Tracking chimps in the wild: an insider’s guide

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With several parks offering chimping as an activity, how do you choose where to go? And what can you expect? By Emma Gregg.

Animated, acrobatic and as politically savvy as a busload of MPs at election time, chimpanzees are fascinating to watch. You have to work for your sightings, but that’s part of the attraction.

Most wild chimps live in hot, remote, tangled forests. They spend large parts of each day on the move, searching for food or simply patrolling their territory. Unlike their distant cousins the mountain gorillas, they can be tricky to find and follow, even when habituated to the presence of humans. However, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda have excellent chimping scouts, guides and national park rangers who are adept at getting you close.

How to find a group of chimps
It’s rare to encounter wild chimps by chance, just by driving through their habitat. Your best bet is to book a guided hike to track a habituated community: a group of wild chimps which researchers and rangers have been carefully approaching and observing over the course of several years.

On the morning of your hike, scouts will set off in advance to find the nests the chimps made the night before. They then track the group’s movements, listening for calls and looking for dung, knuckle prints and scraps of half-eaten leaves and fruit. When they locate the chimps, they’ll alert your guide, who will lead you through the forest.

You’ll start by following paths for anything between 30 minutes and several hours – an interesting and enjoyable experience in its own right. When you’re close, you may have to clamber through steep, dense vegetation, with the scouts using machetes to hack a way through. As soon as you can see the chimps clearly, your one-hour encounter officially begins.

Africa’s top four chimp-tracking destinations

  1. KIBALE NATIONAL PARK, Uganda

The Kanyanchu sector of Kibale National Park is Africa’s most popular chimping destination, with good reason. It’s low-lying and the terrain is mostly flat and easy, with little undergrowth and some relatively open areas – great for clear sightings and well-lit photography. The forest is a beautiful and rich habitat, with plenty of fig trees (a favourite food source), each fruiting at a slightly different time to the next.

Kibale’s “tourist” chimps have been habituated for so long that they’re totally unfazed by human visitors and are often encountered on the ground. For a more in-depth experience than the usual one-hour viewing, you can book a half-day or full-day Habituation Experience.

  1. MAHALE MOUNTAINS NP, Tanzania

Mahale offers superb chimping opportunities for those who can afford it. Accessible only by boat along Lake Tanganyika, its forest is large, luxuriant and rich in monkeys and birds.

To explore a sliver of it, book a stay at one of the park’s alluring beach lodges, such as the gorgeous Greystoke Mahale, where the in-house guides regale guests with hilarious tales about the chimps’ shenanigans and lead highly enjoyable excursions.

The park has a team of resident primatologists and its rangers are very conscientious, ensuring nobody overstays their allotted hour with the chimps and insisting on surgical masks to avoid spreading infections.

  1. BUDONGO FOREST, Uganda

Situated within the Murchison Falls Conservation Area, Budongo is home to over 600 chimps, some of which are the subject of a long-running research project.

The Kaniyo Pabidi sector has a rustic ecolodge with an information centre which is the starting point for half-day hikes; in low season (January-June and October-December), full-day hikes are also possible. The forest is fairly flat and the chimps fairly easy to find, but the canopy is denser than Kibale, making photography more challenging.

  1. GOMBE STREAM, Tanzania

It was at Gombe, beside Lake Tanganyika, that Dr Jane Goodall made her pioneering study of chimps in the 1960s. The dynasty she observed is still the subject of detailed research and tourists can track the community, too. However, few do, largely because Gombe is remote, its accommodation limited to a basic national park rest house and a lodge that’s no match for Mahale’s.

The forest here is beautiful but the terrain is steep in places, making hiking conditions hot and arduous at times. You’ll be rewarded by excellent sightings – Gombe’s chimps are closely monitored, so are usually easy to locate, especially in March and April when one of their favourite fruits, mpapa, are ripe.

Where else can you go chimping?

CYAMUDONGO FOREST, Nyungwe NP, Rwanda

Of the several communities of chimps in Nyungwe National Park, the Cyamudongo chimps are the easiest to locate, since their habitat is an isolated patch of forest east of the main park.

However, they only number a couple of dozen and they’re usually scattered, up in the trees. Hiking here can be tough: the altitude is high (typically well over 1700m), many of the paths are steep and slippery and there are no forest elephants to keep the undergrowth at bay.

But there’s a consolation: one of Africa’s most attractive highland lodges, Nyungwe House, is within driving distance.

KYAMBURA GORGE, Queen Elizabeth NP, Uganda

If you’re visiting Queen Elizabeth National Park, it’s worth booking a short hike in the Kyambura Gorge. The path through the gorge runs along one side of the Kyambura River and if the resident chimps are on the other side, they may be hidden from view, but the setting is beautiful enough to make the hike an enjoyable experience in its own right.

Like Cyamudongo, the Kyambura chimps have become isolated by human encroachment. They’re therefore rather small in number and in danger of inbreeding; at the moment, there’s no solution in sight.

What about the place that featured in the BBC’s Dynasties series?
In West Africa, chimps are worryingly rare. David and his allies, the savannah-dwelling Fongoli chimps, live in the Kédougou region, southeast of Niokolo-Koba National Park in Senegal. They’re the subjects of a long-running research project (http://savannachimp.blogspot.com). It’s not generally possible for the public to visit them.

Can I track chimps and mountain gorillas in the same national park?
That would be the ultimate adventure, wouldn’t it? But, sadly, the answer is no – to track both, you need to visit more than one location.

In parts of Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, wild chimpanzees and mountain gorillas share a habitat, but Bwindi’s chimps have not been habituated for tourism and you’re unlikely to see them by chance on a gorilla tracking excursion. As its name suggests, this high-altitude forest is challenging to explore; for chimp tracking expeditions to be feasible, the network of paths would have to be enlarged considerably.

At present, it’s Uganda’s policy not to habituate all its great apes, to limit human pressure on them and their fragile forest environment.

If the security situation in DRC improves, Virunga National Park could once again become a key destination for adventurous travellers wishing to see both chimps and mountain gorillas, but for now it’s off limits.

There are no chimps in the parts of the Virunga Volcanoes Conservation Area that are easy to visit: Volcanoes NP (Rwanda) and Mgahinga NP (Uganda).

As for the other great East African forests: Kibale, Budongo, Mahale, Gombe and Nyungwe are home to plenty of small primates (including colobus monkeys, which chimps hunt from time to time) but no gorillas. Further west, chimps and western lowland gorillas coexist in Kahuzi-Biega and Odzala-Kokoua (Republic of Congo), Loango (Gabon) and Dzanga Sangha (CAR), but none of these national parks offer both chimping and gorilla tracking.

What can I expect during my encounter with wild chimps?
Your heart will already be thumping from the hike, and things are about to get even more exciting. Expect the unexpected! Chimps are very active and vocal, and they don’t hold back just because they’re being watched. Depending on the time of day, the availability of food and whether any females are in oestrus, you may see them feeding, grooming, mating or jostling for dominance by vocalising, charging (yes, charging) and drumming loudly on trees.

There may be an impossibly cute youngster in the group, but you’ll probably only catch glimpses: mothers are always protective and guides are usually sensitive enough not to approach too closely.

As a rule, aim to stay at least eight metres away from any chimp; if they approach you (a common occurrence in Kibale) you should try to step away slowly and carefully, unless they’re moving at speed, in which case it’s best to freeze.

If you’re lucky enough to be visiting at a time when ripe fruit is abundant, there’s a good chance that the chimps will be gorging in a single tree, or interacting on the ground, where they’re easy to see. At times when fruit is scarce, they tend to scatter and spend more time higher up, eating leaves.

Overall, they’re less visible when they’re up in the trees, but don’t despair: this can be the perfect opportunity to photograph them in silhouette.

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