Undoubtedly, chimpanzees get a lot of scientific researchers’ attention but much less with summer adventure travelers than the endangered mountain gorillas. Nonetheless, the thrill of tracking our snobbish cousins in the middle of an ancient rainforest jungle is one of the most endearing adventures on the African continent. And, a chimp permit costs a fraction of what you would pay to see our giant cousin apes, the mountain gorillas.
These intelligent, curious, noisy, and social apes live in small communities in equatorial Africa, with about 172,700 to 299,700 individuals thought to be living in protected rainforests. Uganda harbors almost 5000 of these chimps with a couple of troops habituated for tourism. Observing a troop of habituated chimpanzees in their natural habitat is one of Africa’s top bucket list experiences that any adventurer shouldn’t miss.
One of the best places to see these chimpanzees in the wild is in Kibale National Park in western Uganda, home to five habituated groups within easy walking distance.
The chimpanzee is a member of the great apes family with humans, gorillas, and orangutans. Chimps are intelligent, curious, social, and very noisy. They live in loose communities of about ten to more than 100 individuals sharing a home range that they protect from intruders.
They have complex behavior patterns, many of which they progressively learn. They can solve problems, plan for anticipated events, and make and use tools. Scientists have also observed them utilizing medicinal plants for a variety of ailments. Impressive for an ape stuck in Darwin’s evolutionary timeline.
The idea that we have much in common with chimps, including more than 98 percent of our genetic code, is why so many travelers flock to Uganda and other parts of central Africa to watch these fascinating primates. Thanks to Jane Goodall’s long-term research, which has contributed to a comprehensive study that identified significant cultural variations in chimpanzee communities. Now we can relate to how our ancestors lived and make relevant adjustments.
Chimpanzees have been observed using tools, target throwing, and nest building. We’ve watched them grooming, rain dancing, and engaging in courtship rituals, and behavior scientists trace to multi-generational social learning and customs — in other words, culture. Imagine locking eyes with a primitive humanoid and seeing two million years into primate evolution; they are just like us.
On a chimpanzee-tracking adventure in Uganda’s thick rainforest jungles, tourists watch chimps regularly hold hands, touch and groom each other and sometimes kiss when they meet.
An adult chimp often has a special buddy with whom it spends a lot of time, with the most potent relationships within a troop between adult males. Male chimps tend to spend a lot of time together and groom each other, almost four times as much as females. Females give their young a great deal of attention and help each other with babysitting chores.
The band’s older chimps are usually reasonably patient with active youngsters — watching over them as grandparents do with human kids. A crucial social activity in chimp societies is social grooming. Not only does grooming help remove ticks, flakes of dead skin, and dirt from the hair, it also helps create and maintain social bonds.
Walking with chimpanzees in Kibale National Park feels like walking with sugar-high kids. Still, it is when they come down from the canopy to the forest floor that tourists get the closest to them and observe their intricate social structures.
Located in the shadows of the Rwenzoris, western Uganda, Kibale National Park beams with an enchanting combination of scenic landscape scenery and forest creatures. Kibale has the highest concentration of primates in Africa; 13 primate species make it home but the most prominent is the 1500 chimpanzees swinging its canopy.
Visitors can track any of the five habituated troops and spend an hour or the entire day following their energetic antics. The best chimpanzee tracking excursions in Uganda happen twice daily from the Kanyanchu visitor center in Kibale.
At a Kanyanchu, expert local guides escort small groups to meet one of the most enthralling chimpanzee troops of about 120 individuals. Early morning excursions set off at bout 8:00 and typically last about four hours, and all you need to join the party is a tracking permit. With a regular chimpanzee trekking permit ($200 per person), visitors can spend up to one hour observing the chimps.
Alternatively, visitors can spend the entire day walking with and observing wild chimps undergoing the habituation process on a Chimpanzee Habituation Experience (CHEX) for a permit price of $250 per person.
However, the habituation experience is physically demanding; prepare for a fair bit of fast-walking in the jungle with unmarked and sometimes damp trails. Kibale chimpanzees are boisterous and move fast, only stopping for a few minutes to listen out for enemies, breathe, feed, a socialize; the rewards during these moments are always worth the sweat.
Most travelers take the regular half-day chimpanzee tracking excursion, giving plenty of time in the jungle to search for the elusive apes. It also rewards visitors with an exhilarating hour observing the great apes.
The adventure begins at the visitor center at 7:30 am with a briefing. During the 30-minute briefing, visitors learn basic information about the chimps and a couple of ground rules relevant to the successful experience with the wild primates before they head into the woods.
Basically, visitors are under strict regulation to stay 10 meters (32 ft) away from the chimps due to a couple of significant reasons. Firstly, chimpanzees are susceptible to human contagious diseases like influenza or the common cold because they share 98% of our DNA. Secondly, although they’re habituated, they’re not tame, and the distance is for theirs and your own safety. A ranger may be tempted to shoot it down it tries to attack you or you may shit your pants when the ape touches you; either way, you and the chimp have to be protected. Knowledgeable guides lead the excursions and keep visitors in check, feeding them relevant information.
After the briefing, the park warden separates you into manageable small groups, assigns local guides and armed rangers, and sends you off into the wilderness to find the mischievous humanoids.
Your guide will lead you through tangled vegetation, damp forest floor, ducking under low bushes, over dead tree stumps, roots, and streams. They’ll be tracking any chimpanzee activity like knuckle prints, broken twigs, and loud hoots like harsh, high-pitched screeching that ascends to a crescendo and then fades away into the woods. That eerie, rousing sound that excites your blood pressure means you’re about to encounter your evolutionary cousins.
You follow the direction of the ratchet, and soon you’re surrounded by familiar black-furred figures completely unconcerned by your presence. Some will be hanging in the treetops, feeding on fruit, or showing off their antics. Others could be on the ground, laying down, grooming, mothers breastfeeding, and males jostling for political leadership. They will be spread over a large area in small groups, but they’re never gathered in one place. So dirt your eyes around and move to a rewarding position; it is time to meet your host.
No Youtube or National Geographic documentary can prepare you for your first, up-close, wild chimpanzee encounter. Being a few feet away from wild apes will trigger an instant burst of adrenaline that washes your entire body like a winter fever.
The thrill of watching the almost-human intelligence of the great apes, with their antics, expressions, and interactions, will captivate your innermost empathy for the living beasts.
They glance right back at you with their very dark sclerae, and paler irises strikingly similar to our own. Even their poses for photography will make you wonder if they’re putting on a show or making the best of your presence.
One shouldn’t even begin to compare the chimpanzee experience with trekking gorillas in the mountains. Coming face-to-face with a wild chimpanzee is a breathlessly exhilarating experience that arguably beats the gorilla trekking adventure hands down. Consider that Kibale Forest terrain is much simpler to navigate. The woods are less dense, chimpanzee troops are easier to find, and the price is significantly lower.
All good reasons to consider chimpanzee trekking in Uganda right at the top of your bucket-list summer adventures in Africa.
The chimpanzee is one of the most extensively studied great apes by Jane Goodall and others for over 50 years at some sites. These studies give us a glimpse through a window into our own beginnings and help biomedical research understand various diseases that result in substantial morbidity and mortality.
Research stations that continue to study chimpanzees in Uganda include The Budongo Conservation Forest Station (BCFS) in Budongo Forest Reserve, the Makerere University Biological Field Station (MUBFS) in Kibale National Park, and the Institute for Tropical Forest Conservation (ITFC) in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Much of what we know about chimpanzee biology comes from these research stations and those in Tanzania (Gombe and Mahale).
These studies are expensive, let alone protecting the chimps, and their habitats requires bucketloads of funds. Chimpanzee tracking is the most significant source of funds put back into chimpanzee conservation programs in Uganda, especially by creating jobs for guides and sources of income for communities around protected forest reserves.
Like any wilderness experience in Africa, the guides and rangers will make or break the chimpanzee tracking experience. Fortunately, Uganda Wildlife Authority employs the best of the bunch.
The chimpanzee forest rangers are the lucky few, coming from local communities around the protected forests, that get to spend every day out in nature, helping to protect the country’s precious ecosystem and sharing their passion with other wildlife lovers. They are highly knowledgeable about conservation, have great people skills, and speak excellent English. They are the most dedicated and interesting people you will meet anywhere on safari.
Kibale National Park may be the best place to see chimpanzees in Uganda, but it’s not the only place. You can see chimps in Kyambura Gorge close to Queen Elizabeth National Park and smaller forest reserves around Murchison Falls National Park. Kibale has the largest population, which means sightings are more than 92% guaranteed.
Nkuringo Safaris Ltd organizes all-inclusive tailor-made chimpanzee tracking adventures in Kibale, combining the trip with gorilla trekking adventures in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Our guests usually spend seven days and USD 950 on trekking permits between the two destinations for an immersive jungle experience.
Nkuringo will book your permits, accommodation with meals, organize your transport between places, and manage your entire journey from start to end. Our local experts make the planning process seamless with open communication and sharing up-date and relevant information during the planning.
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for a free quote at no obligation.