When I traveled to Uganda with my husband Jay for Extraordinary Journeys, I got to experience among other things gorilla trekking in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Chimpanzee Trekking in Kibale Forest National Park. Everyone knows about the Gorillas so this blog is all about my experience with the chimps.
Chimpanzee trekking is one of the things that makes a Uganda safari unique. Not only is it incredibly special to be able to gorilla and chimp trek in one country but Kibale Forest is one of the best places not only in Uganda, but in the world, to see chimpanzees.
Chimpanzees are among our closest relatives, sharing over 98% of our DNA. They typicallys live in family groups of 15 to 20 (though some may be much larger, up to 100), and each chimpanzee group has a unique personality of its own. Group life is crucial because chimpanzees are highly sociable, intelligent, and communicative animals; their complex social relationships and hierarchies (groups are usually led by a dominant male chimpanzee) help provide mental and emotional stimulus they need. They communicate largely through body language and hoots, pants, and barks, and are one of the only species to create and use tools. Digging insects out of tight spaces or opening hard nuts or fruits with rocks are common, creative activities chimpanzees are known to engage in. This helps keep their diet varied, ranging from fruits and other plants to insects, eggs, meat, and even carrion. Plus, because most wild chimps live about 40 years, they have plenty of time to pass on their special skills to younger generations.
Chimpanzees are found almost exclusively in the dense forests of Central and West Africa, making Uganda prime real estate for trekking. Most male chimps stand just under 4 feet tall and weighs between 90-130lbs. Female chimps tend to be a little smaller, usually weighing between 60-100lbs.
Read more about chimpanzees here!
Chimpanzee Trekking in Uganda
We started our chimpanzee trekking adventure with an 8AM briefing with park rangers before heading out. We were accompanied by 2 rangers and 2 rangers in training and they spotted the alpha male of our group within minutes of starting to walk! We watched him in a tree for a long time, then followed him through the jungle until he snuck away.
Then only twenty minutes later we found the whole rest of the group, 15 chimps in total. We were walking through the forest and suddenly heard a 'thump' followed by screeches and the jungle coming alive. I learned later from the ranger that the thump is created by hitting the lower trunk branches of the trees, which is a way to communicate to other chimps.
Chimps started swinging from the trees and calling to each other all around us. The noises were so loud and exciting - a whole family of chimps could be watching you but and you would never know until they decide to reveal themselves! We stayed with the group for more than an hour, watching them forage and interact. The rangers were incredibly knowledgeable, answering all of our questions and letting us know which chimps we could get closer to and telling us to stay further away from others. We watched them build nests for their afternoon naps before heading back.
Best Time to Visit
Straddling the equator, there is little temperature fluctuation in Uganda throughout the year, with average temperatures in the 80s. It is quite humid, especially in the mountainous areas where you do your trekking. The best time to go chimpanzee trekking to avoid crowds is April through May, during the rainy season. But you'll be trekking in a rainforest so you're likely to get wet any time of year! The best months to visit Uganda for drier weather are also its peak tourist season from June to October.
What to Bring on a Chimpanzee Trek
A small day pack for personal items
A few snacks of your preference
Camera. Trust us, you'll want to take lots of photos, but remember no flash!
Durable, water-resistant boots with good traction in case of muddy slopes
Durable, water-resistant jacket
Layered clothing to adjust for a variety of weather (rain, heat, etc.). Long sleeves and long pants are recommended for any prickly foliage you might trek through.
What You Need to Know
Our consultants must be book your permits in advance
To prevent transmitting human-borne diseases to the chimps, anyone who is ill (with the flu, for example) is not allowed in the park.
You must be at least 12 years old to go chimpanzee trekking in Kibale Forest National Park
Keep a Distance of at least 8 meters between you and the chimpanzees
Don’t eat next to the chimpanzees
Listen to your guide at all times - they really do know best
There are typically 8 people per trekking group
Chimpanzee Trekking vs. Gorilla Trekking?
Here is the most important fact in comparing chimp and gorilla trekking: chimps spend more time in trees. While gorillas eat and move through the forest on the floor, chimps spend a lot of their day moving through the trees. Watching them swing through the trees or build nests is fascinating but makes them harder to spot, harder to get good pictures of, and it can also make your neck hurt! Sometimes you just have to enjoy watching them and accept that your pictures won’t be amazing. That said, we got a few good ones!
I found that the chimps made more noise and were livelier than gorillas. You feel like you are in among the group, surrounded by them and it makes the whole experience really exciting in a way that was quite different from my gorilla trekking experience. The chimp trek was much flatter than the gorilla trek but the forest was quite dense. Because the trek wasn't as strenuous I felt like I had more time to appreciate the forest, to take in the birds and other monkeys that were around.
Like gorilla tracking, chimpanzee tracking requires a permit and the total number of permits per day is restricted. In Kibale there can be a maximum of six guests per group. Unlike gorilla trekking because the treks are not as long, you can go either on a morning or afternoon visit to the chimps. Some people say it’s better to go in the morning because the chimps are sleepy in the afternoon and some people say it doesn’t matter. We went in the morning and they were definitely active! Just like a gorilla trek you should wear sturdy shoes and layers, including rain gear. Bring gaiters if you have them or tuck your pants into your boots to hinder the safari ants! Gardening gloves to avoid stinging nettles are also a good idea.
Chimpanzee Trekking vs. Chimpanzee Habituation Experience
In addition to chimpanzee trekking, Kibale offers a chimpanzee habituation experience where you get to spend a full day with the chimps, contributing to research and the habituation process with experts from the Uganda Wildlife Authority. It is a fascinating experience for primate enthusiasts.
The habituation experience involves staying with a group of chimpanzees all day. This gives you time to really connect with the group and learn about their different characters and habits, and group dynamics. This experience offers a real chance to develop fieldwork skills and learn about behavioral research. Guests are also accompanied by both UWA rangers and guides who know the chimps intimately and will be able to answer any questions you may have during the habituation experience, and can discuss the history of the group and changes over time. Overall, the chimpanzee habituation experience is more immersive than chimpanzee trekking due to sheer time spent with the chimps.
Psst... You can also explore the Bigodi Wetlands on a nature walk or enjoy a traditional Ugandan lunch at a local community leader’s house.
Where to Stay in Kibale
There are several great places to stay around Kibale including Ndali Lodge and Primate Lodge. We stayed at Kyaninga Lodge (pictured above and below) and really enjoyed it. The whole property is set on raised wooden walk-ways which I loved. It has huge rooms with fabulous views over a Crater Lake, great food and lovely management and staff. The atmosphere is relaxed and peaceful.
Where Else Can You Go Chimpanzee Trekking?
Uganda: Besides Kibale Forest National Park, you can see them in Murchison Falls National Park and at Kyambura Gorge but Kibale is widely regarded as the best place in Uganda to see them.
Tanzania: You can go chimpanzee trekking at Gombe where Jane Goodall did her research, and in the Mahale Mountains. The Mahale Mountains are great because you can stay at Greystoke Mahale on Lake Tanganyika and these particular chimps spend quite a bit of time on the forest floor which is unusual and makes them easier to spot.
DRC: In Virunga National Park, stay at Mikeno Lodge and combine gorilla and chimpanzee trekking from one lodge!