November 8, 2014 – Chimpanzee Trekking
After breakfast, we were off to see the chimpanzees. Rogers drove us to Kibale (pronounced chi-ball-ee) National Park. Kibale National Park is home to more than 1,400 chimpanzees. Hiking through the rainforest to spot some of the chimpanzees that have been habituated for human visitors was near the top of our list of things to do in Uganda, and we were really looking forward to the adventure. It takes at least two years of constant daily observation to get a chimpanzee troop to feel comfortable enough with human presence for safari chimpanzee treks to succeed. Chimpanzees share 98.6 percent of human DNA and much of our behaviors, which is why observing these primates in the wild is so engaging. The Kibale Chimpanzee Project is based in Kibale National Park, just east of the Ruwenzori Mountains in southwestern Uganda. The park, established in 1993, encompasses 795 square kilometers of primarily moist evergreen and semi-deciduous forest. Kibale’s rich ecosystem is highlighted by diverse populations of birds, butterflies, and mammals, including 13 primate species. Four chimpanzee communities have been fully or partly habituated to humans for research or tourism.
We stopped and picked up our guide, Florence – a thirty year old woman! She brings along rifle to protect us. Then we continued on to the ranger station and met a porter that Rogers had secured for me for $30. They don’t normally have porters, but I really felt that I needed one, and Rogers had come through for us. His name is Shariffe and he is 28 years old. He and Florence are both really nice. We head off into the forest, which had a flat terrain, so I was happy about that. We had been warned that we might have to hike for a good distance before we found any chimpanzees – if we found them at all. Nonetheless, soon after beginning our trek in the forest, Florence was listening and located a couple of chimps high in the trees. It’s a good thing I had Shariffe carrying my backpack and camera, because right away, I tripped over a vine and fell flat. My left knee hit first, and then my left hand. I got up and dusted myself off and we carried on. I noticed that my pant leg was turning red, but made no mention of it as I didn’t want to alarm anyone. We continued on and saw a couple of chimps that we couldn’t keep up with. We moved onto a service road, and saw a group of tourists ahead of us. There was a chimp and we all took photos. We moved on by ourselves, and then, we heard the screaming of the chimps. Wow, this is very different than the quiet gorillas. The chimps are loud! Florence says that they are just communicating. The alpha male might be telling the others that there was food. Then, we came across a large chimp and took some photos. Then, Florence made a call on her radio and she and Shariffe began a distinctive whistling. They were alerting a group of tourists on the short tour that a chimp had been found. Later, Florence explained that they only have a short time to see a chimp, and hadn’t seen one yet, and so the guides are obligated to help each other out. Apparently, our guide is a tracker for the one hour groups. After a while the other tour group moved on. We stood there for a minute and Florence told us to look up. We stared upwards, and saw a couple of chimp nests in the trees. One nest was small and it became apparent that a baby was in it peeking over the top. Wow. I think she saved that discovery just for us. After a few photos there, we moved on and found another large chimp. We followed him and he sat by a tree. He was looking upwards, kind of sideways. Florence said he was looking for food and that he was going to climb it. She was right, he climbed the tree and called to the others. After a bit, the chimp decided that he had had enough, and came down out of the tree and we were on the move again. Florence heard someone else on her radio and she and Shariffe whistled to another guide with a group of tourists. They came…we all took photos and as the chimp decided to move on, Florence called for us to follow him. Soon we were the only group tailing him as he made his way through the foliage. This happened maybe another four times. Sometimes, they would take just a few photos and leave as quickly as they had come, so it wasn’t too intrusive. However, it was a little disconcerting to think that we had paid for a private full day trek and then have to share our personal chimp experience with groups of up to a dozen tourists who might possibly scare the chimps off. Even with the annoyance of having to share the moment, there were many times that we had the chimps all to ourselves. Sometimes, right after they left, Florence would say, “look up there,” and point out another chimp that they had completely missed. She pointed out chimp nests high in the trees. They build a new one every day by folding in branches and weaving them together. They look like big birds’ nests. There were a couple of olive baboons close by and Mark took some photos of them. Then, we heard a drumming of sound. A chimp was pounding on a fig tree buttress. Florence could see him and with a smile said that he must be young and that he was doing it the wrong way; as he was pounding the buttress with his hand…not his foot. Florence said the chimp was trying to alert others about food. We followed a large chimp. He was moving fast, and he was much more adept at maneuvering through the thick vegetation than we were. We scrambled after him, to keep him in our sights. We managed to catch up with him when he sat down. As we quietly moved around him to get a closer look and take photos, he decided to move again. We stopped for lunch and then continued on in the quest to find more chimpanzees. Not too far away, we heard shrieking, and the sound of drumming of a buttress of a nearby fig tree. I couldn’t help but think of the Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and was certain that this was a battle cry, but Florence explained he was just communicating with the other chimpanzees. Indeed, we could hear them shrieking in response all around us. It sounds so distressing. He took off again, and, once more we attempted to follow him. Then we saw a chimp scale a tall tree, we craned our necks to watch him run around on the branches. There was a whole troop of them in the trees. It had begun to rain and Florence and Shariffe were holding a large poncho over all of us to keep us dry. More chimpanzee came to join the group in the trees.
All of a sudden a large chimp came charging past us slapping the ground. “Don’t move!” Florence warned as he ran within a few feet of us. Wow. He climbed the tree to join the others and swung from branch to branch, screeching loudly. She said he was called the “stubborn one,” and was just showing off. He wanted to get attention and wants to be the alpha male. But since there was already an alpha male and a second in command, he would keep trying to impress the others. We just stood there, staring up in amazement, as the chimpanzees group swung about the treetops and feasted on fruit and mated. We saw two pairs of chimps mating. It only lasted a few seconds (very different from the grizzly bears in Yellowstone, where they mated for 22 minutes.)
Since it was raining, and we didn’t know if the rain would stop or if the chimps would come back down out of the tree, we decided to start making our way back, even though it was only 1:30. It’s hard to get good photos of the chimps high in the trees with the backlighting of the sky. We came upon another male chimp and we followed him. He laid down under a tree and was resting with his foot resting on top of his knee and yawning from time to time. It seemed very human like. After some more photos, we made it back to the service road, and Rogers had come to pick us up. We were ending the day sooner than we had signed up for, but we were tired. By the time we had gotten in the vehicle, the rain had stopped, and we wondered if we had made the right decision, but it had been a good day, and we headed back to the ranger station. Florence wrote down some of the names of the chimps that we had seen. They are named for their personalities.
Kanyawara Chimpanzees – more than 120 individuals but they are spread into smaller groups. We saw one of these smaller groups.
Drumba (Named by Florence)
Ssebo (Second in Command – means, Sir)
Toti (he is very stubborn)
At the end of this report are some fascinating facts about (you can click on this link) chimpanzees!
Rogers took us back to kibale Forest Camp and we had them build a fire to heat up water, so that we could take a shower. We walked around camp, sat in the bar and visited with other couples and took photos of black and white colobus monkeys and a red colobus monkey too. They are rare in this area. We also took a 360 degree time-lapse video to document our tent here. The electricity is only on from 6-10 PM, so we charged our batteries at the bar, while we ate our dinner. Tonight it was avocado with a vinegrette, pumpkin soup, pork chops with veges, and chocolate cake. We headed back to our tent and got a good night’s sleep. ~ Mary & Mark
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