The chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) is a great ape that lives in tropical forests and woodland savannahs across central and west Africa. It is a distinctive black-coated ape more closely related to man than any other living creature, sharing 98.7 per cent of our genetic blueprint. Science research also strongly suggests we share a common ancestor.
Like humans, chimps have long arms with opposable thumbs, and they have a brown to black coat. Adults are similar in size to adolescent humans.
At standing height, a male chimp grows up to 1.2 m (4 ft.) and weighs 60 kg (132 lbs.), and a female grows up to 1.1 m (3.5 ft.) and weighs 47 kg (103.6 lbs.).
The common or eastern chimpanzee, one of the two subspecies, is the only subspecies in Uganda. But it also occupies tropical forests of Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, DRC, Southern Sudan, and the Central African Republic.
Uganda is home to a sizeable population of common chimpanzees, with an estimated 5,000 individuals, according to the IUCN Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan 2010–2020.
Chimpanzee behaviour has been studied since 1960 by Jane Goodall and others at Gombe Stream and other sites across Africa, including the Budongo and Kibale forests in Uganda.
Researchers have conducted long-term research in Budongo Forest Reserve (1960–61 and 1991–present), Kibale National Park at Kanyawara (1982–present) and Ngogo (1992–present), Kalinzu Forest Reserve (1995–present), and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (1995–2001). These studies have focused on the ecology and behaviour of chimpanzees in their respective environments.
The four largest populations are in Kibale and the Rwenzori Mountains National Parks and Budongo and Bugoma Forest Reserves (each having more than 500 individuals). Kibale National Park alone contains about 25% of Uganda’s chimpanzees.
The chimp populations in Maramagambo, Kalinzu and Kasyoha-Kitomi forests are less than 500 individuals in each forest. Still, these three reserves are interconnected and form a single population, numbering around 900 chimpanzees.
The Social Structure of Chimpanzee
Chimpanzees live in a large, loosely related ‘community’ (called a band or troop) based around a core of related males with an internal hierarchy topped by an alpha male. Females are generally less strongly bonded to their core group than males, meaning emigration between communities is very common.
Chimpanzee troops will have about 15 to 80 members but will sleep, travel, and feed in smaller sub-groups of up to ten individuals within their communities. These sub-groups can be very flexible, with members changing quickly and regularly.
Mother-child bonds are typically strong, with daughters sticking around their mothers and only breaking their relationships after they reach maturity. Mother—son relations can survive for over 40 years.
A troop has a well-defined core territory fiercely defended by regular boundary patrols.
Chimpanzees are experts at grooming and spend a lot of their time running their fingers through each other’s hair to remove dirt, pesky parasites, and dead skin. Grooming is essential for social bonding because it keeps the primates clean and helps them build friendships and strengthen bonds with each other.
After humans, chimpanzees are the most intelligent of our planet’s primates and have developed remarkable communication methods. These clever critters “talk” to each other using gestures, facial expressions, and numerous vocalizations, such as hoots, grunts, and screams.
Researchers have taught the chimps to communicate in American sign language in language studies in the USA. In some instances, they’ve demonstrated their understanding by creating compound words for new objects (such as rock berry to describe a nut).
Primatologists have recorded chimpanzees using modified tools like sticks to ‘fish’ in termite mounds. In other instances, researchers have observed chimps cracking nuts open using a stone and anvil.
Chimpanzees aren’t exactly fussy with their diet. Fruit is at the top of their menu, but they also munch on leaves, flowers, seeds, bird eggs, insects, and even other animals, such as monkeys and wild pigs. Some groups of chimps eat up to 200 different kinds of food.
Primatologists have recorded chimpanzees regularly hunting red colobus monkeys in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream and Mahale Mountains national parks. Also, researchers in Kalinzu Forest in Uganda have observed chimps eating blue and red-tailed monkeys and unsuccessful attempts to hunt black-and-white colobus.
Females generally give birth to a single chimp (and occasionally to twins) every five to six years. For the first six months, the baby chimpanzee will cling to the fur on its mother’s belly and then ride around on her back until age two.
After that, the youngster will spend the next seven to ten years by its mother’s side, learning to forage for food, use tools, and build nests to sleep.
Like humans, chimpanzee infants rely on their mothers for support, protection, and education. The bond between a mother chimpanzee and her infant is like the one we as humans share with our mothers.
Where to see chimpanzees in Uganda
Chimpanzees live in most of the primary tropical forests of western Uganda, and you’ll find the best chimpanzee tracking opportunities on the continent in Uganda.
The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) has habituated several chimp troops for primate tourism in Kibale Forest National Park, the Kyambura Gorge in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Semliki Wildlife Reserve, and the Budongo and Kanyiyo Pabidi forests in Murchison Falls National Park.
Chimpanzee tracking excursions starting from the Kanyanchu trailhead in Kibale Forest offer the best opportunities to see chimpanzees in the wild. Two types of chimpanzee experiences are offered: the half-day chimpanzee trekking experience and the whole-day chimpanzee habituation experience.
Chimpanzee Tracking in Uganda
Local tour operators like Nkuringo Safaris Ltd offer all-inclusive primate safaris, typically starting from Entebbe and spending a night or two in Kibale National Park, 300 kilometres (186 miles) west of Kampala.
Later the trip usually connects to Queen Elizabeth National Park for a savannah game drive and boat safari. If not interested in the big savannah game or after, tourists usually connect directly to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and see the mountain gorillas.
The gorilla forests in extreme southwestern Uganda and the Kibale chimps forest are quite some distance apart. One can brave the 11-hour drive, but operators usually recommend a night between the two destinations.
There are small chartered or scheduled flights between Kasese airport (55 km, 1.5-hour drive from Kibale) and Kihihi or Kisoro Airports (1.5-hour drive from Bwindi, a great option to connect between the two primate destinations.