Uganda is well known for its primate tracking, especially chimpanzees and gorillas. I was really excited to have the opportunity to see them in the wild. I had first been drawn to chimpanzees by reading Jane Goodalls books, to me the whole family saga she described seemed to be an EastEnders’ plot. I was intrigued to see whether this was true, and compare my own experiences walking with chimpazees.
Kibale National Park
Kibale National Park is located amongst tea plantations and rolling hills in the southwest of the country. It is a scenic setting with tall trees reaching up to the sky, blocking out sunlight so that the forest floor is a dappled green. The park covers 795sqkm and is home to 1,450 individual chimpanzees. There are 13 chimp communities here, 8 of which are wild, 3 are being used as research and 2 have been habituated to human beings. Chimpanzees have been tracked since 1993 and the chances of locating them are excellent. The groups are accustomed to human presence – some have been observed for over 25 years – and the chance of locating them is over 90%.
We are very closely related to chimpanzees, so much so that 98.7% of our DNA is a match. This was pretty apparent when watching them as they looked at me with open curiosity and then nonchalantly wandered off into the forest. It is easy is anthropomorphise here, far too easy, and I am not going to apologise for it. He was bored looking at me and went to find something more interesting to observe.
I arrived at the park’s office for the start of the walk. Walks leave Kanyanchu Visitor Centre at 08.00, 11.00 and 14.00 and last between 2-5 hours, depending on how long it takes to find them. As with gorillas, contact time with chimpanzees is limited to one hour; group size is limited to six visitors and participants must be aged 16 or over. There was a very informative area with information about not only the chimpanzees, but also the monkeys, other mammals and birds in the vicinity. To be honest I wasn’t too sure what to expect, but I was very excited.
We had an overall briefing about how to behave, what to wear and what to expect. It was a bit late for learning about what to wear, but I was prepared with long sleeved trousers and top. I appreciated this much later when battling through the forest trying to follow the chimpanzees. There were a lot of plants with nasty stings and the ants can give fearsome bites. This was discovered by one or the other visitors I was with.
There were only 3 of us in the group and Benson was our guide. I realised how lucky I was to have such a small group because it gave us ample opportunity to have one to one experiences with the chimpanzees, rather than a lot of us blundering through the forest. We had been assigned to the Kanyantale community, which has a range of 35sqkm and 120 chimpanzees.
There are often trackers with the chimpanzee groups who are monitoring their behaviour on behalf of the Jane Goodall Institute. Through a fantastic network of trackers and research scientists we immediately knew where our assigned group were. It was just getting there that would be the problem.
Then we were off, in our vehicles for a 10-minute drive and then straight into the forest. The walking was easy to begin with, Benson kept up a pretty fast pace, but the forest was relatively open, and we could follow a network of paths. I was glad I was wearing my walking boots as the ground was rather boggy under foot.
Suddenly Benson abruptly stopped, and a chimpanzee called through the forest. When you hear it in the wild it is totally different from hearing it on the TV. A huge smile spread across my face, this was really happening, I was really going to see chimpanzees in the wild. Benson was then off as a very fast walking pace, veering off the small path and diving straight into the forest. There is no time to think about what we were doing, and I had to break into a little jog every now and again to keep up with him. Benson was commitment to making sure we saw the chimpanzee’s was apparent.
“They are moving fast, we need to keep up with them,” he said. We nodded sagely and trustingly followed him into the undergrowth. It was a rather surreal experience, blindly bashing through the forest, avoiding lianas and trip hazards, crossing small streams, whilst looking up into the canopy trying to spot a chimpanzee.
Walking with Chimpanzees
I expected to see the chimpanzees in their nests, we’d been told that they were just getting up. However, my first chimpanzee that I have seen in the wild was 10 metres away from me, and on the ground. There were two of them walking in front of us, so we followed them. They then sat down, potentially pondering life, and we had the heart-warming opportunity to circle round them and simply crouch down with them at a respectful distance.
They didn’t seem too bothered to begin with, until one of them shook the branches he was next to and suddenly ran off into the undergrowth, screeching at the top of his voice. It was terrifying, he rushed past me with a gap of about 3 metres. Benson laughed. Apparently it was natural, this particular chimpanzee wasn’t a morning chimp!
Observing Chimpanzees who are observing me
I spent a glorious hour with the chimpanzees. I think we saw about 25 different individuals, from old and knowledgeable adults to youngsters playing, to mothers putting teenagers in their place and adults grooming. We followed the troop as it manoeuvred through the forest in search of food.
Benson was brilliant in making sure that we could see the chimpanzees properly, I’ve never been manhandled so much to make sure that I got a good view! I could see the delight and also the pride in him showing us the chimpanzees, naming them all individually and knowing the different traits and characteristics of each one. There was passion and dedication there.
It takes a chimpanzee guide several years of training to be a guide, and then a year to familiarise themselves with the troop locations and personalities. After that the passion for their job increases as well. All the guides are trackers, and they swap rolls daily to keep things fresh.
Benson was incredible, his dedication to the chimpanzees was apparent and we all got swept up in his story telling. It was a personal experience.
All too quickly it was time to go, we had had our hour walking with chimpanzees. An hour that I will always remember and treasure.