Friday, May 11, 2007

Chimps in the Kibale Forest

Uganda's Kibale Forest contains a habituated group of chimpanzees. The troop, with an established leader, numbers nearly 150 chimps. These chimps were habituated without the use of food, meaning that they were followed by trackers and generally exposed to humans in a non-threatening manner until they learned to accept their presence. You are asked to stay 8 meters from the chimps, but sometimes the chimps pass by you closer than that. I would say the closest to our group came within 4 feet. It was close enough for a good view.

We had one of the senior guides, a former math teacher, who had been guiding for the chimps for 12 years. He knew the members of the chimp family in detail. Uganda allocates it's resources to the gorilla programs, somewhat neglecting the chimp programs, so there are no trackers with radios who go find the chimps first. The guide takes you into the forest and says he will try to locate them using their calls, no guarantees. We could hear the chimps calling a ways into the forest though, and he did in fact locate them up in some trees. One chimp left, and we followed him, as he was heading towards another part of the family, and the part we found already had tourists (only 8 at a time can see the chimps, so the first group we found was "taken"). Within about a 45 minute hike from entering the forest, we found chimps (ironically, back on the road we hiked in from).

During our one hour of viewing time, we were able to see the chimps mating, resting, grooming, walking through the forest, napping, climbing trees, eating and playing. We saw a small baby and several youngsters. We also were lucky enough to see the leader, and to see how the chimps respected him and got out of the way when he passed by. The chimps were surprisingly loud, and a bit larger than I expected as well. Spending time with them and watching them live their chimp lives, even if only for an hour, was an amazing experience.

The hike was not too bad. There is some uphill, and the terrain is tricky as there are lots of roots and vines to trip you, or smack you in the head. It was a bit hot, and overall we probably hiked about two to three hours round trip. If you go, a few tips: wear long pants which are tucked into hiking socks, a long sleeved shirt, a baseball cap, and bring water and insect repellent. The sock tuck is a key thing, as you may encounter safari ants - if you have tucked in socks, you have a chance of getting them off you with minor bites. If they crawl up your legs you will be stripping down in the forest trying to get rid of them, and they do hurt!!!

Photography here is very tough, as there is a lot of shade/dim light, some very bright spots where the sun shines through the trees, lots of vegetation, and you are trying to photograph dark animals. In the trees, the light makes it hard, and on the ground, the lack of light makes it hard. I initially thought I had some good photos, but once back home I can see most are slightly out of focus and only a few really came out. The chimps move a lot too, so that adds another complication, and at least 1/4 of the time someone near you moves into your shot. That's okay; the experience is priceless and the photos are just to capture some memories. Also, before you get to the forest set up your camera to have no flash, no bright lights, and no sound so as not to disturb the animals.

The chimp visit takes the morning. If you want to kill the afternoon in the area, there is a nearby community project with a swamp walk, the idea being you can see monkeys in the trees around the swamp, birds and other wildlife. By reservation only you can also have a traditional Ugandan meal with a local family (which we did, and quite enjoyed. The best part was I got to pet the family cat and hold a two week old Ugandan puppy too!).

The swamp walk was my least favorite part of the trip though - nearly 5 kilometers in the hot sun, the humidity, still dressed in long pants and long sleeves from the forest walk, and we didn't see much of anything (3 black and white collobus monkeys - ironically on the way home in car we spotted four species in the trees along the road, no hiking required). Given a chance, I'd pass up the afternoon walk, but if you love to hike and don't mind sweating in the equatorial heat and possibly only seeing plants and birds, have at it. (The plant talk actually made the bird talk, which normally bores me to tears, seem interesting). I will say, even though I didn't personally enjoy the swamp walk, the community project, known as KAFRED (Kibale Association for Rural and Economic Development) was a good one. The local community uses the tourist dollars to fund a school and libraries and community projects, and as a result the community cares about conservation, is directly benefiting from tourism, and is taking a positive and proactive role in meeting community needs. You can read more about KAFRED here, including how to volunteer for the project.

For this part of the trip, we stayed two nights at Ndali Lodge, roughly 45 minutes from Kibale Forest. The Lodge is in a gorgeous setting and is comfortable; the lodge website can be viewed here. There is no electricity in the cottages, but the main house has facilities for camera charging. There are lovely bathrooms with tubs, and fire-heated hot water. The food here was not my favorite (it's English style, baked beans for breakfast, etc.), but others in my group found it fine. My favorite part of this lodge was actually the dogs. The owner has three dogs, and I missed my own so much it was a joy to hang out with the lodge dogs.

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