Just in case my enthusiasm doesn’t come through enough later, let me just say up front, chimpanzees are utterly beguiling creatures to watch in their natural habitat. So much so, after I’d been on an afternoon tracking session, I immediately went to the National Park office and booked to go again the following morning. I could have spent a week following them through the forest. Chimpanzees are amazing, and that’s official.
Kibale Forest National Park was established in 1993, and covers an area of approximately 800 square kilometres. There are more than 1200 chimpanzees living in Kibale, with four groups having been habituated to the presence of humans. Only one of these groups has been habituated for tourism, and while I was there a researcher was studying the effects of tourism on the behaviours of the chimpanzees. I did ask her if her findings indicated changes to their natural behaviour, but she seemed reluctant to discuss it.
Chimpanzees, humanity’s closest relative, have a highly evolved social structure, living within communities that have complex rules. Their intelligence is well known, and chimp tool making and use is now well documented. Equally as complex is chimpanzee nest building. Each night chimpanzees construct nests by weaving the branches of one or more trees together. A skill set that would probably defeat most humans. Chimps also exhibit the ability to cooperate with each other at complex tasks. This is obvious when they hunt other animals – normally smaller monkeys. Working as a group, they are ruthlessly successful hunters.
Led by a dominant male, who controls the whole group, chimpanzees exhibit a very human condition when it comes to which chimpanzee becomes the alpha male: it isn’t always the biggest or strongest, but the male who can manipulate the group to support him. Human politics in a nutshell. Although dominated by the alpha male, and other powerful males, female chimpanzees have their own hierarchy. For a young female, this is sometimes influenced by the status of the mother – basically a chimpanzee aristocracy.
Because of their importance to the local economy, and thanks to sustained efforts over the years to protect them and their habitat, the chimpanzees of Kibale have a degree of protection most wild animals would envy. However, while humans don’t threaten the chimps directly, snares set up in the margins of the forest to trap bushpig and duiker can have devastating effects on chimps. At least one of the chimpanzees we saw had lost a foot to a wire snare. Others occasionally get caught in them despite efforts to work with local communities to eradicate them entirely.
Tracking the chimps involves walking through the forest in search of them, guided by their calls and locating fruit trees where they are likely to be feeding. Once you find them, the National Park guide will track them for a couple of hours before taking the human group back to the National Park headquarters. Its possible to transmit human diseases to chimpanzees, and you’re supposed to keep a distance of 5 metres away from them to minimise the risks. Easier said than done when the chimps are moving around. A couple of times they came so close to me that I could have touched them.
We found a group of chimps eating some fruits in a tree. On the ground where we were, it was raining the detritus of the fruits that they didn’t want to eat. There was also the risk of something slightly less friendly than fruit falling on our heads, we moved away to safety quite quickly. Depending on how active the chimpanzees are, you can cover quite large distances following them. At other times they can be pretty stationary – sleeping off all the eating they do. Both times I tracked them, we moved around quite a lot, following chimps on the ground and in trees.
All-in-all, tracking the chimps was a wonderful experience, certainly up there with observing gorillas in neighbouring Rwanda. There are plenty of things you could usefully spend times doing in Kibale, or even a bit further south in the Queen Elizabeth National Park. Sadly, I had to get back to Kampala for one final animal experience before leaving Uganda. Next up was the giant and weird Shoebill Stork…