Chimpanzees are our closest relatives sharing 99% of our DNA. Around 1400 live in 13 large communities in Uganda’s Kibale National Park and we were incredibly excited to spend a day with them.
It was an early morning start and after our briefing we set off through the forest. We hadn’t been walking for more than 15 minutes before we heard their piercing morning calls echo through the thick forest. A few minutes later we met Mr Orphan, sitting on his own under a large tree. He was soon joined by his friends Mr Black and Totti, the alpha male of the community. As Totti approached he picked up a log and charged at us swinging it! He was just letting us know who was in charge.
We watched the three friends groom each other … the same grooming we would do at the end of the day picking out sticks, insects and other forest remnants from each other’s hair!
We spent the day with Totti as he guided us around the forest – occasionally on the path but for most of the day just through the forest. As the alpha male, the guides refer to Totti as the president. After he had challenged the previous alpha male and won, the former president left the community for three months before returning as one of the elders. He had been in charge for 20 years, a short tenure for an African president!
Because we had the whole day, we spent lots of time just sitting on the forest floor watching Totti as he went about his day. He didn’t seem bothered having us around but sometimes he would look right at you with his beautifully curious eyes, and you would wonder what he was thinking and what he makes of us.
Some of his behaviours are so much like ours: how he sits and lies on a log, rolling onto his side for a nap and having a good stretch afterwards. His hands and feet look just like ours too and he had long slender fingers and lines on his palms.
He was alone for large parts of the day but different friends would join to hang out for a while. This included a few mothers with their cute babies. The babies have a lighter face, a fluffy tail, which they lose as they mature, and they’re carried on their moms backs (often she would be off while the little one was still trying to jump on). As you would expect, the mothers were more shy and protective of their little one so when we got too close for their liking they would take themselves up a tree or disappear into the forest.
Chimps have evolved to walk on their knuckles to protect their hands and they have amazing dexterity; they pick out tiny ticks from one another which they then eat for protein. They also eat fruit, leaves and soil but figs are the favourite for this group. For many years they were thought to be vegetarians but occasionally they will hunt red colobus monkeys. They’re amazing tree climbers and use the smaller trees and branches to get to the bigger trees, which is where the fruit is. The canopy can reach up to 60m and they effortlessly climb up and swing between trees. Even the young ones we saw were able to scamper up trees and swing between branches.
At first, it was scary having them walk right by us, almost brushing our trousers as they went. As we spent more time with them, they seemed to become more gentle and we definitely felt more relaxed. It took just one shrieking scream or a chase through the forest at full speed to remind ourselves how strong they are. They seemed pretty chilled but our guide noted they can be very aggressive, sometimes fighting or even killing off other males to be in charge.
It was a fascinating experience to spend the whole day with our closest relatives and to watch their routine and interactions. We felt like we got to know Totti just a little and left the forest feeling very grateful to have had such an amazing experience.
> We decided to do the all day ‘habituation’ experience rather than spend only an hour with them (we thought we would spend a day with researchers trying to habituate a new group; rather we spent the day with an already habituated group).
> We booked the experience in Kampala but it can also be done at the park office in Isunga, 10 km from the gate. The cost was $220/person.
> There are a lot of ants in the forest and they’re nasty biters so its best to wear long trousers and to tuck these in to your socks (wear long socks too)
> It’s an early 6.30 start if you do the habituation experience. We camped at Safari hotel, around 3 km away,and took a boda-boda to the gate.
> If you’re short on time sightings are better in the morning. You can also choose to end your habituation day when you wish.