A very moving experience!
Uganda is probably one of the best places in the world to see habituated wild chimpanzees. "Wild" because the public's perception is most likely limited to the gentle captive chimpanzees that one can find in Zoos or Research centres. Experiencing the chimps in their natural environment is completely different and most visitors admit that this is a very moving experience, a must for every eco-tourist coming to Uganda!
Chimpanzee tracking will typically start at 8 a.m. with a guided nature walk in the forest. Your guide is a very knowledgeable person having a lot of interesting information to tell about the forest. He knows many of the flora and fauna species, he is able to identify the primate and bird calls. You will be surprised that he knows most scientific or local names of the trees. Not all trees have been identified with English names. In Bwindi for example you have more than 200 native trees recorded while the richest forest in the Appalachian Mountains, the USA has only about 25 tree species!
While having a chat, you will walk through a network of forest paths and penetrate slowly deep in the rain forest. Suddenly your guide will ask you to listen; the chimps! Of course, no visitor is capable to hear them and the next minutes your guide will divert his attention and try to locate the chimps far away somewhere in the forest!
Chimpanzees live in large communities sometimes up to 40 members and more. They are most of the time moving in different smaller groups looking for food especially in the morning hours. The adult males travel together, sometimes hunting or patrolling the borders of their territory. The other groups are female groups or families. The community comes together periodically and the groups change from day to day. Chimpanzees are omnivores, and eat not only fruits, nuts, seeds, leaves, etc., but also insects and meat! While gorillas don't hunt for meat it is well known that chimps do! They hunt for other smaller primates like the Colobus-monkey for example. It was Jane Goodall, who reported nearly 40 years ago this behaviour of the chimps.
Your guide will locate the chimps and try to follow one of the groups. Chimpanzees have a very good communication system. They have a wide range of calls and will even drum one of the large trees to communicate with the other groups. But most of the time you will hear the wraaaa call. This alarm call is a very savage sound used to alert the other groups. This scream can take you by surprise. On one of our visits we could hear (but not see) some elephants; the whole forest came suddenly alive! A group of chimps started to alert the others, and the interaction between groups was very impressive! They were all very excited and worried!
Chimps run away from you and you have to follow them deep into the forest, trying to see them. Your guide will help you and point his finger to show them between the trees, there! You realise that your guided nature walk has suddenly changed into a tracking expedition, crossing small rivers and other obstacles. Watch out for ants - they bite and hang on, and if you step in and get covered, the only solution is to strip!
The tracking exercise can sometimes take up to two hours. When your guide comes to a stand still, you might sometimes think that you are lost. There is no forest path you can see! Don't worry your guide is an expert you can rely on him as he tries to locate the chimps.
By 11 a.m. the chimps take finally a rest and this is the best time to approach and observe them closely. It's only at that moment that you realize that they have been habituated. They tolerate you when taking a rest and continue their daily duties. When you are lucky you see them on the ground. With the appropriate photo equipment (300mm zoom lens and high ASA film!) you can take some good pictures. Not always easy! Sometimes they are high in the trees and you will need your binoculars to observe them well. You will stay about one hour with them.
As human beings, they are not always ready for guests. Limiting the length of observation time helps to reduce the chimpanzees' stress level.
- Chimpanzee tracking permits are in high demand and need to be booked and paid well in advance.
- Observing the chimps is integrated in our Classic Uganda Programme and offers several opportunities to experience the chimps: Kibale Forest NP and Kyambura WR, but also on Ngamba Island (Chimpanzee sanctuary) as an option. The tracking experience is different from one location to another.