Catherine Alsford

I fell in love with the outdoors/nature at a very young age and I have continued to foster my love of everything in the natural world.  I fell in love with Africa just as easily as I have the other places I have traveled.  But, there was something magical about hiking through the forests of Mahale or Gombe during the rainy season to find a chimpanzee or spot a shy giraffe poking its head above an acacia tree.  Being able to share a day with amazing creatures of Africa inspires me to create change in the behaviors of people around me and to help people understand how important it is to conserve the natural world.  Conservation will not only help plant and animal life, but will also help future biologist and animal lovers like me.  I cannot imagine my childhood and my life now without healthy and thriving environments to study from and I hope it remains for future generations.




After three days of traveling by plane and by boat, all eleven of us finally arrived at our camp in Mahale, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika.  I immediately realized that we are no longer in the US but in a place that looks like a scene from a movie (Tarzan).  A thousand pictures could not even begin to capture what I was seeing.  Mountains as far as I could see were covered in lush green trees and vines.  The forest is so dense it looks impenetrable, the beach is sand scattered with empty shells, quartz rocks, and yellow baboons.  Looking up, birds and bats share the skies with thousands of red and gold dragon flies.  There are thousands of different plant and insect species alone in Mahale which reminds me that human beings are not so special (unique).  We are just a part of the whole system/cycle of life.  As a part of this system, we must always remind ourselves how precious it is and that we need to always be conscious of our actions as everything we do has unknown consequences for other organisms that share our world.  For example, on our third day of chimpanzee tracking in the rainforests of Mahale, we came across one chimp high up in the forest and then we crossed paths again later in the day but much closer to camp.  This served as a reminder that our wild and majestic cousins need a lot of space to roam and produce natural behaviors.  We humans create problems for wild animals simply by taking up space.  If you think about it, they need much of the same basic things we need such as food, water, and space to live.  And if by changing our actions, we can help give other species a better life, than I am willing to try.  I am also eager to let others know how they can help as well.  We have an enormous need for biodiversity, many different species, on earth.  Biodiversity of plants and animals creates the links that hold together our world.  Without different species we may not even exist. 

The day that really made me realize this was our last day when we hiked for hours along the heavily wooded trails behind our campsite.  We had intended to find many different bird species but instead we filled the whole time by looking at plants and insects that were all so different than anything back in the USA.  We even had a chimp cross our path.  Everything whether big or small, mammal or mushroom, should e appreciated and conserved for future generations. 



A two-hour boat ride from the sandy shores of Kigoma will land you at the entrance to Gombe, the famous research site of Jane Goodall.  The boat that goes to Gombe is truly an African adventure.  Although I am sure it is not as primitive as the boats Dr Jane Goodall had to take to get here.  The boat is wooden with just enough seating for the eleven of us with a canvas top, open sides and only one propeller.  Boating along the shoreline gives us all a view into the lives of the people of Kigoma.  We have often been told, and we see, how much they depend on the lake.  The shores are lined with fishing villages and the lake is spotted with fishermen.  The people of Kigoma and Mahale have really wowed me with their kind spirits and hardworking personalities.  For example, the fishermen use wooden boats.  most of them do not have gas engines/props., with small nets and lines.  They spend hours a day fishing out on the lake, which can become very rough, in the hot sun in order to make a living for themselves or for their families.  This just serves as a reminder to me that nothing in life comes easily and we must work hard for everything that we want.  But I especially hope that I am able to take home with me the kind  spirit of these people instead of getting caught up in my own life too much.  We should all remember our role in life is, in part, to make our communities a better place – as the people of Kigoma should work to preserve their natural land and keep the Lake viable so too should we try to keep whatever palace we are living in free from too much human disturbance. 

Reflecting on the people and communities that surround Gombe is important because these people are critical for conservation efforts.  We can recycle, buy organic and do other eco-friendly actions as much as we like at home but the people here have a direct influence on the Gombe wildlife and especially the chimpanzee. 

Stepping off of our wooden boat onto the shores of Gombe is like stepping into the pages of one of Jane Goodall’s books.  Olive baboons line the shores as if they are greeting us.  This place already feels magical.  We are taken by boat everywhere we need to go – such as our camp.  Our first hike leads us along the same paths that Dr Jane herself walked starting in 1960.  When the trackers found chimps, we were guided along a path leading to them. 

The first chimp we saw was famous Gremlin who has been around since Jane Goodall first started her research.  Seeing this particular chimp reminds me that their longevity is just another characteristic we share with chimps. 

For the rest of that afternoon, we spent time observing their social interactions which seem almost as complex as those of humans.  The third and last day of chimp tracking illuminated another very important aspect of their lives which is home range.  The chimps of the K.K. group were much further on the last day.  This need for a large home range serves as a reminder that Gombe may eventually be too small.  The park is an isolated pocket of land which houses 106 chimps with a limited gene pool.  For this reason it is important to involve the local people to perhaps conserve/preserve land to make into corridors to promote the survival of these beautiful creatures that share things such as our genetics, complex social interactions, and strong maternal child bonds.  We must always remember that we are just one part of the world and helping to teach people will promote conservation which I think is a good job for us CACs to do. 


Content provided by Canisius College students under the direction of Michael Noonan, PhD.