Spending a day with chimpanzees in the wild

Chimp_08_DaveGibsonForest chimp trekking in Uganda’s Kibale National Park

by Dave Gibson

At the turn of the 20th century, there are estimated to have been one million chimpanzees living in the wild. Today, about 200,000 remain across equatorial Africa, scattered from Guinea through The Democratic Republic of the Congo, to western Tanzania and Uganda. Listed as an endangered species, the biggest threats to chimpanzees are habitat loss through logging, mining, and agriculture. The bush meat trade also exacts a heavy toll. What once was a practice of sustenance, has become commercialized with the meat being transported to big cities where it fetches a higher price.

Kibale National Park in Uganda is one of only a few places left where you can be assured of seeing chimpanzees in the wild. Over twelve hundred chimps reside in the forest and four groups have been, or are being, habituated to human presence. Living in highly social patriarchal communities of 15 to120 individuals, they share 98.6 % of our DNA.

Chimp trekking is the most popular activity in the park. For $150 you can join up to seven other people for a two to three hour hike with a 90% chance of seeing a chimpanzee. The other option during the low seasons months of March, April, May, and November is called CHEX (Chimp Habituation Experience) for $220. With CHEX, you begin at 6:30 a.m. and can spend all day with the chimps if you want. The Uganda Wildlife Authority guide totes a Russian AK-47 not to defend visitors from aggressive chimpanzees, but to scare off any rogue forest elephants that might wander into the area.

After three hours of tromping up, down, and around the primary forest trails at the outset of my CHEX tour, we still hadn’t come across any chimpanzees. Then, from out of nowhere, an eastern chimpanzee crossed our path! His pace was deliberate and it was impossible to keep up with him. Somewhat disappointed in the briefness of the encounter, my guide knew that the chimpanzee that he found would lead us to the others.

Sure enough, after another twenty minutes of hiking, we spotted a mother and infant resting on a fallen tree. She caressed its head as it rolled across her stomach. Not two minutes after snapping a few photographs, thinking that my guide and I would have this group to ourselves, fifteen chimp trekkers descended on the scene. That is how it works when chimp trekking; just like when on a safari game drive, good sighting locations are relayed by cell phone and shared with everyone. Although no one did, they can thank me and my guide for doing the legwork.

Chimpanzees spend six to eight hours a day hunting and foraging. Their diet includes: fruit, vegetation, tree bark, insects, eggs, honey, other primates, and small antelope such as the duiker. Time in between is devoted to napping. I positioned myself on a mossy log amongst four of them dozing peacefully. Occasionally one would scratch itself and roll over. After awhile, the chimp closest to me sat up, looked around, and yawned a few times. Its dagger-like canine teeth were three inches long and could inflict serious damage if he were so inclined. Hearing the horror stories of captive chimpanzees attacking people, I had come to Kibale with a healthy respect, if not fear, of the animal. Suddenly, some hoots and screams sounded from the forest. The chimp in front of me looked agitated and began stirring, pointing its lips upward and emitting a few hoots of his own before rising and heading straight towards me. I sat looking down, trying to appear as meek and non-threatening as possible. Passing by only a couple of feet away, he suddenly rushed the crowd of onlookers! Brushing a woman on the hip, the chimpanzee knocked a second woman to the ground then scampered out of sight. Uninjured, she got the thrill of a lifetime as the other chimps loped away. My guide Paul later told me that I had little to worry about. By no means a typical occurrence, when it does happen, the chimpanzees usually target the weakest member of a group and rarely strike out at men – especially if bearded, although Paul said that a chimp once threw a daypack at him.

With everyone else departed after their allotted one hour with the chimpanzees, I sat down for some lunch which I’d lugged around all morning along with what was left of two liters of water. A stick bug settled on my knee, making it the second new species of the day. Surrounded by chimps in every direction of varying distances, their calls reverberated through the forest – a lovely serenade – as I downed my by then warm chicken leg and hard-boiled egg. Temperatures were steadily rising and by then I’d sweated through three bandanas. After more time with the chimpanzees had passed and I was satisfied in the experience, we headed back after taking a few more pictures of a baby chimp climbing a fig tree.

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