Tracking Chimpanzees in Mahale Mountains National Park
Uganda & Rwanda Expert
29 Jan 2018
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If you're thinking of looking for Chimps in Mahale, I'd suggest aiming for travel from mid-August to October, with September having an edge over the other months. Traditionally the driest period in Mahale, chimpanzees are ,more likely to have moved down from the steep ravines and gorges to the lower parts of the forest. There, they tend to be easier to locate.
My last visit was in June, usually regarded as among the least productive months in which to track Mahale's chimps. Traditionally June follows the wet season (mid- March, April and May), but at that time the chimps are still likely to be high up in steep ravines, far from the shores of Lake Tanganyika. So you may be faced with a 1,000m climb. Out of the possible three full days of trekking, we managed to successfully locate the chimps twice. But the chimpanzee experiences were quite different than each-other.
Excitement grew on Day 1 as we learnt that after a few days of not having being seen, the chimpanzees had finally been located. As our luck would have it, uncharacteristically for this time of the year, they had come down onto the lower slopes of the forest, about an hour away. We wolfed down our breakfast and left Greystoke Mahale, on the sandy lakeshores, for the dense rainforest.
After an hour of tracking, we were told to don our surgical masks in preparation of spending the magical hour or so with our closest relatives. All trackers, including researchers and the Tanzania National Park Authority (TANAPA) park rangers, are required to wear mouth and nose masks in order to reduce the chances of chimps contracting communicable human diseases.
How wonderful it was to suddenly find ourselves among a group of chimps in their natural home and having these glimpses into their daily lives. On this occasion, as we had located the chimps quite early, they were still resting on the forest floor and grooming one another. As any self-respecting chimps would do in the early mornings. Their behaviour changes quite abruptly around mid morning, when they start moving briskly through the forest looking food. Then, they're also a lot more vocal.
I mentioned our second chimp trek was very different: the chimps had moved high up to very dense forest. And so the hike was long and tough - something I'd rate on a par with a gorilla trek. Terrain was steep, so much so that in places we were scrambling on all fours, grabbing vines to help us retain balance. Its worth noting that in June, Mahale chimp tracking is usually like this. What sometimes take about 9 hours, we completed in six. But discomfort was more than compensated for by the time we got to spend among the chimps - what an experience!
I've been chimp tracking about 7 times in Uganda too, but this was the first time I'd managed to observe their behaviour so carefully. Their social interaction is so interesting their interaction so closely. Mostly, they groom themselves and one-another. But I was able to discern a ranking system and all sorts of 'politics' that would come into play. If, for example, the alpha male decided to move, then many of the lower ranked individuals would make way for him. I think my most memorable experience was on the second day. We were very close to losing the entire troop as they were about to venture high into a gorge that was an uncharted part of the forest as terrain was just too steep. We had the privilege of sitting roughly 10 metres away from two female chimps who were in fact sisters. They lay on their backs next to each, other holding hands. Not only that, but they would also intertwine their arms and hands together, a sign of true affection. And another memory which I will savour for the rest of my life!