Tracking chimpanzees in Western Uganda's Kibale Forest on a day long habituation experience is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and one of 12 reasons that I think Uganda is the most awesome place to go on safari in East Africa. Read on for details about our day-long hike in search of chimps, humanity's closest relatives.
We arrived at the visitor's center in Kibale Forest at dawn and were greeted by our Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) Ranger, Benson. As we started our hike, we stopped at a thatched enclosure to go over the rules. The most important rule is that if you're sick, you can't go on the trek. Chimps and humans share so much DNA that it's possible to transmit diseases across species.
I knew this rule in advance and took extra precautions to make sure I wouldn't catch a cold in the weeks leading up to the trip. I recommend lots of hand sanitizer and vitamin C. I even found a nose spray that is supposed to help prevent colds. I figured it couldn't hurt. I definitely did not want to miss the chimpanzee habituation trek on our trip to Uganda!
Into the Kibale National Forest
Five of us embarked on the chimpanzee habituation trek that day: me and my husband, an older gentleman from the US, and a pair of British diplomats living in Kampala.
The forest is quite dense with all sorts of creatures living within so it's important to dress appropriately for your chimpanzee habituation experience. Wear long trousers and a long-sleeved shirt and sturdy hiking shoes. Tuck your trouser legs into your socks to protect yourself from fire ants. Gaiters (coverings for your trousers) to protect your clothing from mud and tears are definitely helpful.
We entered Uganda's Kibale Forest and were enveloped by deep green foliage. Benson pointed out the large old-growth trees that the chimps tend to favor.
We learned about how the chimpanzees rap on the trees to communicate and scratch themselves with the bark.
Chimpanzee Night Nests
After about an hour of walking along reasonably well-cleared trails, we emerged into a clearing and looked up. We had found the chimpanzee night nests and, uh, other evidence of their recent presence.
Now all we had to do was figure out where they had gone to feed.
Hurry Up and Wait: Chimps Feeding and Napping in the Treetops
The UWA guides track chimps in Kibale Forest nearly everyday and get to know the patterns that these fascinating primates follow and their favored locations. After another hour or so of searching for the chimps, we found two apes lounging high up in a tree.
Tracking chimpanzees in Uganda is definitely a hurry-up and wait exercise. We had to hurry to find the chimps but then we had to wait patiently for them to come down from the trees. The chimps follow a fairly predictable pattern: leave the night nest, find food, feed in the treetops, come down to ground level to move through the forest, go back up to the treetops, bed down for the night. In total, we waited about 2 hours in a forest clearing while the chimps took their time feeding and resting.
Lunch Visitors in Kibale National Forest
Since the chimps were eating, our group thought it was the perfect time to have some lunch. When we pulled out the packed lunches provided by Kibale Forest Lodge, beautiful butterflies fluttered into view and perched on my backpack. I love amazing nature in its largest and smallest forms!
A Red-Tailed Monkey Diversion in Kibale Forest
Chimpanzees aren't the only primates living in Uganda's Kibale forest. While we were waiting for the resting chimps to come down from the trees, we entertained ourselves watching a red-tailed monkey jump from tree-to-tree.
Chimps Coming Down
Finally, our patience was rewarded! The chimps were coming down! At this point, there were the 5 people from our day-long habituation trek plus about a dozen others doing the hour-long chimp encounter. It was like the paparazzi had descended on the place with everyone jockeying for a good spot to get a photo.
The chimpanzee that climbed down from the trees was a good sport and sat on a rock for a few minutes to be admired. Such an amazing creature!
Once they come down from the trees, the goal is to follow the chimps wherever they go. However, on the chimpanzee habituation trek, you can only move as fast as your slowest group member will allow. One of the people in our group had some mobility issues and had a hard time keeping up with the pace required to effectively track the chimps. You need to be in good physical shape and be able to walk fast over rough terrain to do chimpanzee tracking in Uganda's Kibale National Forest. If you go anyway despite physical limitations, you'll be holding the others in your group back.
Chimps Chilling in the Trees
Despite not being able to keep up with the chimpanzees who had come down from the trees, we were fortunate to find a few more chimps hanging out in a different set of trees not far away.
Waiting in the Rain
We waited for the chimps to descend for about an hour and then a heavy rain started to pour down. The chimps looked equally unhappy to be wet! Once again, we have a lot in common with our closest relatives.
The Hike Out of Kibale Forest
The Kibale Forest chimpanzee habituation tracking day typically lasts until the chimps make their nests for the night or the group agrees that they've had enough. We waited until the last group of chimps came down from the trees, followed them a short distance and then unfortunately lost them again since our group wasn't able to keep pace. At about 5 pm, we hiked out of the muddy, rainy forest to meet our waiting Matoke Tours driver, Geoffrey to take us back to the lodge.
Our Chimp Habituation Day Distilled Down to 3 Minutes
A picture may tell 1000 words, but a video can be even more powerful. Check out my video highlights of our day tracking chimpanzees in Uganda's Kibale Forest to immerse yourself in the experience.
Overall, it was a great day out. We'd recommend tracking chimpanzees in Uganda if you are in good physical shape. It is indeed a once-in-a-lifetime experience.