Everything You Need To Know About Tracking Chimpanzees In Africa
By Philip Briggs | Updated October 23, 2021
Tracking wild chimps is one of the world’s most poignant wildlife encounters. We humans share almost 99% of our DNA with these hirsute black apes, making us more closely related to them, and they to us, than to any other living creature. This similarity isn’t just a taxonomic abstraction. Spend a little bit of time with chimps, and you’ll quickly become aware how almost every facet of their being – those characterful individual faces, the complex social behavior, the familiar mannerisms and body language – is recognizably humanlike.
True, chimps tend to be very restless by temperament, and following them in the wild is often more challenging and frustrating than gorilla tracking. But it is also a lot cheaper, and the rewards – a pair of males grooming companionably on the forest floor, a youngster playing in the lower branch of a tree, the entire forest reverberating with an explosive communal pant-hoot call – can be immense. If chimp tracking isn’t already on your bucket list, then it definitely should be, and here we explain how to go about it.
Where’s the best place to track chimpanzees?
Chimpanzees are widespread residents of the rainforests of western and central Africa, and there are several countries where you can track them in the wild.
Foremost is probably Uganda, where chimp tracking is offered in several different national parks and forest reserves. Kibale National Park is the most popular and reliable option, but it is often booked up well in advance (or was prior to the Covid-19 pandemic), and you might find several different tracking parties scouring the same tract of forest. Other recommended sites are Kaniyo Pabidi in Budongo Forest, which is easily visited in tandem with Murchison Falls National Park, and Kyambura Gorge and Kalinzu Forest, both of which border Queen Elizabeth National Park.
In Tanzania, chimps are restricted to the Lake Tanganyika region, where tracking is offered in Mahale Mountains and Gombe Stream National Parks. Both these parks have been the subject of ongoing chimp research projects since the 1960s, and in our experience offer the best chimp tracking anywhere in Africa. Neither park is as accessible as it’s Ugandan counterparts, which means you need to throw a lot more time and/or money at a visit.
Rwanda’s Nyungwe Forest National Park is particularly convenient to those who’ll be tracking gorillas in the same country.
How much do chimp tracking permits cost?
They’re relatively inexpensive, certainly by comparison to gorilla tracking permits. In Kibale National Park, you’re looking at US$200 per person, but most other sites in Uganda charge US$30-50, while Rwanda charges US$100. In Tanzania, chimp is included in the daily park entrance fee of US$80 for Mahale Mountains and US$100 for Gombe Stream.
How does it compare to tracking gorillas?
It’s a very different experience. Gorillas live in small family groups that tend to be quite terrestrial and sedentary, meaning that they are usually quite easy to locate from one day to the next, and seldom move far once found. Chimps, by contrast, spend a considerable amount of time high in the canopy foraging on fruit, and they’re almost constantly on the move when not eating or grooming. As a result, even when you find them easily, you might still spend a lot of time running through the tangled forest undergrowth or craning your neck towards the canopy in order to obtain a clear view. Fortunately, in my experience, it usually together in the end – and the relatively low cost and high availability of tracking permits means that if your first attempt is unsatisfactory, you can always think about trying a second time.
How long can I spend with the chimps?
Standard tracking permits generally allow for a maximum of one hour with the chimps once you’ve located them. The chimpanzee habituation experience at Kibale National Park (costs US$250) allows you to spend all up to four hours with a community that’s still in the process of being habituated.
How difficult is it?
That varies hugely from one day to the next. Sometimes it might only take a few minutes to find the chimps (in Mahale Mountains, I’ve twice had them walk into camp), while in other cases you might be on the move for several hours and still not get lucky. On average, however, you’re probably looking at around one to two hours on the move, and you may well spend some of that time following the chimps through the undergrowth, moving with a dexterity that few people can emulate.
Which is the easiest place to track chimps?
Day to day conditions are variable at any given location, so it would be misleading to state emphatically that any one place is easier than any other. Overall, however, it would be fair to say that the typical ease and success rate of tracking at any given location is influenced by the level of habituation. On that basis, Gombe Stream, Mahale Mountains and Kibale Forest probably rank as the easiest chimpanzee tracking destinations in Africa – just don’t quote me on that!
Should I train in advance?
If you find the prospect of a two-hour walk daunting, it would be a good idea to get in a bit of light training. Otherwise it’s probably unnecessary.
What is the best time of year to track chimps?
Chimp tracking runs throughout the year at all locations. In Gombe Stream and Mahale Mountains, the end of the dry season (July to October) is optimum, as the chimps tend to move higher up the escarpment during the rainy season. In Uganda and Rwanda, I would also favour the dry seasons, which run from June to September and December to February, mainly because it is when conditions underfoot are easiest. That said, chimp tracking is essentially a year round activity, so on a longer multi-country safari, you may feel it is more important to prioritize seasonal factors elsewhere on your itinerary.
How certain am I to see chimps?
Based on my experience of maybe 30-odd chimp tracking excursions in half a dozen locations, I’d place the odds of a brief sighting at 80-90% and the likelihood of a more extended one at 60%. Because of this, it’s worth structuring your itinerary to allow for a second opportunity should the first excursion disappoint. Many sites run morning and afternoon excursions, and the latter tend to be relatively undersubscribed, so it is often possible to track twice in one day.
So, are there places where I can be certain of seeing chimps?
Not in the wild. But there are, however, several well-run orphanages – most affiliated to the highly regarded Jane Goodall Institute – where you can view resident chimps in semi-wild conditions. Foremost among these are Ngamba Island (Lake Victoria, Uganda), Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary (Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya), Chimp Eden (near the Kruger Park, South Africa) and Chimfunshi (Northern Zambia). Interestingly, with the exception of Ngamba Island, these sanctuaries offer the only opportunity to see chimps in the countries where they’re located.
How safe is it?
Chimpanzees are comparable in stature to a smallish person (males stand up to 5′6″ high and weight up to 130lb) and far stronger. Despite this, attacks on adults are very rare, and you’re at no significant risk provided you listen to your guide at all times. Chimpanzees do occasionally hunt and eat monkeys, and they’ve been known to attack children, so most countries impose a minimum age limit of 15. In terms of general security, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda are all relatively stable countries with well-organised tourist industries, so you’ve little to worry about on that front.
What special equipment do I need to pack to track chimps?
Hiking boots or better trail running shoes are ideal for navigating the forest interior. Long sleeves and gloves help protect against nettles, and full-length trousers tucked into thick long socks should keep away biting ants. A hat and a poncho or raincoat is also recommended.
What else should I pack?
Sunscreen, sunglasses, antihistamine, a few packaged snacks and around 2 litres of drinking water. Don’t forget your to charge up your camera (or phone). A walking stick may be useful but local guides or porters can usually fashion one on the spot if required.
Where can I stay?
Lodges and campsites catering to most tastes and budgets exist close to all the chimp tracking destinations mentioned above.