Thrill of Tracking Chimpanzees at Kibale National Park
It was a very surreal experience tracking man’s ‘cousins’ and seeing the way they feed, climb trees, respond to humans and care for their young ones, chimpanzee tracking is one of the most loved activities at Kibale National Park in Kamwenge District, attracting tourists from various countries around the world.
It was on November 2 2013 that I made up my mind to visit the park and experience this famed thrill. I couldn’t contain my excitement as I boarded a bus to Fort Portal town, where I took a special hire to the park in Kamwenge. Here, one is free to tromp through the rainforest jungles, making their own paths as they follow the guides.
At first, we were given gumboots to enable us trail through the forest with ease, then issued instructions on how to behave in the forest when trailing our “closest relatives”. “There are 90 per cent chances of viewing the chimpanzees either by luck, following sounds of the troops moving through forests, or going to their usual camps,” our guide, William, let on.
We then walked through the thick rain forest for close to three hours while the guides kept communicating to each other on radio calls to find the exact location of the chimpanzees.
After a two-hour trek, I took a sigh of relief when we heard sounds of the troops communicating to each other, but became horrified as we drew near the troops, fearing they could trounce on us. “They are quite habituated to human presence, so they do not run as we walk nearby, but do not mimic them, get near them or eat in their presence because this could provoke them,” William warned.
We then left the forest trails to meet the chimp groups. One of the females was quite obviously in heat and there was much commotion as the males vied for her attention.
William explained that the female chimp could reject any suitor she wished, and we saw it happen as she fought off the advances of the 40-year-old grey-chinned Mobuto, named after the Congolese dictator Mobuto Ssese Seko because he is the head of this particular tribe and bullies his mates. The brush-off was loud and intense and took place with such a flurry of motion that capturing it on camera was impossible.
We saw several adorable babies perched on the backs of their mothers but they too were very difficult to photograph as the light in the dense forest was quite dim. We had to leave soon because after sighting a tribe, visitors were only allowed to watch them for one hour.
The most accessible of Uganda’s major rainforests, Kibale is home to a remarkable 13 primate species, including the much localized red colobus and Lhotse’s monkey.
James Twine, the park head guide, said Kibale’s major attraction is the opportunity to track these delightful apes and watch as they squabble and play in fruit trees, adding that a network of shady forest trails provides much to delight botanists and butterfly lovers, while birders are in for a treat with 335 species available including the endemic Prigogine’s Ground Thrush.
The elusive forest elephant, smaller and hairier than its savannah counterpart, moves seasonally into the developed part of the park, while other terrestrial mammals include buffalos, giant forest hogs and a half dozen antelope species. “We get about 36 tourists per day who track the chimps in groups of two,” Twine said, adding that tourists are required to obtain a tracking permit from Uganda Wildlife Authority in Kampala at $$ 150 dollars.
A chimpanzees’ day starts at 6:30a.m as they leave their nests to have breakfast and start moving through the forest to look for food. They then rest to groom each other as others mate. After this break, they have lunch, rest again, then move in groups of 20 until they find an appropriate place for nesting at around 6p.m. “Chimpanzees have a great phobia for snakes and run upon seeing them, but will fight and kill any chimp foreign to a group, unless it’s a female without a male baby. If it has a male baby, the baby is killed for fear that it could take over their females,” said Twine.
About 20 metres from the park’s main gate are fairly large families of baboons, but tourists are usually more interested in the chimps because tracking them is thrilling.