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 go is chimpanzee tracking in Kibale Forest National Park in Uganda as it’s home to five habituated groups that are within easy walking distance. There’s a morning (8 am) and afternoon (2 pm) departure, and while there are plenty of hills along the trails, walking isn’t difficult if you’re in shape. Children aged 12 and under aren’t permitted.
While you have a good chance of being issued a chimp permit (US$150) at the park, it occasionally gets booked out during the holiday season, so reservations before arrival are a good idea. Regular trackers get just one hour with the playful primates, but those on the Chimpanzee Habituation Experience can spend the whole day with them.
Note that chimpanzees have been in the process of being habituated in the Sebitoli sector, 12km east of Fort Portal, for some years now, but permits for this group were still not being issued to travelers.
What is interesting about chimpanzee tracking?
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, US$150).
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 behavior. In the 1960s Dr. Goodall moved in with a community of chimps in Tanzania’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 cost of chimpanzee tracking
The cost of the chimpanzee tracking permit is US$150 per person, a fraction of the US$700 and US$1500 price tags for gorilla permits at Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park respectively.
If an hour isn’t enough for you, then the park also offers a habituation experience, where you’ll spend a full day (US$220) following one of two communities currently undergoing the two-year habituation process. You’ll need to be prepared for a fair bit of brisk walking – chimps can move fast – but it will be worth it for the rewards of a more intimate encounter.
The Chimpanzee tracking experience
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 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.
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 be 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.
Pushing through the tangled undergrowth, ducking under low branches, and watching your step for twisted roots, you’ll hike in the direction of where the animals were last seen, all the time listening for their cries in the trees above. With a bit of luck, you’ll soon hear them: that harsh, high-pitched screeching that rises to a crescendo and then fades away again as the family members call to one another. It’s an eerie, thrilling sound, and one that you know means you’re about to meet the stars of the show.
As you follow the direction of the cacophony, you should soon find one of the family’s sub-groups. They may be high up in the treetops, feasting on figs, grooming, or playing. But if you’re lucky, some will have come down to the ground, and that’s when the real magic happens.