Presenter Interview: Charlotte Uhlenbroek

By Alison George New Scientist
She's been chased by elephants and dragged by chimpanzees. Described as an eco-friendly Lara Croft and the successor to David Attenborough, zoologist and wildlife presenter Charlotte Uhlenbroek is still roaming the world. She stopped long enough to tell Alison George about her life

Have you always lived a nomadic existence?
Yes. I was born in London, then soon went back to Ghana where my parents were living. When I was 5 we moved to Nepal, where I stayed until I was 14, then went to school in England. In the meantime, my family moved to Tanzania, so I would go there on holidays.

Were those years formative in terms of your wanting to work with animals?
In Nepal, during the holidays, we'd go trekking in the Himalayas. Although you don't see a great number of mammals there, it is fantastic for birds, and you get a sense of being in beautiful, wild spaces. My love of the natural world came from those early years.

It must have been a shock to go from Nepal to an English boarding school.
At first I felt like a caged animal. I was used to wandering around barefoot with a whole lot of stray dogs to look after, and then suddenly I was at an all-girl's boarding school where I wasn't even allowed to leave the school gates. It was quite a shock to the system.

You went on to study zoology and psychology. What came next?
I was working as a researcher at the BBC Natural History Unit when I heard that primatologist Jane Goodall was looking for a field assistant. I jumped at the chance, and went to Burundi to help establish a research and conservation project looking at chimpanzees living in fragments of forest right up against human habitation where no one expected they could live. Then I went to Goodall's main site at Gombe National Park in Tanzania to study chimp communication. I lived in a tiny hut near Lake Tanganyika and spent two years roaming the forests with the chimps, recording their vocalisations.

What did you discover about chimp communication?
I was concentrating on the males' long distance calls, and I found that there are at least three acoustically distinct types of calls used in different contexts. The alpha males call much more than the low-ranking males - it is advantageous for a dominant male to keep the males together to protect his group from neighbouring chimps, as he benefits most in terms of access to females and resources. The alpha male often calls in others when he finds a good food supply, whereas lower ranking males are likely to stay quiet so they don't get usurped and lose out on food.

You must have got to know the chimps well.
They become almost like close friends, except of course you don't interact with them so they will continue with their natural behaviour. The chimps at Gombe have been studied for so long that they just ignore you, though occasionally one of the little ones will come over and try to pull something out of your pack. I still keep in touch with Gombe to find out what's happening to the adolescents I once knew.

What's your most memorable encounter in the wild?
I've had endless days with the chimps where I've been blown away, but I've also swum with humpback whales, which was amazing, and been chased by an elephant, which was pretty scary!

Why did an elephant chase you?
I was in the Central African Republic on foot in a bai, or forest clearing, where a lot of animals come for the mineral salts as well as to drink. A female elephant and her calf came out of the forest very close to where I was sitting and talking to camera for the BBC series Jungle. I stayed still, hoping she would carry on past me when she suddenly picked up my scent from about 12 metres away and charged. I don't blame her - there is a lot of elephant poaching in that area so they really fear humans and she was protecting her calf.

For a brief moment I thought I would stand my ground - but made a split-second decision that she would probably flatten me if I didn't get out of her way fast. I managed to get to the shelter of a tree where an elephant researcher and local tracker were and we hid while the elephant crashed about in the undergrowth. She finally decided to go in search of her calf which had run off. That's the only the time I've been filming or researching wild animals and really thought, "This could be it".

It was the one time I really thought, 'this could be it'

Have there been other close calls?
In the field, you have lots of uncomfortable encounters with snakes, or elephants around the camp. I've been kicked by mountain gorillas and dragged down a hill by chimps.

That all sounds pretty dangerous!
I knew they weren't out to kill me. Male chimpanzees put on a display to assert themselves within the community, and this often involves charging through the undergrowth, tearing off branches and sometimes hurling rocks. That time, they incorporated me in the display. Drag a branch, chuck it to one side, charge past Charlotte, grab her ankle, charge down the hillside - they're very strong, so there's not much you can do about it. I knew it was a show of bravado. I came back with a few cuts and bruises, but not badly hurt. The most dangerous situations in the wild are either when you are a potential meal for a predator, or when an animal feels very scared. It was the same with the gorillas - the males were just showing off. It is an adrenalin moment when a large gorilla comes over and flattens you, but I didn't think they were going to kill me.

Now you're going back for more?
Yes, I'm working on a UK television series about primates for Channel 5. I went to Uganda last month to film chimps. Next it will be baboons, gorillas and orang-utans. I want to take the audience right into their society by following some principal characters and revealing what extraordinarily complex relationships they have.

David Attenborough has tipped you to be his successor. How do you feel about that?
It is a huge compliment but quite daunting. David Attenborough is a hero of mine, but I don't think anybody can step into his shoes. He's a one-off.

Your life sounds very glamorous. Is there any downside to your nomadic existence?
Yes, there is, though I feel churlish saying that because of the amazing experiences I've had. But I think as humans we also need the quiet, ordinary aspects of life, we need to be with family and friends - and sometimes that can go by the wayside.

Does that ever make you want to settle down to a desk job?
No, I'll carry on doing what I do, sometimes at my desk writing, sometimes travelling. I don't really look too far ahead.

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