While watching most animals in the wild is exhilarating, the feeling of watching our closest genetic relatives perform organized patterns of behavior in their own community is often life-changing. This is an apt description of the Kibale National Park – one of the most remarkable places to visit the Chimpanzees in their wild habitat. While most of us might have seen apes in cages at zoos across the world, that is hardly the place to observe their natural behavior.
Situated near the city of Fort Portal in Southern Uganda, the Kibale National Park is one of the most sought-after locations when it comes to Chimpanzee tracking for tourists as well as Chimpanzee conservation and rehabilitation. With the national park comprising of areas in altitudes 1100 to 1600 meters, the Kibale National Park houses 13 species of primates in approximately 750 square kilometers of land area. It takes approximately 6 hours to cover the 330-kilometer distance from Entebbe to the south-eastern border of Uganda; people often fly to Kasese and drive north from there too. The national park and adjacent game reserve are located in the middle of the lush and rich forest belt of eastern Africa containing areas of lowlands as well as montane forests. While the national park is known for its chimp tracking, there are quite a few other species of rare primates that belong here. The red colobus monkey, as well as the L’Hoest’s monkey, are a couple such species that can be found in the lush forests of the Kibale national park. Not only is Kibale known for the largest population of the red colobus monkey, there are other birds and mammals that are found there. Native birds like the dusky Crimsonwing and the blue-headed sunbird can also be found at the Kibale national park.
Having understood that wide variety of animals that call the Kibale national park home, it is apt to delve into those animals that have made Kibale famous – our closest relative, the Chimpanzee. More than 1200 east African chimpanzees reside in the forest areas of the national park. These animals are different from most other in the wild due to their ability to socialise and perform acts of organised behaviour within their communities. Exposure to human beings also elicits certain acts of behavior that relate to recognition and acceptance. The same has been studied in detail when it comes to research conducted on them and their genetic association to the human race. There are 4 major communities residing within the Kibale national park that are habituated to humans: Kanyawara, Kanyachu, Ngogo, and Sebitole. The Kibale conservation project is based on the Kanyawara chimpanzee that inhabits the northwestern section of the park. There are approximately 50 to 60 individuals in this community. The Ngogo Chimpanzee project covers over 200 Chimpanzees in the central area of the national park and also conducts a lot of research on the animals, while the Kanyachu project is inclined more towards tourism.
Tourist visits generally tend to be centered around the Kanyachu chimps. Tracking chimpanzees in the Kibale forest is an exhilarating experience but is often a mixed bag – sometimes you stumble upon massive communities on chimps performing familiar acts within their groups, while at other times it is small groups of chimpanzees moving toward their specific communities. They swing from trees, play amongst each other, feed and nest in various parts of the forest. The more famous of chimp treks begins from the Kanyachu visitor center in the central region of the national park. While the trek lasts for a few hours, there are also the famous chimpanzee habituation experiences or “Chex” that allows visitors to spend the entire day with the chimps. However, each of these requires permits of varying length and fees, so booking in advance is highly advisable.
Chimps are definitely unique
When it comes to the experience of spending time with these creatures, it is as mesmerizing as it gets. While they do not look very different from many other primates, you will begin to notice organized and intelligent behavior upon spending some time observing them. Using tools like rocks to break nuts and hollowed out sticks to drink water, their ability in problem-solving and reasoning on the primitive level is visible. This makes for a novel and unexpected element in observing animals, allowing us to associate deeply with these creatures. They can express emotion and show over behavioral changes in response to emotional changes that they experience. The habituation experience is something that sticks with you for very long after the initial encounters, largely owing to the association that we can develop to the activities we observe these chimps do. While maintaining that they are an animal species in the wild, many tourists often account of developing an empathic and emotional connection to these animals that are clearly more intelligent, social and emotional as compared to most other species. It is certainly an experience to look forward to, unmatched in more than one ways.
Conserving for the future
Owing to tremendous habitat dispersal as well as encroachment through human activities, the need for conserving these species of primates has become critical to their survival. It becomes all the more necessary for studying and research when we realize their genetic similarities to the human race. The Jane Goodall foundation has played a tremendous role in creating awareness for the need to conserve the species as well as creating institutional measures to ensure their survival and build a deeper understanding of the species as a whole. With Ugandan Wildlife Authority providing several resources to encourage other such research efforts, many universities have come to conduct large-scale research on genetics as well as conservation of these animals. While the forest is open to tourists all year round, the best time to visit would be December to February and June-July mostly because the dry season makes the chimp tracking process easier and also more enjoyable in its entirety. The trails are better marked, insects and parasitic animals are lesser and the need for protective clothing is also lower. Finally, whatever the time of the month, Chimpanzee tracking at Kibale national park will certainly leave a long-lasting impression on you.