An Interview with Charlotte Uhlenbroek

Charlotte Uhlenbroek talks about her love of primates in this interview.

Charlotte Uhlenbroek

Where did your love of animals and conservation come from?

We always had lots of animals at home, particularly my mum. My twin was a dog who was two weeks older than me and we grew up together.

When I was living Nepal, because there were so many stray animals around, I was always retrieving them and bringing them home. My parents could’ve objected, and my dad did try, but the animals just melted their hearts. We also used to go out on trips, and just the whole grandeur of the landscapes made a deep impression on me.

In your formative years, you also worked for legendary Jane Goodall…

Yes, I worked for the Jane Goodall Institute in Burundi for around six months after university and then went to Gombe in Tanzania to habituate a new group of chimps in the north of the park. I think she appreciated my absolute enthusiasm for the project in Burundi – I really threw myself into it.

When I first went there I was the first PhD student to visit there since 1975, when they had had a kidnapping. She had felt so awful and responsible, she discouraged students from coming over. I felt incredibly honoured and eternally grateful for her trust in me. I had some of the most extraordinary times of my life during that period – living in a hut on the banks of Lake Tanganyika and studying chimps.

What was it about primates that led you down that road?

I knew I was into animal behaviour and increasingly complex animal behaviour, and I suppose what made us humans so different and where we fitted into the bigger picture. So in a way, my interest in animal behaviour is because of my interest in human behaviour. My particular area of interest is in communication, and human language is what seems to really differentiate us from the rest of the natural world. Not that much work had been done on chimp communication in the wild, so that’s what I started to bug Jane about.

What is it really like to come face-to-face with a gorilla?

It’s extraordinary. You might think you’ll know how you react, but nothing can prepare you. When you’re sat on the ground and a mountain gorilla walks up to you, they are so big and so powerful. And the smell! All your senses are going “kerching!”.

What is surprising is that they do accept you. OK, so some of those black backs rough-housed me, but they were showing off. If they hadn’t accepted me they certainly wouldn’t have done that – they would’ve been out of there. I knew they weren’t going to kill me or hurt me, because I know their rituals. I’ve been in plenty of scrapes with chimps to know it’s all about display.

Why do you use grunts to communicate with chimps and gorillas? And how do they differ?

With the gorillas, yes we grunt when we approach them because it’s actually polite to let them know you’re coming. Most wild animals in my experience do not like being crept up on. You should let them know you’re there, so you don’t startle them – that’s when they’re more likely to attack. The grunts I use are calming sounds to them. Generally, I don’t use calls when I’m interacting with chimps because I want to see their behaviour – I want to see how they react.

What did you set out to achieve in The Secret Life Of Primates?

Just to get in with groups of primates and be accepted, so that I could witness really intimate aspects of their lives. It was a bit like being a nosey neighbour. But it’s like human society really – a bit like joining a new golf club or something – there’ll be the first person to come over to shake your hand, and some will hang around at the back and suss you out. But in my experience, it’s always best to let them come to you.

Did you learn anything new in Secret Life…?

I learned a lot more about baboons. I had spent some time with them in the bush before, but I hadn’t really focused on them before. I’ve developed such a respect for baboons. They are so tough. What they can physically do is amazing. I spent a day living like a baboon – I only drank when they drank and tried to eat what they were eating. It was really tough.

Have you got a favourite primate?

I suppose chimps, just because I’ve spent the most time studying them. They’re constantly surprising. You never quite know what they’re going to do next. But I’m interested in animals all across the spectrum in that whole social context.

What do you miss most when you’re away on a trip?

I’m not a great creature comforts girl. I’m one of these people who loves extremes. I love being completely stripped back-to-basics and having virtually nothing. But then a hot shower and a cold beer at the end of that day is just the best. I love that contrast.