Much of what we know about wild chimps comes from studies of forest communities in equatorial Africa, but now a group of savanna chimps living at the edge of this apes’ range in northwest Africa is making us rethink the nature of our closest cousins.
The chimps of Fongoli, in southeast Senegal, live in savanna woodland, much like the landscape where early humans evolved, and they made headlines around the world when researcher Jill Pruetz observed them making primitive spears to hunt bush babies—which upended our idea that only humans use weapons. But these chimps also are defying other common beliefs, including the notion that chimps don’t like water.
On hot summer days, Fongoli chimps sometimes seek relief from the brutal heat by soaking in water. I was keen to document this unique behavior but the chimps were shy, even after two months of tracking them daily. However, their regular visits to one secluded waterhole gave me the idea for an image that would put my camera in much closer proximity to them than I could ever be. I studied how the chimps came and went from the pool, and then I hid the camera inside a pile of rocks, like the one in this picture. The chimps knew a camera was there, but I made it an acceptable intrusion for them by camouflaging it and retreating to a spot farther away, where I could trigger the camera by radio. I mounted a wide-angle zoom lens and pre-composed, pre-focused and pre-exposed for the situation I anticipated.
The camera recorded remarkable scenes of chimps going in and out of the water. One unusual frame shows three males—normally rivals—and a female in the background, waiting her turn. Two of the males are soaking waist-deep in water—a behavior never captured before. The low camera position and its wide-angle perspective enhance the intimacy of the scene, with a point of view that brings the viewer inside the experience—up close from a remote position.
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