As the forest ranger, equipped with a semi-automatic rifle, led the way through a dense canopy, somewhere in the heart of Southern Uganda, the cacophony of birds and the rustling sounds of fig fruits landing on a bed of leaves were eventually overpowered by the loud, raucous of a group of primates...
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...A group that had made me travel for over thirty hours from my hometown; a group that I had decided to spend over a
Habitat (Kibale National Park)
Classified as endangered, the eastern subspecies of chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii) range exclusively over the central and eastern parts of Africa. The forests that house these primates are typically moist, evergreen forests that receive upwards of 1500mm of rainfall annually. Kibale National Park, near Fort Portal in Uganda, is one such refuge for these wonderful mammals. From evergreen forests along the Fort Portal plateau to dry tropical forests eventually giving way to savanna along the rift valley, the national park is replete with bio-diversity. Vegetation in Kibale, like any moist deciduous forest, forms an almost closed canopy that causes that forest floor to receive sunlight in paltry amounts. Resident trees compete with each other for sunlight, rising above the canopy levels, and can reach heights of 100-150 ft. The forest floor, on the contrary, is damp due to daily rainfalls and a perfect habitat for shade tolerant herbs. A total of 350 species of trees have been registered in Kibale, with the fig-mulberry (ficus sycomorus) as the most prominent one. All year around edible fruits of these tall fig trees attract a host of fauna, including the chimpanzees.
Kibale National Park is home to more than 1400 Eastern Chimpanzees. Sharing a shocking 98% similarity in genetic materials with human beings, these individuals exhibit social behaviour and bonds closely resembling humans. The best evidence of our close ancestry is the practice of community living and grooming amongst the individuals.
A chimpanzee community can range from over twenty to more than one hundred members. The typical family in Kibale, such as the Kanyawara family has up to sixty members living in it. A family tree in the chimp community consists of a large alpha male, followed by one or more beta males (or the males that are strong enough to defend the community and when time comes battle the alpha out of the group), a couple of non-ranked males and several females. In their lifetime, the alphas will be the ones that will get to mate with the females. A few betas, and occasionally some non-ranked males, may even succeed, however, the battle for the position of alpha, or the take-over of a community by another, is primarily led by the motive of acquiring more females and strengthening the gene pool.
As one scouts around the forest during the day, one can closely observe a community’s behaviour. Mornings typically start with foraging and are extremely active. As evening dawns, the activity starts to dwindle and finally the community retire into their nests at night. An interesting observation in the park would be the several makeshift arboreal nests that these individuals build for night halts. Arboreal nesting is a behaviour typical of chimpanzees and bonobos. Although gorillas are also known to construct nests, these nests are set-up on the ground. Much akin to the gorillas, chimpanzee nests are built by lacing together branches and leaves. The nest is at least 1-2 feet above the ground to ensure safety from predators and reptiles at night. Individuals bearing infants usually build larger nests, which accommodate both the mother and the child.
Another behaviour, peculiar to chimpanzees and most primates in general, is grooming. Grooming is a multi-beneficial practice that helps these individuals stay free from lice and parasites, while also acting as an exhibit of ranking in the community. Usually a larger or more dominant male would be groomed by a lesser male first, after which the dominant male may choose to groom the lesser male. Lice collected from grooming also acts as a source of protein for the groomer.
Conservation in Kibale forests dates back to the 1960’s, when a group of Japanese scientists first studied a chimpanzee community in
Kibale. During the years of their study, a few communities in Kibale started getting habituated to human presence. The process for habituation for a community can take a long time: sometimes around ten years, or sometimes generations. The chimpanzee communities that are visited by the tourists today are ones habituated over the years by researchers, therefore, observing these communities from close range is a possibility during the treks.
As of today, Kibale National Park is managed and run by Uganda Wildlife Authority; the major governing body for wildlife conservation in Uganda. Training and appointing forest rangers, equipped with mobile tracking devices and rifles, UWA manages to maintain a stronghold over the park and provide security to the resident chimpanzees. A number of research groups and NGOs work alongside UWA to ensure the security of the park and further our understanding of these magnificent creatures. One of the major research groups; The Kibale Chimpanzee Project, run by Dr. Richard Wrangham, started out in 1987 and, to date, still conducts daily field visits to understand the behaviour, ecology and physiology of wild chimpanzees.
Rampant poaching in the past decade had resulted in a dramatic drop in the population of these highly social and intelligent apes, however, in recent years, conservation efforts have managed to safeguard the chimpanzees. Today, although the primates are well-protected, there are still evidences of sporadic poaching and hunting by locals for bush meat. Another issue that the population faces is the loss of habitat owing to agriculture and tea estate cultivation. The primates often wander into tea estates and damage the produce. This results in locals viewing them as pests and ultimately hunting them.
Despite the multitude of man-animal conflicts that plague chimpanzees, Kibale National Park in Uganda has managed to stand out as an exemplary conservation site for these apes.
Observing and photographing chimpanzees in Kibale is both a joyous and strenuous experience in equal measures. Treks often last up to five hours and therefore demand good physical fitness. To add to the woe of the photographer, the rainforest, due to its dense canopy, even in the mid-afternoons, might prove too deficient in light. Therefore, a camera that can perform well under low-light conditions is a must. The treks however, offer ample opportunities to photograph the primates from up-close. This opens up chances of intimate portraits and all-encompassing wide angles. For extreme close-ups, a prime 300mm can be excellent, while a 70-200mm can be used as a backup for candid images.
A basic kit lens, or even wider lenses such as the Tokina 11-16mm, can be used for habitat shots. Using flash is not advisable during the treks, since this may agitate the chimpanzees. Finally, due to frequent rains, one should have sufficient cover for the camera and suitable boots for trekking.
Kibale and the surrounding areas are home to six other species of primates and a plethora of birds too. The fields around Isunga offer excellent birding opportunities. It is very common to sight Casqued Hornbills, Waxbills and Bulbuls. A few kilometres from Isunga is the less famous Lake Nkuruba Nature Reserve; famous amongst the locals who visit the lake for swimming. However, the forests surrounding the lake are good for sighting and photographing Colobus monkeys, both the Black & White and the Red Colobus.
The road leading up to Kibale can also offer good opportunities for photographing primates other than chimpanzees, such as the L’Hoest’s Monkey and Red-tailed Monkey.
Travelling to Kibale
Reaching Kibale entails flying in to Kenya and then taking an hour-long flight from Nairobi to Entebbe. Following that is a six-hour drive through Kampala and many smaller townships into Fort Portal, from where you would have to take a gravel road to reach Isunga; the closest township to Kibale. With your base at Isunga, you would have to travel daily to Kibale National Park for both chimpanzee trekking and habituation trips. A typical trek starts early in the morning with a registration at the Kanyanchu gate. It is advisable that your trekking permits be brought earlier through the tour operator or lodge.
There are two types of permits sold by UWA: Trek permits and Habituation permits. Treks are usually shorter and are conducted in the southern end of the forest where the communities are habituated and therefore not wary of human presence. The opportunities to observe up-close are highest during the treks. However, habituation permits, which are more expensive, are conducted in the northern parts of the forest, where the communities are in the process of habituation. These communities, although extremely skittish of human presence, offer the best opportunities of viewing chimpanzees in their wildest form. Habituation permits are ideal for visitors seeking a more holistic experience.
Plenty of accommodation options are available around Kibale to suit all budgets. I stayed at the mid-range Isunga Lodge, which has an excellent view of the forest and offers brilliant birding opportunities.
This is the gear that I used in Kibale: Nikon D5300, Nikkor 300mm f/4 lens, Nikkor 18-55mm lens and the Nikkor 70-200mm f/4 lens.