Expert Reviews – Kibale NP

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The Worlds Best Chimpanzee Encounter?
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Although chimpanzees can be found in quite a number of parks and reserves in eastern Africa the four big ‘chimp parks’ are Tanzania’s Gombe Stream and Mahale Mountains, Rwanda’s Nyungwe Forest and Uganda’s Kibale Forest. I have been lucky enough to have visited all of them and they all have their plus and minus points.

The chimps of Rwanda’s Nyungwe forest are easily the most timid around people and though the forest is beautiful and there are other things to do here plus easy access it’s probably the least enticing of the four for chimps. Tanzania’s two parks both offer fabulous chimpanzee encounters but both are expensive to visit, other activities are limited, access hard and visitors are limited to one hour with the chimps (as in Nyungwe).

Uganda’s Kibale Forest by contrast offers an enticing mixture of easy access (about a half-day drive from Kampala), excellent value accommodation in all price ranges, a wide array of other activities from seriously good birding in a neighbouring area of marshland to long forest walks and numerous exciting community activities. All this stands it in good stead but then there’s the chimpanzee encounter itself. The chimps here are almost as relaxed with people as those of Gombe and Mahale so very close up encounters are almost a given. As with all the other parks the standard chimp tracking tour gives you just one hour with the chimps (and it costs more here than any other park), but what I think gives Kibale the edge of all the others is that it’s also possible to pay for a one/two or three day ‘chimp experience’ The one day experience doesn’t cost much more than the one hour tracking permit (and each successive day becomes cheaper still) but you get to spend from the crack of dawn to early evening (or whenever you’ve had enough) with the chimps. When I did it I think I spent a little over nine hours in the forest with the chimpanzees and it was arguably the most rewarding wildlife encounter I have ever had. What’s even better is that the vast majority of visitors only do the one hour trek so you and your guide have a good chance of spending most of the day with the chimps alone – an utterly magical experience. So for this reason I would say that Kibale Forest is the best place in the world to track chimpanzees.

Monkey Nirvana
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Kibale Forest is best-known for its habituated chimpanzees, and in my experience it is certainly the best place in Uganda to track man’s closest relative, though sightings of these fascinating and delightful creatures tend to be less intimate than in Tanzania’s Mahale Mountains or Gombe Stream national parks. But the great thing about Kibale Forest is that it offers so much more than just chimp tracking. At least 12 primate species are resident here, and I’ve often seen five or six in a day – not just chimps but also the acrobatic red colobus or black-and-white colobus, the more secretive grey-cheeked mangabey or red-tailed monkey, or the relatively terrestrial vervet or L’Hoests’s monkey. And as with so many Ugandan parks, the birding is outrageously good, especially along the Bigodi Swamp Walk, a community-managed guided trail where I have regularly identified up to 40 forest and swamp-related species in the space of 2-3 hours, ranging from a flock of psychedelic great blue turacos flap-flopping between the trees, to a mixed gathering of frugivores – including the stupendous yellow-billed and double-toothed barbets – on a laden fig tree.

The highest density of primates in Africa
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It’s not a typical safari stop, but if you love primates you’re going to love Kibale Forest. This lush jungle near the gorgeous Crater Lakes has 13 species including black-and-white colobus, red-tailed monkey, L’Hoest’s monkey, and chimpanzees. The later is what bring most people here because some have been habituated to humans and the chances of finding them are quite good, plus the tracking is not very difficult. There’s the usual option to spend an hour with the chimps, but Kibale offers a day-long experience too. You might also see elephants, buffaloes, or leopards, but don’t count on it – the dense forest makes finding them very difficult. On the other hand, night walks are excellent here with bush baby and civet sightings fairly common. Birdwatching is also very good though most birders focus their efforts outside the park in small preserves like the Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary which offer grassland and wetland birds alongside Kibale’s forest species.

The Place to go for Habituated Chimps in Uganda
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Gorillas aside, Kibale is the epicentre of primate trekking in Uganda. The park is home to 13 different primate species with habituated chimpanzees, rare L’Hoest’s monkey s and the threatened red colobus being the big three. However, most tourists come here because a visit to Kibale almost guarantees them a chance to see very relaxed chimps going about their daily business. Because this is one of the most popular spots for chimp treks in East Africa, the result is they’ve become extremely habituated over time and I like this from a quality of sightings and purely photographic point of view. Primate densities are high and chimps are abundant, so few leave this park without having enjoyed a good sighting of these often-elusive primates that are in fact our closest relatives. Birders will also enjoy spending some time here and the variety of forest types will ensure they probably add a few lifers to their bird lists.

Observing the busy lifestyle of chimpanzees in Kibale Forest
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Kibale is an enchanting equatorial rainforest of very tall trees, (some over 50 metres high), broad buttress roots, and dense undergrowth. It’s best known for its large population of chimpanzees, though other primates can be spotted including red-tailed and black-and-white-colobus monkeys. The highlight is to go chimpanzee tracking, and surprisingly I found it quite different to gorilla tracking; simply because chimps are far more agile animals and the pace is much faster. While the guides located them quickly (you can hear their distinctive screeching long before you see them), once they decided to move at high speed through the canopy of branches, keeping up with them was quite a challenge. But it was fascinating to see how clever they are – scaling giant trees, feeding, communicating, and caring for their young – and they seemed to have no fear of their curious human audience.

Classic, pristine central African rainforest
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Kibale (often called Kabale – many Ugandan parks go by up to 3 names!) is classic, pristine central African rainforest with towering trees and huge stands of creaking bamboo. It is famous mostly for fantastic chimpanzee trekking and boasts one of the world’s highest primate population densities. Chimp trekking at Kibale is relatively expensive by Ugandan safari standards however and we decided to forego that pleasure in favour of more time spent with the chimps in Kyambura Gorge (sometimes Chambura Gorge – see what I mean?) at Queen Elizabeth National Park.

The pant-hooting chimpanzees of Kibale Forest
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I had one of my most memorable wildlife encounters in Kibale Forest. I arrived late and after paying my fees for next day’s guided chimpanzee tracking trip, I decided to take a stroll down the main road that runs trough the forest. Unfortunately, the forest is bisected by a public road. Minibuses loaded with passengers hurtle along through this otherwise pristine reserve. Because I was tired and felt I wasn’t going into the forest proper, I went light with a pair of binoculars around my neck free of my disgustingly heavy camera with wildlife lens attached to it.

After an hour walk, I saw some rustling in the trees and on further inspecting I discovered some chimps feeding in the canopy. I sat down on the side of the road, hoping for some action and I wasn’t to be disappointed. Out of nowhere more and more chimps arrived and they started their famous pant-hooting. With chimps all around me, the swelling hoots became deafening and from a human perspective hysterical. Goosebump raising stuff. They seemed to have gathered all together on one side of the road when one individual decided to cross over. The road is too wide for them to swing so he had to come down to the ground and leap across arms and head swinging and hooting all along. This seemed to have been the cue for all of them to follow suit. They ran across on either side of me, some as close to me as a couple of meters. Knowing the danger the road poses, their adrenaline was obviously running high, but I doubt it was running as high as mine. Once they’d crossed all went quite and the forest closed behind them.

The next day, on my paid activity, I was prepared with all my photographic goodies, but no real opportunity presented itself. My fellow trackers seemed more concerned with keeping their new CAT boots clean than finding chimps and when we finally found them, the chimps seemed wary of us, or maybe they were just on the move.

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