Why seeing chimpanzees in Uganda is one of the world’s greatest wildlife experiences
Chimpanzees may get much less hype in the travel media than endangered mountain gorillas, but tracking our closest relative through the African jungle is in fact one of the world’s most thrilling wildlife encounters (and it costs a fraction of visiting our larger cousins).
Although there are around 300,000 chimpanzees left in the equatorial forests of Africa, observing them in their natural habitat is a rare treat. One of the best places to do so is Kibale Forest National Park in Uganda as it’s home to five habituated groups that are within easy walking distance.
Chimpanzees live in communities of up to 150 members, which are divided into smaller subgroups and led by an alpha male. They’ll typically spend much of their day high up in the treetops, grooming, sleeping, and feeding on fruit, leaves and bark. However, it’s when they descend from the canopy that you’ll have your best chance of getting close to them.
Today we know that chimpanzees are humans’ closest genetic relatives – sharing around 98% of our DNA – but it was the celebrated primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall who first observed their astonishing human-like behaviour. In the 1960s Dr. Goodall moved in with a community of chimps in Tanazania’s Gombe National Park, where she was able to prove that chimpanzees kill and eat small mammals, and can make and use tools, ideas that were completely unknown at the time.
By spending time with the chimps she eventually taught them to accept her – a process known as habituation which is not only fantastic for scientists, but also opens up the opportunity for ordinary visitors to get almost within touching distance of these incredible creatures.
The chimpanzees of Kibale Forest National Park
Kibale Forest in Uganda is home to around 1500 chimpanzees living in 13 communities. Of these, various groups have been successfully habituated; some for scientific study and others, such as the Kanyanchu group, are used for tracking.
What to expect from your chimpanzee experience
Most visitors opt for the half-day, which should provide you with plenty of time to find the group and enjoy a thrilling hour in their company. The adventure starts with a briefing, during which you’ll learn a little about the animals you’re about to see, as well as being given some dos and don’ts. Top of the list: avoid getting too close. Not only for your own safety, but also for theirs as our colds, viruses and diseases can easily spread to them due to shared DNA. It’s also not wise to imitate their calls. While it might seem fun to mimic them, if you’re not careful you might accidentally end up recreating a battle cry and bring 120 angry chimpanzees down upon you. Once you’ve been briefed, you’re separated into groups of up to seven, each accompanied by a guide, who is armed in case of emergencies. And then it’s time to head into the forest.
Face to face with chimpanzees
No matter how prepared you are, nothing beats that first, up-close, chimpanzee encounter. That intense buzz of being no more than a few feet away from these completely wild creatures. The thrill of seeing how intelligent they are, with their poses, expressions and interactions that could be almost human. The way they look right at you with their bright eyes, and even pose for your camera, you may wonder if they’re enjoying the interaction even more than you are.
The gorillas may be Uganda’s star attraction, but coming face-to-face with a wild chimpanzee is every bit as breathlessly exhilarating. In fact, this experience is arguably better, because the terrain is much easier, the forest less dense, the chimpanzees easier to find, and the price significantly cheaper. All good reasons why you might want to consider putting chimps right at the top of your must-see list.
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Chimpanzee tracking in Kibale National Park