oxygen just makes everything really tiring and difficult, and the further up you get, the worse it gets.

kilimanjaro-skyline

After a point you will realise that taking more than one sip of water at the time will make you breathless – you will need to hyperventilate for a minute to catch up on the oxygen that you’ve missed out on. From about day 5, I pay attention to only take a sip at a time, followed by a few deep breaths, followed by another sip. Hyperventilation in fact becomes a sort of habit, because it’s required to recover from so many different everyday activities. A few days after reaching sea level, I still found myself slipping back into it occasionally, and also waking up breathing fast. In fact, as I write this paragraph, I can’t help but do it again from just thinking about the altitude. Altitude is this tiring, out of breath, uncomfortable, slightly queasy feeling that doesn’t go away.

after-the-sunrise

Any kind of deviation from the “pole pole” slow and steady tempo also requires hyperventilation and recovery breaks. The activities include but are not limited to, for example, getting into your tent, or walking to the bathroom. I think a bit about illness and disability, and how different my life would be if this was a daily reality rather than a consequence of altitude. Energy becomes a scarce resource, more and more so the further up the mountain we go. My bits of spare energy for the first part of the trek feel like a real luxury at the time, and descending the mountain again is amazing.

camping-above-the-clouds

Genotypes, environment and other factors

So, back to the genotypes. One of the IIs got off comparatively lightly (i.e. they only suffered a moderate amount), as predicted by their genotype, and their main ambition if they were to do the climb again would be to do it faster. One of the IDs experienced the sort of altitude difficulties that would be expected based on the genotype – they felt sick and exhausted from quite early on in the trek, and the symptoms and the exhaustion got worse as the altitude increased. They even lost their appetite completely, which is to the best of my knowledge, the first time that’s ever happened. You need to know my partner to truly grasp how weird and disturbing this really was! As soon as we were back at sea level, he went back to ordering two main meals at a time, and I breathed a big sigh of relief :p Though he still cringes at sentences containing the words “mountain” and “climb” – I hope a temporary side effect.

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So, since one of the IDs and one of the IIs passed pretty much as predicted, the interesting question is why it was the other II struggled, and also why it was that I got off easy. And the truth is that there are many different factors that go into how well you do at climbing a mountain. For example, how much water you drink, how much you manage to eat (the more, the better), and how much sleep you manage to get. There’s also the issue of cold, which gets worse as you go further up. While we were there at a warm time of year, night time temperature was still at -15?C or so, which isn’t exactly a friendly camping temperature. In fact, the nights were one of the hardest things about the trek. During daytime, you would warm up from the walking, but during the night, it was hard to fall asleep in the freezing cold, even while wearing 7 layers and being inside a 4-season sleeping bag (for the last few nights, I really wore everything I could possibly put on).

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So, anyway – in the case of the II, one of the huge things was the cold. They don’t respond particularly well to it and struggle to produce heat at the best of times, so parts of Kilimanjaro were really a trial. They also lost their appetite due to getting sick while travelling before Kilimanjaro, and consequently found it difficult to eat, and that makes a huge difference to energy levels. And the additional thing was that they felt breathless quite early on – like their lungs just weren’t taking in enough oxygen, despite best efforts (likely at least in part because of having a cold at the time). Between all of these things, while the lack of altitude sickness was certainly a bonus and quite beneficial, there were other significant difficulties that still made the trek a very challenging one.

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As for why I got easy, well, we did have one theory. Here’s a weird anatomical fact: I have  disproportionately large lungs. It’s not a thing that comes up day to day – the only reason I know at all is because I went to some paid experiment or other where they measured my lung capacity. It was notable at the time because I was absolutely off the charts for women, and I was on the “extremely high lung capacity” side of the graph for men, even when height is taken into account. Before going to Kilimanjaro, the only advantage I’d ever found for this was that I could dive across almost the whole length of an Olympic swimming pool, not because I’m a super fast swimmer, but because holding my breath for a long time wasn’t that hard.

This wasn’t something I thought about in advance, and it only came up in a discussion around day 3, when we were sleeping at 3800m altitude, and I was unusually chirpy and energetic. I had spare energy to climb extra rocks, lift up heavy things, all sorts. It was weird. So as far as my genotype goes, we concluded that, yes, I do get altitude sickness when I’m low on oxygen. However, thanks to an unlikely physiological luck of the draw, I was actually receiving perfectly adequate quantities of oxygen for a remarkably long time during the trek, which wasn’t the case for people with lower lung capacity.

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Conclusions

Despite the difficulties, ultimately it is really remarkable how well our bodies acclimatised to the strange new heights that we took them to. The first night at 3800m was difficult and we were all out of breath, but only a few days later we would find this exact height easy and a bit of a relief. The first time I hit 4600m, I felt super sick, but that feeling didn’t hit me again for the rest of the trek, despite going much higher.

Our amazing and super experienced guides also made a huge difference. This was both because they knew how to acclimatise us well, and because they somehow had a knack of coaxing us to carry on, even when all we wanted to do was give up. Sometimes this literally involved holding our hands and dragging us up the slope. So even with the whole genotype/phenotype discussion, I think ultimately the real credit should go to our guides Raymond and Dennis.

In terms of conclusions, well – the trek is hard for everyone, and our genetics play just one part in a complex puzzle that includes all sorts of physiological and psychological factors, and the help we get along the way. But remarkably, we all adapt too. And finally – you can make it. Whatever your genes are – keep going. You can make it.

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Kilimanjaro dreamscapes

Kilimanjaro has long had a personal and spiritual significance for the people who climbed it. For me, the snows of Kilimanjaro called to me through the pages of books. And no wonder that Kili continues to challenge and inspire people.

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One of the most amazing things about Kilimanjaro is the dreamlike beauty of its landscapes. Starting from lush rainforest, you descend up through heather and moorland, wandering through alpine desert in the mist, and finally reaching the freezing arctic desert at the top.

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During this time, you will find yourself camping above the clouds, and looking up at a sky so full of stars like you’ve probably never seen before. The Milky Way stretches out in front of you, clear and bright. And as you look down again over a cliff, your eyes eventually meet the clouds, or on the rare clear night, even the lights of the town of Moshi, many kilometres below you.

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The summit night more than any other has a real dreamlike, mystical quality to it. You’re woken up at midnight and leave your camp in the middle of the night. As you make your way up a steep incline, you see little points of light, weaving zig zag up the hill as different groups of people climb up with their head torches. The head torches and the sky full of stars above us were the only points of light on the mountain. It was at this point that our guide began to sing. The tune was in Swahili and sounded like a religious hymn. Between the stars, the moving lights and the solemn music, the moment had this mystical, almost otherworldly beauty to it. You trek through the night, and eventually, the first rays of sun begin to reach you. It is dawn, and you’re almost at the top of Africa. We drink warm sugary tea as we watch the sunrise.

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As you reach the summit, the dreamscapes begin to shift, and instead take on a fragmented, confused, almost hallucinogenic quality.  The landscape changes into something unexpected, and you find yourself trekking a long, steep, winding road made up of shifting sand.  With every step you take, the sand shifts and takes you back down. The path seems nightmarish and endless. Between the lack of oxygen and lack of sleep, everyone struggles up in their own comatose way. For all of us, these are some of the longest hours we’ve ever experienced.

Yet somehow, magically, we reach Stella Point.

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From there, the journey is a victory lap – once you’re at the rim of the crater, the walk to the top is an easy one. There is no snow on the path, but to our left, we can see giant glaciers that have over the years slipped down from the top. They look like something out of a fairytale – gigantic structures of frozen castles and cities. I wonder what supernatural creatures exist within them, and what stories they could tell.

kilimanjaro-summit-glacier

And then finally, we are at the top. We rush to take pictures. We have 10-15 minutes before the lack of oxygen gets too much, and we head down. This time we run and slide down the scree that was so difficult on the way up.

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The next day I ask people questions about it, and check through pictures. The photos are the only reason that I’m dead certain it wasn’t all a dream.

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The hare, the tortoise and the mountain

My friends and I, along with an inflatable elephant called Paula, climbed Kilimanjaro and fundraised for Tsavo Trust – an elephant conservation project. Our fundraising page will remain open for a few weeks, so if you’d like to support us, please do check it out: https://www.justgiving.com/elephant-trek/

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Kilimanjaro preparations

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One of the wonderful things about preparing for the Kilimanjaro trek was having an excuse to get out and see more beautiful places. Some of that was local to Cambridge and just involved walking to nearby villages, but we also went to some actual hills too. Cambridge is spectacularly flat, and the nearest hills are pretty far away. So during our preparations, we went for a few trips to Scotland to climb some Bens (Ben Lomond and Ben Nevis). We also went to Germany for a wonderful trip to Zugspitze (which we nicknamed Big Zug) and a few other nearby mountains.

ben-nevis-view

A lot of people say that the real challenge of climbing Kilimanjaro is psychological, and I definitely agree that this is true. During training, one of the things that came up was that when we got tired after a lot of climbing, different people had different ways of carrying on. For example, some people found it easier to take breaks, then move in quick bursts, while others found it easier to move continuously. Different people’s pace could also be quite different at times.

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The hare and the tortoise

During these trips, I found myself thinking about the hare and the tortoise a lot. Or to be more precise, I found myself identifying with and channelling the tortoise. I found that when I was exhausted, I couldn’t go particularly fast, but there was a particular kind of gentle stride I could fall into, that I think I can literally keep going forever. This isn’t a massive revelation, but it can be quite difficult – if you’re with another person or in a group, the natural instinct is to keep up and keep pace with people. This isn’t always the best thing to do, as sometimes your own pace can take you much further. But what you need is, shall we say, a certain confidence in your own footsteps. After all, the goal isn’t to keep up, or to be the fastest – it’s to reach the top. And the way you reach the top is just to keep on going.

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Pole pole

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The thing that any blog about Kilimanjaro will tell you, is that the guides will make you go really slowly. The phrase “pole pole” means slowly/gradually in Swahili, and it’s a phrase you’ll hear a lot. But like every other blog, I have to say – you won’t believe just how slowly they will get you to walk. While I felt well prepared with my tortoise philosophy, the truth is that the tortoise would have easily run circles around us on the mountain. The pace throughout was incredibly slow. For us, at any rate. Our support crew consisted of 12 porters, who would rush ahead carrying truly superhuman quantities of stuff, and set up the next campsite hours before we reached them. Their superpowers persisted too, well into the sort of altitude that made the “pole pole” pace not seem at all ridiculous to us any longer.

path-through-the-rainforest

Throughout the trip, we would walk at whatever pace the guides set, and that was almost invariably unimaginably slow. So with the whole group going “pole pole”, the ability to set my own pace turned out to be a bit redundant. We even went so slowly that my muscles only felt at all tired on 1 of the 8 days of the climb (the day we did the scramble up Barranco wall) despite walking for hours every day. And even then it was a gentle kind of tired. Seriously, I get more muscle soreness from an average trip to the gym. But the pole pole pace wasn’t there to let our muscles get off easy – it was essential for fending off altitude sickness. If your heart rate goes up, you’re using more oxygen and are more likely to get ill.

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The tortoise at altitude

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The tortoise only came to me a few times, and interestingly, rather than being a safety net, it ended up being a warning sign. The first time was on the first day that we went up to the height of 4600m. In the last 50m or so of the ascent, I found myself thinking about the tortoise and trying to pace my footsteps again. And as soon as we hit 4600, all of a sudden I felt incredibly ill. I was shocked what a difference an ascent of only 50m or so made, and how quickly altitude sickness hit me. The headache and nausea went away completely after hyperventilating for 10 mins (pro tip: if you’re feeling altitude sickness, make yourself hyperventilate on purpose. At sea level, it would make you dizzy from too much oxygen, but on the mountain, it’s just what your body needs), but it was an interesting lesson in coping with altitude. Your pace should be so slow that you basically don’t exert yourself at all. The tortoise is ominous, because if you’re going at tortoise pace, that’s actually way too fast. It signals that you’re getting closer to the edge of your abilities, and you shouldn’t be anywhere near there. For the rest of the trip, if I felt the presence of the tortoise, I did my best to heed the warning sign.

kilimanjaro

The interesting thing about the challenge of Kilimanjaro is that in many ways, none of the people in our group were climbing the same mountain. The difficulties and obstacles we encountered were highly personal, and happened at different times for each of us. Whether it was the cold, lack of sleep, altitude sickness, problems eating, or a fear of heights, it’s certainly true that none of us found it easy, and that at different points of the trip each of us had to encounter our own tortoise and find a way to keep going.

our-kilimanjaro-team

Adventures in mountain genetics

My friends and I are climbing Kilimanjaro and fundraising for Tsavo Trust – an elephant conservation project. If you’d like to support us, please check out and share our fundraising page: https://www.justgiving.com/elephant-trek/

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Satao in Tsavo East National Park. Photo used with permission from Tsavo Trust.


Mountain climbing the genetics geek way

As many of you know, I’m a genetics researcher at Cambridge University. And this summer I’m about to climb Kilimanjaro for the very first time. Now, you wouldn’t think those last two things are related. But as a professional geek, I couldn’t resist researching the health background of the trip before signing up.

With a bit of training, it didn’t seem like fitness would be too much of a problem, as the group of us who are going are all reasonably fit people in our twenties, and we had some time to train. However, altitude was a concern, particularly since Cambridge is a perfectly flat town situated at around 7m above sea level, so we’re not exactly acclimatized in any way. The possible prospect of Acute Mountain Sickness seemed a bit terrifying. But also more pragmatically, signing up to an expensive trip where you might randomly be very sick and not make it to the top just didn’t sound that much fun.

In general, this led to the decision to do the climb slowly enough to allow time for altitude acclimatization (we’re going for a 7 day climb/1 day descent via the Lemosho Route). But I was also very excited to find out that there was a lot of genetics research into altitude sensitivity. Around the time when it was very relevant to me, I happened to find out about it from a great talk by Professor Hugh Montgomery, who is an expert on the genetics of human fitness, and in particular on the physiological response to low oxygen conditions.

The altitude susceptibility gene

I was particularly excited to find out that there was a single gene that predicted with high reliability how people reacted to low oxygen conditions. The gene in question is called the ACE gene, and it is present in two different forms in humans – for this gene, you can either have an ‘I’ or a ‘D’ version of it. Because we inherit two versions of each gene (one from each parent), this means that you can have three potential versions of this gene – II, ID or DD. As well as giving you an idea of altitude sickness susceptibility, this is also an interesting fitness gene. Genetically, there is a bit of a trade-off between strength and endurance, and this is a gene that tells you whether you’re more of a strong bodybuilder type, or more of an endurance person such as a rower, cyclist or long-distance runner. Or alternatively, something in between.

Some data I personally found very compelling was that, conveniently for us, scientists had studied this gene in people climbing Kilimanjaro. They looked at people attempting to reach the summit in 4 days (which in general is really not recommended), and tested how many people with each gene type reached the top. The DDs, your strong body builder types with bad low oxygen tolerance, only reached the summit 40% of the time. The IDs, who have a mixture of strength and endurance genes, reached the top 60% of the time. The IIs, on the other hand, are the endurance people with low oxygen resistance superpowers – this group managed to reach the summit almost 100% of the time, despite the very short time for acclimatization.

In a more serious context, the IIs also had much better clinical outcomes in emergency medical situations where they were oxygen deprived. So you would wonder why not everyone has the II genotype. This is a classic genetics trade-off – the DDs are stronger and build muscle faster, which is advantageous in other circumstances. And the low oxygen thing might just never come up if you’re lucky. There is no such thing as ideal genetics – what we actually have are different genetics that are advantageous for different circumstances.

Getting tested

Now, given enough time, anyone can reach the summit, so you shouldn’t let your genes stop you. However, it seemed like an interesting data point to add to trip planning. For example, if you’re particularly at risk, you can make sure that you definitely add an extra day or two of acclimatization, and don’t forget those altitude sickness pills. These are sensible precautions for everyone, but how much they matter does depend on your genetics. Also, we were curious! So we were all very excited to find out that PlayDNA already tests for the different versions of the ACE gene as part of its fitness gene tests.

Despite being a geneticist, I’ve never tested any of my own genes before this. I think genetic testing should be approached carefully, and that people should only be tested for things that they want to find out about, while aware of the impact of the information. However, in this case I had no qualms – ACE is a fitness gene, which reveals general interest information rather than medical conditions. The opportunity to discuss genetics with my friends also made me very happy. Something that is harmless but personally relevant to people is I think the best way to get thinking about these concepts.

It was also fun for me to see how the science was applied outside a research context. And it was certainly an exciting day when the beautiful PlayDNA testing kits arrived in the mail:

The PlayDNA sample collection kit.

The PlayDNA sample collection kit.

 

Six of us got tested for the gene, including my partner and I. We had some expectations about the results – since my partner is a great sprinter and tires himself out quickly, while I’m more of a moderate long distance person, we definitely expected that he would come out as a DD, and I would come out as an II. We were less sure about our friends, although we suspected that our friend who had done some significant long distance cycling in the past would come out as an II.

The test results

We were very excited when the results arrived. It feels like something between buying a lottery ticket, and maybe some of those personality self-tests. It’s just fun finding out something about yourself and your friends. And they were beautifully presented too. While I mainly associate gel images like this one with my PhD and late nights in the lab, I can also see how it’s a cool and artistic way of communicating the test results. Also, unlike other companies based on a similar premise, it pleases me that this one communicates how the science is actually done. Sam even told us how the DNA extractions went, and was happy to explain the test validation process.

 

ACE gene test gel. The first 3 lanes are controls, and the next 5 are our samples.

ACE gene test gel. The first 3 lanes are controls, and the next 5 are our samples.

 

In terms of the test results – it turned out that we had two II superpower people in our midst, including our long-distance cycling friend, but that sadly I wasn’t one of them. Much to our surprise, my partner and I both turned out to be IDs. We certainly wouldn’t have guessed that we have the same genotype, but it brings home the point that not everything is in your genes – maybe we just approach exercise differently. And it’s true that IDs have both power and endurance potential, and it’s up to individual people how they work with that and where they take it. There was also a third ID, and a single DD person in the group. Of course, overall fitness is certainly not a single gene trait – instead, many different genes contribute to the heritable differences between people, and differences in environment and training of course also play a huge role.

Even though I’ve thought about it a lot, and I deal with this type of research daily, it was still a little bit funny seeing the results on paper. I mean, you can have all sorts of ideas about yourself, but actually having them tested, and having a result in black and white that you can’t change is kind of different. I don’t believe that genes should limit us and inform how we run our lives. Yet a part of me was disappointed to not have won the lottery for the low oxygen trait. Serious body builders may have a similar reaction if they don’t have the DD version – despite the oxygen disadvantages, it makes it much faster to get strong and build muscle. Once you find out for sure, there isn’t really anything you can do about recasting the genetic dice.

And onwards to the mountain

The genes are just the beginning. And they’re just one factor and piece of information. Where we go, and who we become from there, is still entirely up to us.

In accord with this, who is actually coming on the trip was mainly determined by factors other than their genotype, such as money and holiday time. Though one of the IIs was also nudged a bit by their newly discovered superpower.

In the end, four of us are going – two IDs and two IIs. Since our DD isn’t coming (for reasons other than genetics, we swear), we won’t be able to bring you tales of overcoming genetic determinism this time round. But we still await with curiosity how our genetics will play out when in a month’s time we hit the big mountain.

With best fitness and mountain climbing wishes for all,

Jelena, ACE I/D heterozygote


Lions, elephants and other Uganda wildlife

This post comes many months after I returned from Uganda, and as such it is a strange post to write. I want to put up the last few of my photos, but this amazing, magical place I went to visit last year really feels like another world. It’s strange to think that not so long ago, I found myself in a place where elephants roamed, that I saw lions and zebras up close in the wild, and even that biggest of adventures – that I saw the mountain gorillas.

There are a lot of stories I meant to tell, and this feels like my last chance to do so, before more life overwrites them and pushes them out of my mind. I felt much indebted to the people who guided me – Sadiq who was our host at Kampala International University, Kim who guided me around Entebbe, and my tour guide Robert from Pearl of Africa, who shared his extensive knowledge of the wildlife and the country with me.

Out in the savannah

I love nature and wildlife, so the chance to visit a number of Uganda’s national parks was a true privilege for me. From the savannahs to the misty rainforests, I visited places that had previously been just faraway lands on a screen and parts of my imagination. So I saw the things I’d learnt about as a child – the lions camouflaged in the high grass of the savannah, and the cobs that had to sooner or later go to the watering hole where the predators wait.

A pride of lions

I encountered some new and unexpected creatures as well. I found warthogs remarkably endearing in a somewhat comedy way. While the other creatures of the savannah are often very clever and work well in groups, warthogs are not amongst these. When they encounter danger, their instinct is to just leave everyone else behind and run away. The concession they make is to raise their tail to signal danger, so you often see a bobbing warthog tail in the high grass. However, unfortunately for the warthog, they also have extremely short-term memory. This means that the predator just needs to wait a while in the same place, as the warthog will quickly forget what it was running away from, and return to feed.

The jolly friends

One thing that really struck me when watching the animals, is how far removed my usual way of thinking about them is from reality. Rather than being cute and gentle, all that stuff about selfish genes and “nature red in tooth and claw” really struck me. I mean, there is the occasional species that’s kind of adorable, vegetarian and mates for life, but more often than not, males will try and eat their own male children so that they have less competition with the females of the group. This was the case remarkably often across quite a range of species. Interestingly, it also accounts for there being relatively few lions – the lioness goes off on her own with the young at a vulnerable time in their lives, in order to protect them from the adult males.

The lioness

Of course this isn’t the case across the board – for example, elephants are incredibly protective of their young. We saw a tiny baby elephant from a distance at one point, in the middle and protected by the entire herd. But it’s quite common for some sort of trade-off to be in place. For example, monkeys tend to guard the female babies very carefully, and shield them as they carry them, while they put much less care into protecting the male babies. Monkeys carrying babies is an adorable thing overall though – and they groom and enjoy cuddles too.

vervet-monkey-with-a-baby

Overall, nature certainly isn’t gentle. And it did nudge my nature/nurture position towards nature again a little bit (it’s one of those ongoing debates with no final answer). But at the same time, there’s a certain beauty and dignity to it. I did find that seeing animals in the wild and in their natural habitat increased my belief that this is the right way the world should be, and that animals in captivity do suffer. I’m with the Born Free Foundation there.

Waterbuck portrait

As I write about Uganda, my thoughts can’t help but drift across the border into the DRC, where Emmanuel de Merode, the chief warden of Virunga National Park, was recently shot in an ambush. Thankfully he survived and is recovering. Being a ranger in a national park is a dangerous job, but nowhere more so than the DRC, and the rangers put their lives on the line every day to keep the peace and keep the parks safe. His TED talk, “A story of conflict, renewal and hope”, talks about gorilla conservation within a war zone, and is well worth listening. One of the things he brings up is the importance of the national parks, not just for their natural treasures, but also for the economic prosperity, stability and long term future of the region. Uganda and Rwanda are both very stable and safe, and have a large income from tourism. It is hoped that the DRC will also benefit from this in the future. After all, the mountain gorillas are waiting for a visit.

baby-gorilla-climbing-a-tree

I don’t know what else to finish with, other than just saying what a privilege and wonderful experience it has been to visit Uganda. It’s a beautiful and incredibly interesting country, and I felt welcomed and safe throughout my time there. I hope to return. I warmly recommend that you visit if you can. And in the meantime, it will remain in my thoughts and dreams as just the most amazing experience.


The magical, magnificent mountain gorillas

I would like to thank the David Attenborough 1001 gorillas campaign for inspiring me to finally write this blog post. It has 7 days left on IndieGoGo – if you haven’t checked it out, please do :)

Gorilla conservation background

I wasn’t always in love with the mountain gorillas. I didn’t even know about them, really. Short of watching Gorillas in the Mist some years ago, which was eye-opening and upsetting, but not in a way that really stuck. I don’t know why.

People talk about moral proximity as a motivator for action. The idea that we’re more likely to help the people we see, our people, than people far away. That injustices, even great injustices, far away, are easily forgotten, while the people we know and love are what actually moves us. And that when someone is in our moral sphere, they can’t just be shrugged away any more.

The gorillas and I ended up in the same orbit when I was planning my trip to Uganda this summer. A quick search showed them as one of Uganda’s main attractions, especially for animal lovers. And I consider the rare chances to see animals in the wild to be one of life’s greatest privileges. So I read on.

And honestly, I read on and cried. I read on and cried a lot. I didn’t know there were so few. Even today – there are only 880 left in the world, and they only live in two places. Nowhere, a small arts festival in Spain that I like very much, was quickly approaching gorilla numbers the last time I went there, and may well have outnumbered them in the meantime. And there were times, not so long ago, when there were even fewer gorillas, and people weren’t even sure if any of them would make it to the 21st century.

I found out how brutally, how pointlessly they were killed. I found out how precariously they lived, in unstable regions and conflict zones. That they were endangered, and that their remaining habitat was so limited, and in danger of shrinking. How, with only 2 populations of 300-400 gorillas each, all it would take is one major infection to wipe them out completely. And they’re so closely related to humans, that our infections can jump to them very easily. What “critically endangered” means for the mountain gorillas, is that the continuation of their existence has been and continues to be a close call.

Thoughtful gaze

I also read about good things. Or sometimes tragic things, but the other tragic – the tragic of touching sacrifice, rather than the broken tragic of brutality. I’d like to believe there’s a difference. I read Dian Fossey’s book. I read about gorilla initiatives existing today. I read about people who loved them, and who continue to love them. I read about the 140 people who died protecting them. And people continue to die doing so today. Conservation on the ground can be a bloody battle, with the other side sometimes much better armed. Funded. Organised. Somehow through that, the gorillas survived, and people protected them, often at great personal sacrifice. The story of the mountain gorillas is rightfully told as a conservation success story. In the words of an artist friend – there’s beauty and there’s tragedy, and there’s space in the heart for both.

I learnt about silly things too. Dian Fossey’s book is full of humour, mishaps and detailed mountain gorilla facts. I admired her determination as well as her ability to laugh at herself, and to throw herself into her passions with abandon. I also enjoyed the gorilla anecdotes – like how having made a lot of noise climbing a tree, she turned around to find that the usually shy and reclusive gorillas were all sitting in a circle watching her curiously, having deemed her no threat (and all that was missing from the scene was popcorn).

Whatever

The gorilla trip

Finally, after months of incubating in gorilla lore, it was time to visit Bwindi Impenetrable Forest Park in southwestern Uganda.

Even the name, Impenetrable Forest, somehow emanated mystery. It whispered to me, of mysterious paths, quiet, untrodden. Of a wilderness thick, pulsing with life. Where somewhere, in amongst the mountains, the life, the sounds of the forest, gorillas would roam. If anything, the real thing was as good or better. The first sight of the thick forest in the mountains more than matched what my imagination had summoned. I felt touched and awed by it.

Bwindi impenetrable forest

The night before trekking, I got a briefing from my tour guide, as well as from the people in the hotel I stayed in. I got a flyer of Gorilla Rules (yay), told about the risk of transmitting infections, that numbers of visitors are limited, and that we will spend no more than an hour with the gorillas. That if you’re ill, you really really shouldn’t go, but that you can cancel or reschedule. All things I knew about already, but it was good to see that people were making a big effort to educate visitors about gorilla conservation. In fact, all the guides I had at various National Parks in Uganda were just stellar – incredibly knowledgeable about the animals and the area, and very happy to educate people. The gorilla guides were no exception.

In the morning, the same briefing was repeated. I breathed a sigh of relief that I felt in perfect health. For about a month or more leading up to this, I’d been freaking out about getting ill and missing it – a fear mainly expressed in the form of hand sanitiser and copious amounts of vitamin C. Anyway, it worked, and I made it, and it was really happening. I was really there, in my best gorilla top (black, baggy, and I’m still very attached to it!).

I was in a group of 8 people, tracking the Bitukura family. We were accompanied by a number of official guides. Trackers go out early every morning to find out where the gorillas have moved to, and the guides later keep contact with the trackers via walkie talkie in order to be able to locate them in the jungle. Porters were also with us – these are local people you can hire to carry your backpack for you. I wasn’t originally going to (it seemed strange to have someone carry my bag for me!), but what changed my mind is finding out that the porters come from extremely poor villages (the area around Bwindi is particularly poor), and that they often walk a really long way to get there every day, and most of them don’t get work. I’ve also been told that tipping your porter generously is one of the most direct ways to encourage the appreciation of gorillas in the local communities. The local people were unlikely to ever see the gorillas, but the money brought into the villages this way was a very tangible benefit of their existence in the forest.

Me with my tour guide Robert, and my porter on the right.

Me with my tour guide Robert, and my porter on the right.

We set off into the forest, with its wonderful huge vegetation, spotting several smaller monkeys on our way. It was a beautiful sunny morning, though the walking sticks that were lent to us at the beginning were still appreciated – even in the dry season, the forest is quite humid and slippery. The trek can last between anything from a few minutes to 8 hours of walking, so I’d been training for it a bit in advance just in case. It turned out I didn’t have to worry though – in the case of our group, we got our first sight of gorillas in just half an hour.

First sight of a gorilla

An adult male silverback

The first gorilla I saw was an adult silverback male. My jaw dropped and my breath stopped. Perhaps I got a quick excited “Oh. My. Goodness.” out. I just couldn’t believe I was seeing this in real life – I was so happy. The gorilla was very clearly visible, and seemed content enough staying in place for a bit and munching on leaves while we watched in amazement. He was huge, and fluffy, and just magnificent. I watched as he skilfully picked the leaves, stripping a bunch of them off a branch. And when he moved and wandered away up the hill, it was with a certain smoothness and easy grace. He glided slowly up the slope and through the undergrowth that our group had been somewhat more ineptly trampling through.

Gorilla feeding

As the gorilla moved away, we continued moving towards the rest of the group. Gorillas are social, and tend to live in groups of up to 20 or so individuals. The family we were tracking was a group of 22, and we soon came across other members. While adults could be seen ahead, there was also a baby in a tree to the left of us. It was about the size of a human toddler (i.e. up to my knees), and absolutely adorable. It climbed the tree in a way that seemed very skilful for its age, and also happily munched on leaves. And then the magical thing happened.

Baby gorilla climbing a tree

Baby mountain gorilla climbing a tree

You do not approach gorillas, and if they approach you, you make space for them to pass. At this point I was at the back of the column of people, and the baby gorilla decided to climb down from the tree and walk through our group and to the other side. It happened to pick my side of the line of people – as instructed by the guide, we parted to make space, and the next thing I knew, there was a baby gorilla passing by right in front of me.

There are no pictures. As the baby gorilla walked past me on its way to wander the hills some more, I couldn’t stop smiling, and at the same time, tears started streaming down my face. It didn’t pay any attention to me at all – it was just there, being magical and graceful and magnificent in its own way. And fluffy! So fluffy. It was the most wonderful moment. There are no pictures, but I remember it perfectly. I’ve replayed it so often in my mind since.

The baby gorilla wandered off on its way, and I tried to recompose myself. And there was more trekking to come.

We followed the gorilla family as they wandered the hills and fed on leaves. I love the smooth way they move. We also had our next baby gorilla encounter. In general, adult silverbacks first try to intimidate intruders away by thumping their chests with their hands. This didn’t happen at all – the gorillas seemed to either not notice or ignore us for the most part. However, there was a small baby gorilla that first stared at us, and then thumped its chest to scare us away. I have to say, such a serious adult gesture from such a small, fluffy creature was just about the most adorable thing ever.

Scary baby gorilla

Baby mountain gorilla chest thumping

We also spent a while watching a mother play with its baby. The way they interacted seemed very sweet, and very loving. The baby gorilla was learning how to climb trees, and the mother would occasionally stroke and tickle it, and push it down from the tree, and then the baby would climb again… Gorillas are for the most part gentle creatures, but they are very attached to their families and will go to great lengths to defend them. It was wonderful to see some of that love.

Mother and baby playing

Mother and baby gorilla playing

The last gorilla I saw that day was again a male silverback, sitting on the hill slightly above us and gazing into the distance, looking really rather iconic in his own way. While of course the allocated hour seemed to pass at lightning speed, it was a beautiful way to finish what was an absolutely amazing experience.

The gorilla gaze

The trek back went quickly, and I was greeted upon return by my lovely tour guide. And after picking up my gorilla trekking certificate and stocking up on a fair share of postcards and locally carved gorilla figurines, it was sadly time to leave the home of the mountain gorillas behind. Gazing at the glorious thick mountain forest, I felt as touched by it as I did when I first lay my eyes on it. It’s rare to find such a perfect moment in the world, as I’d encountered with the gorillas. And I think it’s even more rare to find a place that so perfectly captures and lives up to your imagination, and invokes an almost childlike sense of wonder. When I was little, one of my favourite books was about an adventure of two kids, through the jungle and through the desert. Now that I’m an adult, I’m incredibly privileged to be able to live my dreams.

A few days later I returned to my hotel in Ishaka, Bushenyi. I was still floating from the experience. I kept daydreaming about it with a big smile on my face. The gorilla figurines from Bwindi were scattered across the bed. I imagined them wandering. I lined them up, facing away from me. The gorillas don’t care who I am. They just are.

The aftermath

As well as incredible memories, I also came back with much more hope about the mountain gorillas and their fate. I still understand that their position is precarious. But it was also reassuring to see that the conservation, at least in Uganda, appears to be carefully managed.

The gorilla permits are expensive, and the tourists who come see them also bring a lot of money into the country in other ways. As such, the gorillas are a carefully guarded resource – they pretty much have 24 hour guards. Occasionally bad things still happen, but overall, gorilla numbers in Bwindi have been steadily on the rise for a number of years now, I believe thanks to the efforts of the Uganda Wildlife Authority. Furthermore, measures are in place to prevent infection spread, and the guides seemed to enforce the gorilla watching rules. There are also efforts to engage the local community, rerouting some of the money from gorilla permits into local development projects. Infrastructure such as roads and electricity is also gradually spreading to more of the country, and that in turn should help communities develop and become more prosperous over time.

I believe that as well as the active protection efforts that are ongoing, the long-term future of the gorillas is intimately connected to the prosperity of the local communities and whether gorillas are important to them. Dian Fossey was very much opposed to gorilla tourism, which I can understand – it’s true that it’s disruptive to the gorillas and there is a danger of infection. In an ideal world, they should just be able to live in the wild and survive. However, I also have the impression that the tourism and the massive financial incentive that it brings results in very practical protection, keeping the gorillas alive and thriving. And at a time where everywhere else we’re seeing a massive environmental disaster and a huge decrease in endangered species’ populations, I believe that this is an impressive achievement. This only works if people continue to go and see them, so I would recommend the trip as a particularly fun way to contribute to gorilla conservation, as long as you don’t carry any contagious illnesses at the time.

I also understand that 880 gorillas is still only a small number of gorillas, and that conservation efforts need to remain active in order to ensure their future. Not all gorillas are as well protected as the ones in Uganda, and I love the work that the Dian Fossey gorilla fund has been putting into keeping anti-poaching patrols on the ground where needed. A gorilla adoption makes a lovely Christmas present too :)

I believe the surrounding communities are part of the key to this, which is why I particularly like the Conservation Through Public Health initiative. Healthy people and healthy gorillas are both important, and in this case connected. I also like the Gorilla Doctors charity, which sadly does not train actual gorillas to be actual doctors :)

For my part, other than that gorilla adoption packages are now a totally awesome and desired present for any occasion, I’m still thinking about whether there is a way to contribute further to gorilla conservation efforts. I’ve been trying to find out more about conservation in general, and also to what extent genetics or computational biology might be helpful. And there’s always spreading the word about the wonderfulness of gorillas. Other suggestions very much welcome.

I wasn’t always in love with the mountain gorillas. But now I am. And the gorillas are not the only thing I care about. But… I do care. Maybe it’s moral proximity. Or maybe it’s just that they’re wonderful and majestic and magical. And that a part of me strongly feels that we should make sure there’s still some magic left in the world.


Chimps (and other primates)

For a week I had the great pleasure of visiting different national parks around Uganda, courtesy of the wonderful Pearl of Africa Tours, who organised my trip. The first destination was Kibale Forest, the natural home of a large population of chimpanzees. A few of the chimp families in the park have been habituated so that people can go and visit them. What this means is that the rangers in the park spend a bit of time with the family every day for a period of a few years, until the chimps become totally indifferent to the presence of humans. In contrast, wild populations of chimps can be aggressive and dangerous, and should not be approached.

We got lucky with the trekking, so we found the entire family very quickly, and they were happily posing for us, carrying their babies, and generally going about their daily business. I felt quite amused watching them – for example, there was a chimpanzee lazing around who looked pretty much like someone sitting on the street chilling out, and to see him surrounded with humans frantically taking photos was a little surreal. Trekking different chimps was exciting and a lot of fun though.

The same area also has a bunch of monkeys and many different species of birds. The baboons are absolutely everywhere, and thrive very happily in Uganda generally – it’s not uncommon to see them by the roadside. There were also different colobus monkey species – ‘colobus’ means “lacking something”, and the name refers to the fact that the monkeys in question only have 4 fingers, and lack opposable thumbs. The cute ones clustered in the trees above are black and white colobus monkeys – I found a lot of them staring at me intently as we drove around! On a swamp walk close to Kibale Forest, we also saw the more rare red colobus monkeys. It was early in the morning, but they had already gotten drunk on the fermented fruit available in a nearby tree! Their drunken jumping from tree to tree was very funny :)


Entebbe

After the week of teaching, and before my tour was about to start, I had a few days to myself. The original plan was to go to Kampala, but my first encounter with it was really busy and chaotic, so I figured somewhere quieter would be nice. This is how I ended up by the beach in Entebbe.

I have to say, it turned out to be a wonderful plan. The beach was beautiful. I had to keep reminding myself it was a lake rather than a sea – the waves crashing by the shore certainly suggested otherwise. There were nice restaurants and live music on the beach in the evening, and it also turned out that there was more than enough stuff there to entertain me for a few days.

During our first day, my friend Isa and I went on a remarkably good tour of the Entebbe botanic gardens. Our guide Kim (who you can see in one of the pictures above) was incredibly knowledgeable about the plants in the botanic gardens, and talked us through the different crafts and medical uses of the plants, as well as the history of the place. Kim is the founder of Green Youth Conservation Uganda, and very passionate about nature and conservation in general, so we had some good chats about NGOs and collaborating on future projects. He was a wonderful guide, and I’d really recommend his tours to anyone visiting Entebbe.

Medicinal herbs, of which there are many samples in the botanic gardens, are a bit of a controversial topic. A lot of people die because they seek out local witchdoctors and herbal remedies instead of going to a hospital – without blood tests they can be misdiagnosed, and the effectiveness of the herbs is questionable. However, there is now a lot of systematic research happening to determine whether the traditional herbs are actually effective, what the active compounds are and how they work. A number of our students at KIU were doing exactly this research, testing herbal remedies for diseases such as epilepsy and depression. So I wouldn’t encourage anyone to  rely on herbal remedies instead of tested medicines. However, who knows – maybe a number of useful drugs in the 21st century will be developed from exactly these herbs.

Another surprise on the visit was the presence of animals in the botanic gardens. The Vervet monkeys seemed to be having a lot of fun playing with each other. It was nice to learn that they take turns carrying babies because they enjoy it, and that they love grooming each other – so much so, that they will pretend there is something to pick, because grooming is pleasurable to everyone involved.

The next day I also went for a visit to a very interesting place – the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary. Established by Jane Goodall, this is a rescue centre for chimps who are orphaned, or confiscated from poachers. While the island is relatively small compared to their usual habitat requirements, it gives them a more natural living environment than a zoo would, and the staff were lovely and very dedicated to the welfare of the chimps. When we were there, a chimp that didn’t feel like coming out that day (and was therefore still in a cage) was being stroked by a volunteer to keep her happier, and she even had some crayons in front of her and was making a drawing.

Because all the chimps come out to feed at the same time, it’s also a great place to observe chimp social behaviour – something I’d never seen before. I have to say, I was absolutely fascinated by what I learnt.

Chimps are not amongst my favourite animals because, well, they’re not the nicest creatures. They’re aggressive to each other, and a lot of their interactions seemed to be solved through physical power. On the day that we went to visit the island (but before we could see it), a male chimp tried to beat a female, but then got dragged away into the forest by four females. There were also arguments about food, with much complaining from one particular chimp – their society is very hierarchical, so the dominant males tend to get most of the food, and the chimp screaming on the ground had his food taken by the alpha. And generally, after much feeding-related furore and fighting, the dominant alpha male ran through the entire group thumping the ground, until everyone calmed down and eventually made their way back to the forest.

However, what I found the most fascinating were the guide’s stories about how complex chimp politics were. The alpha male has a number of duties, such as keeping order in the group, and he needs to have the support of the group to be in power. However, sometimes the dominant male goes too far and starts turning into a dictator. If this happens, there is a sort of revolution, and the leader is overthrown. There is then a period of extreme politics, with factions forming, chimps bargaining and swapping sides, until finally the chimp with the most support is elected as the new leader. Doesn’t all that seem so… Familiar?

All around I had a really lovely time, and would recommend Entebbe to anyone looking for a few quiet days of nature exploration. And seriously – I still can’t get over the chimp politics.