Chimpanzee tracking in Kibale

by | Mar 10, 2019

A friend of us which also is a wildlife photographer told us that, when he went to meet them, the chimpanzees stayed on top of trees and threw poop at him.  We therefore did not have big expectations regarding this activity ! But as often in life, the biggest emotions come when you least expect them. As far as I am concerned, meeting chimpanzees in Kibale has been the highlight of our trip to Uganda.

Kibale national park

Kibale national park is called the primates capital of the world. And you will not have to guess why for long : it hosts no less than 13 different species !

9 diurnal species :

Olive Baboon
Red-tailed monkey
L’Hoest monkey
Chimpanzee
Red Colobus
Black and white Colobus
Grey-Cheeked Mangabey
Blue monkey
Vervet monkey

4 nocturnal species :

Eastern Galago
Demidoff Galago
Thomas’s Galago
Potto

But if the park is a no miss, it’s because of its 3 habituated chimpanzee populations. Two of them are reserved for scientific research and the third one allows tourists (us !) to come and meet them. Just like with gorillas, habituated doesn’t mean domesticated. Those chimpanzees remains wild, free and autonomous animals. The only difference is that the habituated individuals are not scared of humans and tolerate them around : they do not run away and live their lives as we were not there.

Meeting chimpazees

A Few minutes before going

We have to be at the visitor at 8am. We are directed towards a small room and a ranger comes to introduce the park. He also tells us about the rules we will have to follow within the park. It is clear, instructive and even funny at some point (especially when mentionning the “warm rain” chimps can make fall on us). After about fifteen minutes of briefing, we are sorted into different groups (of 6 persons maximum). It’s time for us to go to the restrooms one last time because next hours will be very busy !

Tracking chimpanzees

And there we go into the forest, with our bags and two rangers. A few minutes in, we stop next to a tree.  Our guide explains that we are in fact looking for fresh chimpanzee tracks. But she seems rather worried : it is usually kind of easy to find them by following the sounds they make. But this morning is dead calm in the forest. And so we keep on walking, stopping here and there to learn more about some plants or mud pool made by an elephant (not very reassuring…). We still can’t hear any noise coming from a primate. We start to fear we might be in the 2% of visitors who go back home without seeing chimps.

And finally, after one corner, we come face to face with them. They’re sitting here on the ground in the middle of the forest. Some of them are resting, some others are looking for bugs.  The ranger allows us to get close to any individual we want to photograph. I step aside from the group to go towards an adult lying on its side. I kneel a few meters aways from it. Our eyes meet. It seems calm and is accepting me in its environment. This is way too much emotion for me, I feel tears running down my cheeks. The first pictures are a disaster !

One hour outside of this world

After a few minutes, the other groups of tourists get to us. They have been warned with walkie-talkie. It seems that the place is becoming a little too crowded because our chimpanzee friends get up and start to move into the forest. We try to follow them as much as we can… Vegetation is quite dense around us and there is no actual trail to follow. They are so at ease in this environment. I wouldn’t say the same about us !

Finally, the few specimens we’ve been struggling to follow end up reaching the remainder of the colony. There are now about thirty chimpanzees within a radius of 100m around us. Most of them are in trees. They are very active. They can’t stop moving from tree to tree. Sometimes we actually wonder if they have total control on what they’re doing. We get a glimpse at numerous babies clinging to their mothers’ back. A number of times, we hear them communicating together. This is incredible how loud they can be. They are everywhere around us. We really feel privileged ! Rangers let us move freely so that we can observe (and photograph) different situations under different points of view.

As far as photography is concerned, conditions are far from being optimal. We are in a forest : sunbeams are having a hard time getting trough foliage but when they do, it’s very difficult to get a correct picture exposition. We lack of light to take picture of chimpanzees on the ground while we have to deal with backlight for those high up in trees ! And vegetation is dense : there is always a branch or a leaf which lies in front of our subject. And it doesn’t help with autofocus either. So we have to be dynamic : we don’t hesitate to move and to quickly change parameters in order to try and get good pictures. I think that we did not do that much of a bad job…

I have no idea what this little rascal was looking for in the trunk but it seemed to be delicious to him!

Unfortunately for us, the rule is clear. From the very moment we find them, we can spend no more than one hour with the chimpanzees. There is no extra minutes. It is with a twinge of regret that we have to leave them be. A young one which is up in a tree watches us go…

Let’s be honest, we have no idea which direction to go to return to the visitor center, which definitely amuses our guides. We make a few more stops on our way back and we learn about a few plants chimpanzees sometimes use as medicine. I don’t know if you are like me, but I am absolutely amazed that wild animals are able to identify a plant and use the sap on a wound to stop bleeding…

Other primates

As we were back from chimpanzee tracking, we got lucky and spotted a few different monkey species close to the visitor center. Counting chimpanzees in the total, we got to observe 5 different species in Kibale. We’re far from the 13 species living in the park, but we must admit we were already delighted !

Black and white colobus

Red colobus

Red tailed monkey

Olive baboon

Practical information

Permit

Like gorilla tracking, chimpanzee tracking requires a permit. The word “permit” is the one used by Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) but in reality, it just means registration for the activity. In december 2018, it cost us $150. This is already quite an amount of money but it will help a good cause because most of it will help protect chimpanzees and their environment. Conservation efforts come in different forms but the most important one is population education. On the one hand for them to understand why species conservation is important and on the other hand for them to get access to tourism jobs created thanks to wildlife in the area. We were explained this is a virtuous circle by David, our driver and guide who used to be a UWA employee.

From a practical point of view, the local agency that planned our entire trip booked the permits for us.

Equipment

People sometimes call this activity “Chimpanzee trekking” but we’re not going into the wild for several days ! This is an half day activity and you shall expect to walk about 3 hours. Even though we found it rather easy, we were happy to have good equipment. First of all, even if this seems obvious, you need good hiking shoes. Terrain is not extremely flat and vegetation is often dense, especially when you leave the trail to follow the chimpanzees. Then, you have to plan on wearing high socks so that you can be able to tuck your pants in. Ugandan forests are full of agressive ants that are waiting to bite you as soon as possible. A rain jacket will have two uses. It will help protect you from warm rain (chimpanzees pee !) but also from cold rain (which can come very quickly, we discovered it to our detriment…). Finally, don’t even think about going without water (at least 1.5L per person).

Once again, we thank our very good friend Matou for capturing the behind-the-scenes of your pictures and for allowing us to post this picture here

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