Chimpanzees belong to the family of great apes that include gorillas and orangutans. Because of their close relationship to humans, they have large brains and are very intelligent with great ability to learn new things. Studies by great primatologists like Jane Goodall have even shown unique cultures among different communities based on their specific diets and habitats. There are two distinct species of chimpanzee remaining in the wild – The common chimpanzee and the pygmy chimpanzee (known as Bonobo). The common chimpanzees are found in West, East, Central and Southern Africa while the Bonobos are only found in Congo’s jungles and sanctuaries. The common chimpanzee is larger (weighing up to 70kgs), more aggressive with communities led by a dominant male. Bonobos are smaller, more peaceful/gentile with communities led by female leaders. Both species can live up to 30 years in the wild and 60 in captivity. Because of their relative intelligence, chimpanzees are capable of constructing complex nests and using tools like rocks for opening nuts or sticks for removing termites from anthills. Chimps live off fruit, seeds, tree leaves, honey and insects. Chimpanzees also eat meat from other mammals and primates whenever they can.
Chimpanzees live in large extended families/communities of between 10 – 100 individuals that look out for and take care of each other. Unlike Mountain gorillas and baboons, these large communities often split into smaller groups while heading out for feeding before getting back together again. The males stay within the community while the females may leave for nearby communities once they reach adolescence. The young reach independence at 4 years. Like humans, they use complex methods that include facial expressions, gestures, sounds and body language to interact, communicate and convey emotion.
Though widely spread in Africa, the overall population of chimpanzees have reduced drastically in the last two decades with the result that they are now declared a critically endangered species. The main threat to chimps comes from disease, hunting (for meat and trade), injuries from forest traps and the destruction of habitat due to increasing human populations. However several organizations have been formed to protect the remaining chimpanzee population and ensure that they remain surviving in the wild. One such organization is The Jane Goodall Foundation which plays a great role in the conservation of chimpanzee and other primates including mountain gorillas throughout Africa.
Chimpanzee trekking in Uganda
Uganda offers arguably the best places to track chimpanzee in the world. It has one of the largest population and variety of places to track chimpanzees – over 5600 chimpanzee in the wild with a sizeable number of communities habituated. Uganda’s chimps can even be found living in small forests on private land in some areas. Chimpanzees in Uganda can be tracked from Kibale National Park, Budongo forest (in Murchison Falls National Park), Kyambura Gorge (Queen Elizabeth National Park), Kalinzu Forest and Toro-Semliki Wildlife Reserve. Visitors can also spot chimpanzee in zoos and sanctuaries like Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Uganda Wildlife Education Center
Kibale Forest: The best place to track chimpanzees in East Africa is in Kibale forest. The forest is a hub for several species of primates and has a chimpanzee population numbering 1500 – That is to say 30 percent of the overall chimp population in Uganda. There are 3 habituated communities across Kibale forest. One community has been set apart for tourists while the other two are for researchers. Apart from chimpanzees, there are several primate species that call Kibale forest home among which include the L’Hoests monkey, Red colobus, Mangabeys, bush babys, baboons, Red tailed monkeys and the blue monkeys to mention but a few. Chimpanzee tracking in Kibale can also go hand in hand with birding tours and other wildlife viewing. Some of the wildlife that can be spotted while tracking chimps in the forest includes Buffaloes, elephants, antelopes, bush pigs, otters and giant forest hogs. Birders will be impressed with the over 345 species in the forest and the nearby Bigodi Wetlands bird sanctuary like the African grey parrot, hornbills and Breasted pitas.
Chimpanzee tracking in Kibale forest is done twice a day – in the morning at 8am and in the afternoon at 2pm. The chances of seeing a chimpanzee community in Kibale is very high at over 90 percent. Visitors to Kibale Forest also have a chance to experience full day chimpanzee habituation with one of the chimpanzee communities. Chimpanzee tracking permits in Kibale Forest is more expensive than any other place in Uganda at $150. Chimpanzee habituation experience will cost one $220. For those who are organizing their trip by themselves, the permits can be acquired by emailing or calling staff from the Uanda Wildlife Authority office – try to book in advance. There are some discounts during certain months of the year. If you are booked with Mission Africa Safaris, the company will help you arrange for everything including securing the permit.
Kalinzu Forest: After Kibale, Kalinzu Forest located outside Queen Elizabeth National park is arguably the second best place to track chimpanzee in Uganda. Visitors to the Queen Elizabeth national park often end up going to the park’s Kyambura Gorge but the probability of seeing chimpanzee is higher in Kalinzu forest. The sheer density and concentration of chimps in a relatively small area raises the possibility of finding them to over 90 percent. Apart from chimps, visitors should expect to spot over 410 bird species, primates, butterflies, moths, reptiles and flowers as they pass through the four guided trails in the forest. Some of the bird species include the sunbird, cuckoos and the Great Blue Turaco.
There are about 290 chimps found in Kalinzu forest with over 70 habituated. A group of Japanese scientists have been studying chimpanzee communities here for the last two decades. Chimpanzee trekking in Kalinzu is managed by the Uganda ministry of forestry. Because of different management, chimpanzee tracking permit costs $35 which is far less than at Kibale. Moreover, the minimum age for chimpanzee tracking is 12 years at Kalinzu forest. One disadvantage of tracking chimps here is that there is no good accommodation in the forest except for night camps. Visitors have to go back to get proper accommodation near the Queen Elizabeth national park.
Budongo Forest: With an area of about 825 square kilometers and a population of over 800 chimpanzees, Budongo forest is the third best place to track chimpanzees in Uganda. Budongo forest is found within the Murchison falls national park – reaching the park takes 3 hours of driving from Kampala. The natural mahogany trees found in the forest provides perfect shelter for these amazing apes and other primates. About 100 habituated chimpanzees are available for tracking at Kaniyo Pabibi out of the total chimp population. Visitors who want to learn more about the chimpanzees can opt for the whole day chimpanzee habituation Experience in Budongo.
Chimpanzee tracking in Budongo starts at 7 am for the morning session and 2 pm for the afternoon session. The best time to track chimpanzee in Budongo is between the months of May and August which are rainy seasons. During the dry season, the chimps move deep into the forest looking for scarce food, water and shelter. This movement reduces the chances of seeing them significantly because trackers have to move great distances looking for them. Chimpanzee trekking in Budongo can be arranged alongside a wildlife safari to the Murchison falls national park. Chimpanzee tracking permits cost $85 in Budongo.
Kyambura Gorge: Located in a valley within the Queen Elizabeth National Park, the Kyambura gorge is a convenient place to spot chimpanzee while on a safari to Queen Elizabeth National Park. The gorge is 16km long and about 100 meters deep with a thick underground forest. The Kyambura Gorge is famous for its large concentration of primates like Baboons, red-tailed monkeys, vervet monkeys and colobus monkeys. The population of chimpanzees here is quiet small at about 30 but chimpanzee trekking in Kyambura Gorge has two advantages. It is located within Uganda’s most visited national park and is one of the places where the park animals gather to drink offering a chance to see other primates and Africa’s largest mammals. Tracking chimpanzee at Kyambura Gorge provides a visitor with a rare opportunity to go for a full safari combining chimpanzee trekking with birdwatching, a game drive to queen Elizabeth National park and gorilla trekking at the nearby Bwindi impenetrable national park. Some of the bird species found at the Kyambura Gorge include the blue-headed bee-eater, falcons and the African Finfoot. One disadvantage of tracking chimpanzee at the Kyambura Gorge is that the probability of seeing them is low compare to Kibale or Kalinzu. The small chimpanzee community often move deep into the underground forest making it harder to find them on certain days. A chimpanzee tracking permit costs $50 at the Kyambura gorge.
Semuliki Wildlife Reserve: Semuliki Wildlife Reserve is located near the border between Uganda and DR Congo and has a population of about 260 chimps living in 3 communities. The chimps are being studied by scientist from the Indiana University and have been found to have a unique habit of moving upright as they leave the forest to go feed in the Savannah.
Ngamba Island: This is a small but forested island on Lake Victoria which was turned into a chimpanzee sanctuary for rescued chimps all over Uganda. There are over 40 chimpanzees being cared for in the island. Ngamba Island is not designed for standard chimpanzee tracking. Visitors and families with children are allowed to see the chimps from a secure raised platform as they come to feed three times a day.
The Uganda Wildlife Education Center: Formerly known as Entebbe Zoo, was established in 1952 to rehabilitate injured, confiscated and orphaned animals. About 40 chimpanzees can be seen here from enclosures by tourists and families with children.
Chimpanzee trekking in Rwanda
In Rwanda, Chimpanzee tracking is possible in Nyungwe Forest National Park. Mountain gorillas may be the most valuable tourism resource for Rwanda but chimpanzee trekking in Nyungwe forest national park is one adventurous activity that all primate lovers should take into consideration while visiting. A Chimpanzee tracking permit in Rwanda costs only $100 compared to $1500 for gorilla trekking. Although Chimpanzee tracking is the most popular activity in Nyungwe forest, visitors should expect to come across over 10 species of primates which include L’Hoest’s , vervet monkeys, Angola colobus, Rwenzori colobus, owl-faced monkeys, Den’t mona monkeys, silver monkeys, golden monkeys, bush bay, olive baboons, red-tailed monkeys and grey-cheeked mangabey.
There are about 500 chimpanzees in Nyungwe forest but unfortunately most of them are not habituated. Finding the chimps is hard as they are always on the move in a large forest. Chimpanzee trekking is usually done in Yamudongo and Uwinka. Permits can be secured from the Rwanda Development Board offices in Kigali and at the park.