Chimp Habituation in Uganda

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The road to Kibale National Park feels almost other-worldly.  You drive through the Ugandan countryside on a dirt-packed road that unfurls like a narrow rust-colored carpet cutting through an expanse of tea plantations and small towns before entering an ancient forest. The jungle is only a few feet from the road and it is so thick it is almost impossible to navigate without a machete and the chimpanzees watch from above as we struggle and crash through their forest.

While in Uganda, we spent a day in the jungle on a “chimp habituation” experience – and it is without a doubt, one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had. Habituation is a technique used by scientists to study chimpanzees.  The animals become accustomed to humans through prolonged exposure and eventually stop responding (i.e., won’t run away or try to attack). It offers a chance to experience chimps in the wild, and to observe them in their natural habitat.

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We spent the better part of the morning craning our necks looking to the forest canopy, watching in awe as the chimps climbed from tree to tree. The experience wasn’t at all like what I imagined. For one, the chimps were almost entirely silent. Our ranger said that this usually happens when the food supply is low. But when food is abundant, they are much more vocal and can be heard calling to each other from the treetops. Another is that chimps spend a good amount of time sleeping – in nests. They will break branches to form a little hammock, and nap throughout the day.

After about 3 hours of looking up continuously, we were all starting to get pretty tired. We took a break for lunch (making sure not to eat in front of the chimps) and then the most incredible thing happened – they came down from the trees, and started walking among us.

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It’s one thing to see chimps in a zoo, but another to have one come within arms’ reach in the wild. We spent the afternoon running through the jungle, trying to keep up, and watched as they played with one another, took naps in the shade, and foraged for food. At one point, a chimp climbed up a tree and reached inside a bees’ nest for honey only to get stung, yelp, and run away.

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tips

  • I cannot recommend chimp habituation more highly.  For those interested check out the Kibale National Park’s website which offers two types of chimp encounters: habituation (all day) and a shorter chimp tracking experience (2-3 hours).
  • Make sure to book your tickets ahead of time – rangers are not always available (despite what your hotel might say)
  • Bring long socks.  There are fire ants in the jungle, and you want to tuck your pants into your socks.
  • My biggest regret is bringing a 80-200mm lens instead of a super telephoto.  If I could turn back time, I would have rented a 300+mm lens for this experience. You’ll spend a good amount of time just looking up at the trees.
  • Be patientAfter several hours of craning our necks to look at sleeping chimps, we were all about ready to call it a day. I’m so glad we waited the extra 30 minutes or so – because that’s when they came down from the trees, and we started sprinting through the jungle to keep up.

stay

  • Chimps’ Nest: a beautiful little eco-hotel.  The rooms are small cottages and are a short hike to the main lodge.  The prices are relatively high compared to other options that might be available in the area, but otherwise worth it given how beautiful and serene the hotel is. But keep your expectations for food and service reasonable and you will have a wonderful time.

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