Chimpanzee tracking

chimpanzee tracking

Chimpanzee tracking (pan troglodytes schweinfurthii or the eastern chimpanzee ) can be as rewarding as gorilla trekking. The primate species is one of the four subspecies of the common chimpanzee with its home range encompassing the Afromontane tropical forests of the Albertine rift valley in Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Burundi, DR Congo, and Central African Republic.

Dr. Jane Goodall conducted the first scientific research on the primate species in Tanzania’s Gombe stream in the early 1960s. Soon after, chimpanzee research also began in Uganda and  Rwanda, resulting in both countries having conducted extensive fieldwork on primates and developing strong primate tourism infrastructures. Burundi and the DR Congo are currently working on developing their primate tourism and have the potential for chimp trekking as highlighted below. For that matter, the best destinations to see eastern chimpanzees in the wild are Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania.

The chimpanzee 

Chimpanzees or chimps are man’s closest relatives and share 98% of their DNA with humans. They’re social and intelligent animals known to use tools such as sticks to draw termites from their mounds and stones to crush hard fruits and nuts. Chimps can move between 2 km to 10 km during the day depending on availability of food and their home range. The primates are more active than gorillas, using their four legs and occasionally their two to walk, climb, and swing through trees. You expect to encounter the primates either on ground or high in the tree canopies. As such, Chimpanzee tracking can be challenging due to the nature of terrain. The chimp trek requires moderate physical fitness.

Chimpanzee tracking in Uganda

Chimpanzee tracking

Chimpanzees live in over 20 forests across Uganda of which five offer chimpanzee trekking including Toro Semliki wildlife reserve, Kibale forest national park, Kyambura gorge, Kalinzu, and Budongo central forest reserves. 

Kibale national park

Situated in Kabarole district, Kibale national park is 358 km (6-hour drive) west of Kampala capital city, 26 km from Fort Portal tourism city, 294 km south of Murchison falls national park and 105 km north of Queen Elizabeth national park. Kibale can also be accessed by air through the Kasese airport which is 60 km (1-hour drive) away. Kibale forest has an area of 795 between 1,60-2,607 meters above sea level.

Largely covered by moist evergreen semi-deciduous tropical forest, Kibale is also interspersed with swamps such as Kihingami and Bigodi wetlands and a corridor of woodlands that connect to Queen Elizabeth national park. Kibale has rich biodiversity including 13 primate species which include over 1,450 chimpanzees, red colobus monkeys, blue monkeys, gray cheeked mangabays, Ugandan mangabeys, L’hoest monkeys, black and white colobus monkeys, olive baboons.

The Chimps of Kibale has been studied since 1987 and there are several primate communities that have been habituated for both tourism and research purposes. Kibale forest offers both chimpanzee trekking and habituation experience. The activities are conducted at the Kanyanchu visitor center, the park headquarters. Chimpanzee trekking offers one hour to visit the habituated chimps and is available with morning sessions starting at 7:30 am and afternoon sessions at 2 pm.  The chimpanzee habituation experience is done once in a day and offers an opportunity to follow the semi-habituated chimps for almost the entire day.

In this activity, visitors are accompanied by habituators, trackers, and rangers into the forest at 6:30 am in the morning till late afternoon. This involves looking for where the chimps slept and observing how they go about their daily activities. In addition to chimps, those intending to see other primate species should visit the Bigodi wetland sanctuary located 6 km outside the park. The sanctuary was established to protect the swamp which is home to 8 primates and over 200 species of birds. Bigodi swamp walk lasts for 1-2 hours and supports the works of the Kibale Association for Rural and Environmental Development (KAFRED), which manages the swamp. 

The Kyambura gorge chimpanzee tracking experience

The rift valley escarpment of Kyambura game reserve has an average depth of 100 meters beneath the surface and stretches for 1 km wide and 11 km long in the north east part of Queen Elizabeth Conservation Area. Lush tropical forests thrive within the gorge with Kyambura river flowing through the gorge to the Kazinga channel. The gorge provides habitat to a community of about 29 chimpanzees among other primate species which include black and white colobus monkeys, red tailed monkeys, and blue monkeys.

There are over 200 species of birds including the African-finfoot, double-toothed barbet, great blue turaco, red eye dove, Rupell’s starling. Being part of Queen Elizabeth national park, the gorge also attracts mammal species including elephants, hippos, and leopards. The chimps in Kyambura have been habituated by UWA in partnership with the Kyambura Gorge Ecotourism project.

Chimpanzee trekking in Kyambura gorge is such a thrilling experience as you descend deep to the bottom of the escarpment before ascending out. Armed rangers accompany visitors so that, should an elephant encounter occur, they can frighten it by shooting into the air. The Kyambura chimp permit cost is $100 for foreign non-residents, $80 for foreign residents, and 50,000 UGX for East African citizens. This doesn’t include park entry fees. Among other things to do include the Kyambura wetland walk and coffee experience which are initiatives of the Volcanoes Safaris Kyambura Gorge Lodge.

Chimpanzee tracking in Kalinzu central forest reserve

Kalinzu forest reserve in Bushenyi district is 31.7 km south of Queen Elizabeth national park via Ntungamo-Katunguru rd and 80 km (1-hour drive) west of Mbarara municipality. Those who choose not to travel through the park don’t have to pay the park entry fees. Kalinzu is an evergreen tropical forest covering 147 at 1,400 meters above sea level.

The forest is rich in biodiversity including 6 primate species which include chimpanzees, black and white colobus monkeys; over 378 species of birds, 262 butterfly species, and 414 tree species. Tourism at Kalinzu is managed by UWA in partnership with the National Forestry Authority (NAF). Chimps have been habituated and Kalinzi offers the best budget chimpanzee trekking tour and the permit cost is $50 per person for foreign non-residents and $40 for foreign residents, and Ushs. 30,000 for East African citizens.

Among other activities include birding, research and conservation education, and butterfly watching  which are conducted at the Nkombe visitor information center. The Kalinzu campsite offers camping facilities including pit and flush toilet and bathroom facilities. Those intending to camp need to come with their own camping gears. Accommodation can also be found in Queen Elizabeth national park given that the park is nearby, Kalinzu can be reached with an early morning drive from Queen Elizabeth national park. 

Toro Semliki wildlife reserve primate walk

The protected area is situated in the Semliki valley flanked by Lake Albert in the north and Rwenzori mountains to the south. Toro Semliki wildlife reserve is an extension of the Great Ituri Congo rainforest interspersed with open acacia-combretum woodland and grassy savannah. The reserve is famous for harboring central African species that are rare to find in other parks of Uganda which include 7 primate species including chimpanzees, De Brazza’s monkeys, central African red colobus monkey, and the dent’s mona monkeys (Cercopithecus denti).

There are 200 mammal species including both forest and savanna buffaloes and elephants and over 460 bird species. The Toro Semliki primate walk offers an opportunity for chimpanzee trekking in the open acacia-combretum woodland and grassy savannah along the Mugiri riverine trail close to Semliki Safari Lodge. On this trek, you may spot the central African species mentioned above. Among other exciting wildlife and adventure activities to do include shoebill boat ride excursion on Lake Albert, day and night game drives, Nyaburogo gorge hike, and Ntoroko fishing community walk. The reserve is 32 km south of Fort Portal City. 

Chimpanzee tracking in Budongo forest

Covering 825, Budongo central forest reserve is situated south of the Nile river in Murchison falls national park. The forest is predominantly moist semi-deciduous forest with endangered tree species which include Mahogany, Mvule (Milicia excelsa), African mango (Irvingia gabonensis), cordia millenii, ironwood. Some parts are also interspersed by savanna woodlands.

Budongo is rich in biodiversity including over 600 chimpanzees which were first studied by prof. Vernon Reynolds in 1962. Budongo is famous for hosting Uganda’s long-term chimpanzee research project. The Budongo Conservation Field Station was established in 1990 and the chimpanzee trekking in Budongo central forest reserve started in 2009. Today, there are three troops that have been habituated at the  Kaniyo-Pabidi and Busingiro Eco-tourism centers. Budongo forest chimp trekking permit cost is $80 per person available for booking through a tour operator.

In addition to chimpanzee trekking, the Field Station offers scientific research expeditions among other conservation education activities by Earth Watch, a non-profit environmental organization that connects scientists with local people to conduct environmental research and empowers them with the knowledge to conserve the planet. The reserve is also home to over 300 species of birds of which 2 Guinea-Congo forest biome species, the Yellow footed flycatcher (muscicapa sethsmithi) and the Puvel’s Illadopsis are not found anywhere in East Africa. 

Ngamba Island chimpanzee sanctuary 

The chimpanzee sanctuary at Ngamba island covers 100 acres of tropical forests in Lake Victoria. The sanctuary was established with support from the Jane Goodall Institute in 1989 as a center to rehabilitate orphaned chimps. Most of the primates living in the sanctuary were rescued from poachers across forests of East and central Africa. There are 53 chimps which roam freely which are taken care of by a team of caregivers, veterinarians, and volunteers. The chimps are released from the facilities to roam free in the forest.

There’s an electric fence that separates the forest from the facilities and a raised platform where viewing and feeding of the chimps is conducted twice daily. The Ngamba island chimpanzee feeding morning session is conducted at 11 am and the afternoon session at 2 pm. Volunteering opportunities are also available for booking through the Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife Conservation Trust. Ngamba island is a 45-min by speed boat and 90 min by motorized canoe from Entebbe town. The island can also be reached by helicopter via Kajjansi or Entebbe airport. The Ngamba Ecolodge offers accommodation for those intending to spend the night. 

Chimpanzee tracking in Rwanda

Chimpanzee tracking

Chimpanzee trekking in Rwanda is mainly done in Nyungwe forest, one of the oldest Afromontane tropical forests. Recently, the primate experience has also been opened in Gishwati Mukura national park, Rwanda’s 4th protected area.  

Nyungwe forest national park

Nyungwe national park is 220 km (6-hour drive) southwest of Kigali, 100 km (2-hour drive) south of Huye and 55 km (1-hour drive) east of Rusizi town. Nyungwe is a dense Afromontane forest in the Albertine rift valley spanning for 1,019 The protected area is rich in biodiversity including 1,100 plant species, 12 primate species including chimpanzees and black and white colobus monkeys, 345 bird species of which 29 are Albertine rift endemics, and 85 mammal species such as African civets, serval cats, and black fronted duikers.

Nyungwe forest has a moderate altitude ranging from 1,600m – 2,950 meters above sea level. Trekking to see chimpanzees in Nyungwe can be challenging due to the nature of terrain. Chimpanzee trekking in Nyungwe starts at one of the three visitor centers which include Uwinka, the headquarters in the center of the park, Gisakura to the west and Kitabi to the eastern entrance. Visitors need to know ahead of time the exact center to report to the following day. 

Gishwati Mukura national park

The protected area was created in 2015 by merging and restoring two previously degraded Gishwati and Mukura forests  to conserve biodiversity including a community of over 25 eastern chimpanzees among other primate species such as golden monkeys, black and white colobus monkeys, and L’hoest monkeys. There are over 150 bird species including Albertine rift endemics such as Rwenzori turaco, regal sunbird, Archer’s robin chat, handsome francolin, Rwenzori nightjar, and Kivu ground thrush.

Mammal species in the park include African civets, black-fronted duikers, side-striped jackals, servaline genet among reptiles like the three-horned chameleon. Once larger and continuous, the forest was fragmented and separated into two parts 30 miles apart by agriculture and human development. Through the landscape Approach to Forest Restoration and Conservation project, people who had occupied the area in between the forests were resettled and it was turned into a buffer zone by planting native tree species.

Gishwati forest, having remained largely untouched, was offered to Forest of Hope Association and Wilderness Safaris, a world leading conservation and hospitality company. In partnership with Rwanda Development Board, they have created Ecotourism activities which include chimpanzee trekking, golden monkey tracking, birding, hiking.

Primate tracking in Tanzania

Chimpanzee trekking in Tanzania is conducted in Gombe stream and Mahale mountains national parks. Both protected areas are found in the western safari circuit along with Katavi national parks. The region is quite off-the-beaten path given that most travelers go to the northern circuit famous for the wildebeest migration and Big Five safaris in Serengeti and Ngorongoro crater. Depending on the amount of time the visitors wish to spend, Mahale and Gombe stream are great options for those intending to go chimpanzee trekking in Tanzania.

Gombe stream national park

The protected area is 16 km north of Kigoma region on the eastern shores of Lake Tanganyika and can be reached by a 2-hour speed boat ride or 4-hour public motorboat. The park can also be reached by air through Kigoma airport. Gombe stream national park covers 56 and the altitude ranges from 767 meters on the white sand beaches to 1,606 meters along the escarpment. 

The area is characterized by undulating hills and valleys encompassing a variety of habitats which include evergreen tropical and semi deciduous forests, miombo woodlands, and grasslands. Despite the fact that it is the smallest park of Tanzania, Gombe is rich in biodiversity including 5 primate species which include over 100 chimpanzees, olive baboons, red-tailed monkeys, blue monkeys, and the red colobus monkeys; over 200 species of birds, over 350 fish species including Lake salmon, Goliath tiger fish, Nkupi, and Nile that are caught for sport; over 400 butterfly species among other reptiles such as African rock python. The protected area is famous for Dr. Jane Goodall’s study of wild chimpanzees that started in 1960.

The Gombe stream research center is one of the long-term wildlife research studies. The primates have habituated since 1978 which means that Gombe offers a credible chimpanzee trekking experience. Gombe stream chimp permit cost is $118 per person available for booking through a tour operator or the Tanzania National Parks Authority. Among other activities to do in addition to tracking the chimps include snorkeling, diving, boat rides, kayaking, and sport fishing on Lake Tanganyika.

Nature walks along the shores of the lake offer an opportunity for bird watching. Village walks can be done in Mwamgongo community. Those intending to explore the local culture, the women cultural group of the Holoholo tribe offers art and craft such as pottery, weaving of mats, baskets, hats and traditional dance performances. The park offers a wide range of accommodations which include Gombe forest lodge, Mitumba rest house, Kasekela rest house, and Kasekela campsite. 

Mahale mountains national park

Mahale national park also offers chimpanzee trekking as well as game drives, hiking Mahale and Nkungwe peaks, canoeing, boat rides and sport fishing. The protected area is part of the Albertine rift valley covering 1,613 along the eastern shores of Lake Tanganyika. The park has relatively longer stretch white sandy beaches.

The altitude ranges between 773-2,462  meters above sea level which influences four unique types of vegetation which include miombo woodlands, dense montane and lowland forest, and highland bamboo species such as oxytenanthera abyssinica (holy venda), montane grassland and deciduous tree shrubs which include hyparrhenia rufa, protea gaguedi, cussonia arborea, psychotria capensis. Due to a variety of habitats, Mahale mountains national park is rich in biodiversity including 11 primate species which include over 1,000 chimpanzees, Thomas’s dwarf galago (Galagoides thomasi), e miombo silver galago, the Mahale Angola colobus monkeys (Colobus angolensis mahale), Ashy red colobus monkeys, (Piliocolobus tephrosceles), Kinda baboons (Papio kindae), Mahale silver monkeys (Cercopithecus mitis), eastern vervet monkeys, (Chlorocebus pygerythrus centralis) and the Schmidt’s red-tailed monkeys (Cercopithecus ascanius schmidt).

Chimpanzees are the main attraction and have been habituated for tourism. Mahale chimp trekking permit cost is $150 per person and allows visitors to spend 1 hour with the primates. Besides the chimps, the park is also home to 82 mammal species including buffaloes, lions, leopards, African civets, blue duikers, hippos and crocodiles. Guided forest walks offer an opportunity to spot some of the animals and visit waterfalls. Hiking mount. Nkungwe lasts for 7-9 hours and offers an opportunity to go through the different types of vegetation and also enjoy the scenery. Lake Tanganyika shores offers white sand beaches to relax on after trekking. Activities start at Mahale national park headquarters. Among other activities to enjoy include boat rides, sport fishing, and visiting the Ujiji historical site and fish market in Ujiji town. 

Chimpanzee tracking in Burundi

Chimpanzee tracking in Burundi is conducted in Kabira national park which is 66 km (2-hour drive) north west of Bujumbura capital city. The protected area covers 400, part of the Albertine rift valley montane ecosystem that adjoins Nyungwe forest national park in northwest Rwanda. Kabira’s 16% of the total area is evergreen dense primary tropical forest with over 644 plant species including boarwood (Symphonia globulifera), Albizia gummifera and Entandrophragma excelsum, and Newtonia buchananii.

The forest is famous for harboring chimpanzees among other primate species such as black and white colobus monkeys. Chimp trekking in Kabira national park available for booking through the Institut National pour l’Environnement et la Conservation de la Nature or a tour operator. The park can be visited along the northern round trip including other sites of Bujumbura, Bugarama, Teza Burundi’s oldest tea plantation, Kayanza coffee station, Bururi Forest Nature Reserve, Kigwena Forest Reserve in Ngozi- Kirundo and Gishora Burundi Drum Sanctuary and national museum at Gitega and Mawimbi beach club on the shores of Lake Tanganyika.