Apes, including gorillas, orang-utans, gibbons, and chimpanzees, are amazing creatures. They're extremely dexterous, intelligent, and genetically, near-identical to humans.
After calculating our genetic differences to apes, scientists found a difference of only 1.2%.
A whopping 98% of our DNA is identical to that of chimpanzees!
When I went to Uganda earlier this year, I had the adventure of a lifetime doing wild chimpanzee trekking through Kibale National Forest, a wildlife conservation park.
The minute we entered the forest, howls and shrieks of wild chimpanzees echoed around us; leaves and branches rustled in canopies as apes bolted from tree to tree. For three amazing hours, I was able to observe these magnificent creatures live freely in the wild.
Being the brilliant, helpful person that I am, I've put together this guide for chimpanzee trekking in Kibale Forest, Uganda. I hope this helps you venture forth to witness these gorgeous beings.
Frequently Asked Questions
Where is Kibale Forest? How do I get there?
Kibale Forest, part of Kibale National Park, is a wildlife conservation forest located in western Uganda in the Kibale region near Fort Portal. You can drive, hire a van or car, or take a motorbike.
When is the best time to go chimpanzee trekking in Kibale or Uganda?
There are far fewer tourists during low season - March to May, October to November - and gorilla trekking is much cheaper around this time too. However, these particular months are also the wettest of the year. Expect rain!
How much does chimpanzee tracking cost?
Costs are dependent on how many days or hours you choose to do. I paid roughly around $150 (USD) / £98 (GBP) / PHP 6714 for a 3-4 hour trek. The separate chimpanzee trekking permit costs anywhere from $50 to $150 . Please be aware that before going, you must purchase and collect your chimpanzee trekking permit from a Uganda Wildlife Authority office (I got mine in Kampala). Book early!
How do I book/reserve a place?
There are a number of safari and trekking companies for chimpanzee trekking (Kibale Forest) and gorilla trekking (Bwindi Impenetrable Forest). Check out any of the following companies, or view a full list of safari operators here:
TIP: I recommend booking way in advance! The number of trekking permits issued daily is limited!
What should I bring?
Read my guide on 5 Top Tips for Chimpanzee Trekking for a full breakdown of what you need and why! Otherwise, the essentials are:
TIP 1: Go to the bathroom before you go trekking. Please. (Trust me on this one.)
TIP 2: Be patient and keep calm. Do what your guide tells you. They know what they're talking about!
- Good shoes with traction
- Long sleeved gear (& waterproof gear if rainy)
- Charged camera with lots of memory
- Water and snacks
- Insect repellent!
Other things you should know:
- Monkey imitations, using a camera flash, leaving trash behind, and feeding the apes are strictly forbidden.
- You must keep your distance from the chimps at all times, for a whole host of reasons.
- If you're ill, you'll be denied park entry. Kibale is cautious about exposing the chimps to human-borne diseases.
- Chimpanzees can take up to two years to successfully habituate (get used to human presence).
- There are 3 habituated communities across Kibale. One is for tourists, the other two are for researchers.
KIBALE NATIONAL PARK: QUICK FACTS
(adapted from website + tour guide)
- Kibale is one of Africa’s best safari spots for chimpanzee trekking.
- Kibale's primate density and diversity is the highest in Africa!
- Over 13 species of primate (including baboons, mangabeys and bush babies).
- Kibale hosts many other wonderful creatures: buffalo, leopard, elephant, duikers, reptiles..
- Birdwatching is a must. Kibale has 325 different bird species!
- Flora and fauna variety. Forest habitat ranges from moist ever green forest (wet), to dry tropical forest (moist semi deciduous), to woodland and savanna.
- Batoro and Bakiga tribes inhabit the area. Batoros are regional natives, whilst Bakiga descend from the southwest.
- Kibale National Park covers an area of almost 1000km.
- Kibale's rainy months are: Mar.-May/Sept.-Nov; Avg. temp. 14–27 Celsius.
10 Things to Know About Chimpanzees:
- Chimpanzees and humans share over 98% similarity in their DNA. (But we’re a tad less hairy.)
- Chimpanzees are great apes, not monkeys. (Monkeys have tails.) Other apes include gorillas, gibbons, bonobos, and orangutans.
- Chimpanzees are native to Africa, and are an endangered species. They used to exist in millions; Africa is now down to 300,000.
- Primary chimpanzee threats are disease, hunting/poaching, and habitat destruction.
- Wild chimps live in a “fission-fusion society”. All members know each other, living in groups of 15 to 120.
- Chimpanzee gatherings are social. Members play, interact, groom, and breed.
- Chimpanzee hierarchies are typically led by alpha males. Their success as a leader is dependent on female support.
- Chimps are omnivores. They eat mostly leaves and fruit, but also eat nuts, eggs, bark, insects, and sometimes animals for meat.
- Chimpanzees, just like us human folk, use facial expressions to convey emotions.
- Chimpanzees are really bloody cute. (I could go on about them all day! But I'll spare you now.)
My Chimp Trekking Experience
We drove up to Kibale National Park after leaving Nyinabulitwa Safari Camp and Resort. Our six-man, one-woman (me!) trek group gathered in a cabin filled with all kinds of fascinating biological paraphernalia including real elephant skulls, crocodile jaws, and evolutionary charts. Then we were given a safety talk by a guide, who was equipped with a radio, wellington boots, and – gulp – an AK-47.
We piled into a safari truck and bumped down rocky pathways for ten minutes until we reached the shaded opening of the forest.
“I’m only bringing a rifle for safety purposes,” the guide, Africano, an uncanny Kanye West lookalike, reassured us. “I’ve never had to use it, but if I do, it will be to scare off the elephant if it charges."
As we all stood there processing the fact that there was an elephant knocking around that could potentially squash us, Africano turned and headed into the forest without another word. So we followed.
We'd been walking quietly through the forest for less than a minute when unreal howls and shrieks, loud and close by, suddenly penetrated the silence. Goose-bumps flared up across my skin.
The wild chimpanzees had arrived.
Or rather, we had arrived, and were now standing in ape territory.
My eyes fell on Africano’s rifle, and I had a brief moment of inward panic, plagued by morbid thoughts: What if the chimps attack us?
As if reading my mind, Africano told us not to be alarmed.
“The chimps are merely communicating with one another from between the trees,” he told us. So on we ventured, deeper into the forest.
Within five, maybe ten minutes of walking, we suddenly stumbled across our first wild chimpanzee. He was sitting right there in front of us, calmly munching on some leaves. (!!!!) It was an elderly male. The sight of him made my heart skitter. He was absolutely beautiful.
"Ah, it is the elder Alpha male," said Africano. "See he is missing one eye? He lost it in a territory fight." The chimpanzee, with his silvery hair and one glistening eye, was languidly inspecting his arm hairs. We approached him slowly, keeping our distance. He suddenly looked up and surveyed us lazily, but with keenly intelligent curiosity. It sent shivers down my spine. He could just have easily been an old man sitting on a veranda whose afternoon crossword had been interrupted. His glassy silver eye met with mine just before I took a photo of him. In that moment, I knew that he, the chimpanzee, was fully aware of what I was, and what we were doing. It was freaky and incredible.
We continued through the forest and came across another chimp, one of the more habituated of the animals in the conservation park. He paid no mind to us bystanders. He did his own thing, munching on fruit and rolling around lazily. I watched with utter awe (and slight jealousy at how awesome his daily life must be). His actions were so remarkably "human". Seeing their behaviour up close reminded me of The Planet of the Apes series - a fictional universe which I love, and which I do believe is extremely feasible on some level.
The next few hours were filled with wild chimpanzee magic. They were magnetic. Even Africano seemed riveted by them. He seemed to really adore them, as though he could never get sick of them, even if he did see them every day for his job. I kept glancing at my boyfriend with looks of amazed disbelief that we were really here, watching the apes go about their daily lives.
We continued through the forest, and immediately halted as a line of female chimpanzees suddenly trouped across our path with adorable baby chimpanzees on their backs. They looked up at us as they passed, and as our eyes connected, I felt another shiver streak up my spine: they were observing us with the exact same intelligent awareness as we observed them with. It was amazing and uncanny, all at once.
We were also able to observe a group of male chimps having their afternoon social from a few feet away. Their interactions towards one another were so human, so impossibly caring. Maybe that's my "human" projection. But I recognised a strong sense of brotherhood as they laid down on the bracken and combed intimately through each other’s fur for bugs. Which they then ate. (Yum, nutritious.)
Later on, a young chimp, swung happily from the branches before us. I found it incredible that the wild chimp, although habituated, was performing for its own enjoyment, and not for a reward as in a zoo. It made me so happy. I was grinning like a maniac.
There were many highlights of the trek, but the main one, which still makes me hoot with laughter, is when a particularly antsy alpha male leader swung down from the trees, beat his chest, and suddenly charged, shrieking, straight towards my oblivious boyfriend.
As if in slow motion, I watched my boyfriend’s expression turn from panic to pure shock as the charging chimp tore past, reached out a powerful arm, and punched his leg firmly out of his way before disappearing into the distance. My boyfriend nearly stumbled into a bush. I don't think I've ever laughed so hard in my life. Don't mess with a wild chimp!
Chimpanzee trekking in Kibale was the most phenomenal experience. I felt a wave of sadness settle over the group as we started making our way back, wanting to be amongst the apes again.
Whilst we walked, a German photographer equipped with enormous zoom lenses showed us the close-ups of baby monkeys that he had taken that morning. “I loved the morning trek so much,” said Hans, "I simply had to come back this afternoon.”
I knew exactly how he felt.
Watching the wild chimpanzees go about their daily routines was absolutely mesmerising. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. I could have stayed watching them in the forest for hours. I felt so sick thinking of animals trapped in poorly kept zoos, unable to live as nature originally intended.
The chimpanzees socialised with one another all day, grazed on food, and moved freely around wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted.
If we humans share 98% genetic similarity with them, shouldn’t we, too, be afforded the privilege of living peacefully, frolicking all day without any worries, grazing on nature’s food?
I saw more humanity in the chimpanzees than I ever could have thought possible. When we emerged from the forest, I was changed.
Have you been chimpanzee or gorilla trekking before? Tell me about your experience!
Mel left London to chase summer around the world, one country at a time. She loves the ocean, writing postcards, and solo exploration. Travel with her on Instagram.