When Chimps decided to play hide and seek

Some of the hosted buyers from Kenya and South Africa pose in front of a chimpanzee at Kibale Forest National Park on the second day of  Chimp trekking. (Right) Ms Mutahinga makes a point as Martin Charlton listens.

What you need to know:

  • Uganda offers arguably the best places to trek chimpanzees in the world. But they live in large communities that frequently breakup into smaller parties to go looking for scarce food before getting back together again, sometimes making it hard to find them. 

Jane Mutahinga has been a game ranger with Uganda Wildlife Authority for about 17 years.

Currently based in Kibale Forest National Park following a 10-year spell at Queen Elizabeth National Park, Mutahinga is believed to be one of the best chimp trackers in the 795 square kilometre forest located in western Uganda.

But on this rainy Saturday afternoon, she too could not locate any of the 1,450 chimps said to live in the 13 communities based in the Primate Capital of the World.

“I think they are in hiding. They have sought refuge from the rain,” she told a group of specialized tourist operators (hosted buyers) on a familiarisation trip to trek chimpanzees.

The more than 95 hosted buyers were in the country on the invitation of Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) and the Competitiveness and Enterprise Development Project (CEDP) ahead of the four-day Pearl of Africa Tourism Expo (Poate).

According to Lily Ajarova, the UTB Chief Executive Officer, the specialised tour operators were from the core source markets  of  Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya Canada, Italy, Scotland, Ethiopia, South Africa as well as Spain and the UK. They also target German-speaking countries such as Austria, Germany and Switzerland.

“That way, Uganda will receive more travellers thus increasing more revenue and employment opportunities,” she said. 

In Kibale National Park, the eight-man team had trekked through the muddy, dense forest for ,more than three hours covering a distance of about five kilometres.

Earlier at the Kanyanchu Visitor Center, the ‘ground zero’ for all tourist activities in Kibale National Park, Mutahinga had given the tourists and media a brief about what to expect, as well as the dos and donts.

“There are about 13 primate species,” she said. “Also, this forest is home to 372 bird species, 350 tree species, 251 butterfly species as well as the biggest population of forest elephants in Uganda. We are also blessed to have 1,450 chimpanzees living in 13 communities. Five of these communities are habituated – three for research purposes while two are meant for tourism. One community is still undergoing habituation.”

Hosted buyers at the Kanyanchu Visitor Centre entrance after chimp trekking in Kibale Forest National Park. PHOTOS | CAESAR ABANGIRAH

Visitors have a chance to experience full day chimpanzee habituation with one of the chimpanzee communities.

It takes about seven years for a group to be habituated, which is done to bring chimps closer to humans. Each group has about 120 members.

Mutahinga says trekking is done twice a day – in the morning at 8am and at 2pm and they can be located by checking on fruiting trees, through fresh signs such as prints or where they were left/found earlier.

“Chimpanzee trekking is one of the most popular tourist activities with the other being gorilla trekking. Here, we also use vocalisation to track the chimps and the chances of seeing a chimpanzee stand at more than 90 percent,” she said.

The trek

And so the team set off into the forest that stands at 1,590m above sea level with the lowest point at 1,100m in the Albertine rift valley to the south to find humans closest relatives with a DNA of about 98 percent.

“I am so excited to be doing this,” Martin Charlton from Scotland said.

Almost 30 minutes into the forest, Martin, a senior tour leader at Adventures Abroad added that the trekking of chimps was the best thing that he had ever done in the over 200 tours he has done in the more than 125 countries visited.

The team silently agreed, as they jumped over streams and dodged low-hanging branches from one point to another.

All this time, Mutahinga on her walkie-talkie or telephone kept in touch with her colleagues leading other tourists through different sectors of the forest.

But every time the team arrived at a point understood to be hosting some chimpanzees, they would be disappointed.

“Because of the rain, they are hiding,” Ms Mutahinga told the group once again, after taking them though a 50-metre long thicket she called a shortcut. “But do not lose hope. We shall find them ahead because they are tolerant to human presence.”

At this point, most of team were tired.

Femi, the Nigerian who was seething from having missed his luggage, vented his frustration.

“I am tired! To have gone this far, I have tried,” he said while at the Baboon Trail. He was then given a guard to escort him back to the visitors’ centre as the other team continued to another spot in search of the chimps.

Mutahinga had received a call that a lone chimp had been spotted about five minutes away. They missed it having arrived two minutes late.

Having run out of time, an agreement was reached to try again the following morning.

The next day, the group was lucky to chance upon a community of semi habituated chimps after walking for one hour.

“We were led straight to the group of about 150 members,” Martin said before the Explore Uganda tourist van set off for Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park to trek gorillas. “Now I know what a truly beautiful experience this is having witnessed it first-hand. I am sure many more of my clients will be fascinated by this safari.”


The Pearl of Africa Tourism Expo is East Africa’s tourism signature event that brings together tourism stakeholders to one ideal meeting place to meet and network with exhibitors, buyers, investors and suppliers of services in the tourism sector from all over the world.