Uganda: Getting into the habit

Joining a chimpanzee habituation experience leads to a close encounter with our closest living relative

By Ben Lerwill
Published 3 Apr 2018, 09:00 BST, Updated 14 Jul 2021, 11:52 BST

The chimps are coming, and their noise resounds through the jungle at an unholy volume, all screams and urgent grunts. Benson, our tracker, gives us the thumbs-up. We've just spent two hours traipsing through thick, sweaty rainforest, and our moment has arrived. We can't see any chimps yet, but having to this point only heard a wash of birdsong, we're now being deafened by what sounds like a cross between a Justin Bieber audience and a panicked farmyard.

And then, suddenly — nothing. Everything goes quiet. The trees around us stay empty. The birds start up again. Benson sighs. "OK, so we keep walking," he says. "They must have sensed us." Three hard-faced baboons scamper onto a fallen log and watch us soldier on through the knotted vegetation. If they know where the chimps have gone, they're not letting on.

I'm here in Kibale National Park, western Uganda, on a chimp habituation trek. The main aim of the experience is to get wild chimps accustomed to peaceful human presence, so that they might, in future, be 'habituated' enough to be unperturbed by groups of travellers.

Habituated chimpanzees are seen as a good thing in these parts. The theory, in the long run, is that the money that tourists part with to watch chimps in their jungle environment safeguards the welfare not just of the rainforest and its surrounding communities but of the animals themselves, which benefit from a reduced risk from poachers and habitat loss. It's a thorny issue, but the greater the number of habituated chimpanzees, the greater the number of visitors and researchers that can be accommodated responsibly.

Some parts of the forest have chimps already fully accustomed to humans, allowing them to be observed at close quarters for up to an hour at a time. The habituation experience is longer than this — it's essentially a full day of chimp-seeking — but it comes with a reduced chance of a sighting. Or, to put it in a (monkey) nutshell, you need to put in more work: you're in a simian dominion and the apes roam as they please. After great photos? Good luck. Full habituation can take a decade.  

That's not to say the rewards are small. Three hot, green, vine-tangled hours after we set off, it happens. In a clearing, Benson stops, shushes us and points up at a fig tree. There's a dark shape in the branches, around 100ft above our heads. It's motionless at first, then extends two hairy limbs into the clusters of fruit. After our long, sapping walk, the creature seems hyper-real. An actual chimpanzee! Right there!

A minute later, it dances down the trunk, grabbing a creeper here, swinging on a bough there. The journey from canopy to forest floor takes less than 10 seconds, a breath-taking, balletic descent until — thump — it appears at the base of the tree, just steps from where we're standing. It pauses for half a second, mouth open, dark coat glossy in the sun, then disappears into the undergrowth.

On some habituation treks, I'm told, the chimps stay close (or at least close-ish) for hours. Not so with us. The chimp we've seen is apparently part of a group of 70, but two hours and several steep hills later, the game's up. They're nowhere. As a form of compensation, or so I understand it, we're taken to another part of the rainforest for a standard chimp trek. Although when you've got a dozen of them all around you — hooting, farting, eating, climbing, pondering, ear-picking and belly-scratching — the word 'standard' hardly seems apt.

The next hour is extraordinary. Chimps and humans have DNA matches of around 98%, and to watch the animals strolling through the jungle is an uncanny thrill. For all the wonders of seeing them close at hand, however, the moment that sticks with me most is the silent acrobat in the fig branches — the ape that swooped down from the treetops, gymnastic and free, then vanished back into the wilds.    

Follow @benlerwill

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