With Entebbe barely in our rearview mirror, it was only our second full day and we were exchanging glances with chimps. “Our” chimps had left the secure rainforest Kibale National Park into neighboring protected community land, an affirmation of the need for community conservation and education. Unceremoniously we found them, at the end of an up and down trail, feeding 30 feet in the open treetops. Before iPhones and cameras began clicking up memories, everyone paused in amazement; your first chimpanzees experience does that. As one person uttered, “You think you know what you’re going to see, but you have no clue when your eyes meet theirs.” None of our group had ever seen chimps in the wild and certainly not this close. Before the trip everyone had been focused and excited on the encounter that would come on the last few days, trekking to see mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. I could see in their eyes this first encounter with wild chimps was catching them by surprise.
Six days later in Kyambura Gorge the chimp experience couldn’t have been more dramatically different. Moments after we had picked our way cautiously the muddy trail from the Gorge rim, the rainforest canopy erupted in a chaotic shower of screamsand barks. Suddenly before we could shift our bearings a 120lb adult male chimp scrambled out of treetops; a rapid retreat, usually means something big, bad and dangerous. We all stood in amazement watching black & white colobus monkey, half the chimps size and a quarter the weight, barks and chases not one but two chimps down out of the trees. Both had dramatically abandoned their poorly planned scheme that originally targeted hunting the smaller pied monkeys. (Chimps across Equatorial Africa are opportunistic hunters targeting smaller primates like colobus and guenon monkeys as well as baby bushpigs and antelope.)
Once on the ground the outraged — possibly a bit embarrassed — males tore through the hip-high surrounding undergrowth, screaming and hooting, at arms-length from us. The chaos crescendoed with a frustrated foot-drumming on a nearby tree buttresses of giant figs. Sending “boom boom booms . Everyone in our group looked around wide-eyed, their adrenaline racing with a look of what the hell just happened? “Wild chimps”, I smiled, “that was a full-on dose of wild chimpanzee.”
As famous as the mountain gorillas are, if amazing, fascinating, and charismatic are the criteria for fame, Uganda’s chimp population should be equally as famous. No other country can offer chimp trekking in at least five very different locations, each with its own unique perspective on chimp life, culture and habitat adaptation. Uganda’s resident chimpanzee count is estimated to be a scattered 5,000, a significant part of the rapidly shrinking chimp population across Equatorial Africa. Fortunately Uganda is one of the safest places to be a wild chimpanzee.
Kibale National Park and Kyambura Gorge (of Queen Elizabeth National Park) will be permanent feature of our Uganda Great Apes Safari but with increasing focus and interest on safeguarding our closest cousins in the animal world, we hope to venture into new wildernesses in upcoming trips.
— Gerry Ellis