Visitors to Uganda’s Budongo Forest can now not only spend a whole day with its wild chimps but play a vital role in protecting their future. Discover how you can make a difference on your visit...
Gingerly, I stepped forward, foliage brushing my shoulders. I had long since stopped checking each frond for beetles, spiders and ants, but my heart was pounding. Barely two hours into my all-day forest hike in Uganda’s Budongo Forest Reserve, the humidity was already intense.
Bang! I was listening so intently that each time a twig snapped under my clumsy feet I recoiled, as if from a gunshot. Blinking the sweat out of my eyes, I listened again. I had explored the velvety green forests of Africa’s Albertine Rift enough times before to know that I had to be patient – there was always a chance that our search might be ultimately fruitless.
At last, from somewhere deep within the cryptic puzzle of shoots, branches and trunks, it came: an agitated sequence of breathy hoots and deep-voiced pants, rising to a crescendo of high-pitched shrieks. A pant-hoot. I couldn’t see anything yet, but we were very close.
If you’re an animal living in a jungle as dense as those within the boundaries of Murchison Falls Conservation Area, it helps to be able to communicate with out-of-sight friends, relatives and rivals. For chimpanzees, a pant-hoot does the trick. Each chimp has their own voice and tone, recognisable to the initiated, and uses it to assert dominance, relay a location or announce an exciting discovery, such as a fig tree loaded with fruit. Louder than a fire alarm and as urgent as a WhatsApp alert, a pant-hoot is impossible to ignore.
It’s a remarkable sound. The veteran primatologist and conservationist Jane Goodall is an expert pant-hooter – it’s her favourite way to break the ice at seminars and talks – and having studied primates at university, I like to think I can pull off a pretty good one myself. It feels and sounds so utterly primal that sooner or later some bright spark will probably start offering stressed-out city workers pant-hoot therapy. Perhaps they already do. But, tense though I was, this was definitely not the moment to practise.
I was here, deep in Budongo, on a Chimpanzee Habituation Experience, a rare chance for travellers to immerse themselves in the forest from dawn to dusk. Normally, your time viewing wild chimps is capped at an hour, but the activity I was sampling promises something more in-depth. Our aim was to encounter and observe chimps that have yet to lose their natural fear of people. Once fully habituated to human visitors, these chimps might, in time, become new ambassadors for their species. But right now, all I could think about was that sound.
Scanning the canopy, my guide, Samuel Adue, quickly jotted down some field notes. “Let’s go!” he whispered. Perhaps our first glimpse of one of Budongo’s chimpanzees was just moments away.
I can fall asleep anywhere, but the night before my hike, it took time. I was staying at Budongo Eco Lodge, a modest but comfortable stopover that’s refreshingly true to its name, with simple timber cabins, solar power, composting toilets and a main building that’s part-lounge, part-nature information centre. The Kaniyo Pabidi sector of Budongo Forest encircles it like a cloak, and the forest’s nocturnal residents like to make their presence felt. As soon as darkness fell, the air began to pulsate with the screeches, chimes and chirps of cicadas, frogs and potto primates. Loudest of all were the tree hyraxes, relatives of dassies, the cuddly-looking mammals that like to sun themselves on rock formations in southern Africa. Their staccato calls echoed around the forest like static on a railway line.
At last the cacophony faded, but the peace was short-lived. With a rumble and a clatter, a storm broke. As rain drummed on my roof, I thought of the chimpanzees, tucked into their arboreal nests, and wondered how they were faring.
Just before dawn, I woke to their first calls – an excited chorus far in the distance. Scrambling to my feet, I opened the door onto my veranda and the cool, damp smell of morning wafted in. With a dusky long-tailed cuckoo bleeping like a digital clock in the foliage, I prepared for the day ahead, quickly tipping up my walking shoes to check for spiders and tucking my trousers into my socks. Soon, fuelled by a ‘rolex’ – the savoury omelette and chapati wrap that’s Uganda’s answer to a full English breakfast – I was on my way.
“Ready for action?” said Sam, leading me into the forest with a grin. As a field assistant at the Budongo Conservation Field Station, nature walks are one of his regular duties, he explained, with visitors either choosing to focus on botany or birds. Rich in biodiversity, Budongo is famous for its magnificent mahogany and fig trees, and over 350 bird species have been observed here, but most travellers are intent on seeing the forest’s most charismatic residents, wild chimpanzees.
Since chimps are notorious for giving tourists the run-around, I asked Sam if he found his job tiring. “Not really,” he said. “Before this, I was in the police force in Kampala. I used to spend six hours at a time on my feet. I’d rather be walking in the forest any day.”
“So you ditched the urban jungle for… the jungle?” I wondered.
“That’s right!” he said. “Best decision I’ve ever made.”
In a strange twist of events, it was 20th-century loggers who, inadvertently, created the habitat that allows Budongo’s 600 or 700 chimpanzees to thrive. Budongo was the source of much of the Ugandan hardwood that British timber merchants shipped to Europe during the 1950s and ’60s, including the priceless ironwood flooring for London’s Royal Festival Hall. Once the mightiest trees were gone, fast-growing species filled the gaps, boosting the variety of fruit and foliage available for chimps to eat.
The chimps’ good fortune didn’t last, however. By the 1980s, more and more of them were being captured by smugglers or suffering terrible injuries from bushmeat snares intended for duikers (small antelopes).
Hoping that the presence of field researchers might help deter poachers, British anthropologist Vernon Reynolds proposed that, like Kibale in Uganda and the Mahale Mountains and Gombe Stream in Tanzania, Budongo should have its own research base. He founded the forerunner of the Budongo Conservation Field Station in 1990, and the idea of a low-impact ecotourism project designed to protect the chimps and their habitat took shape.
Offering practical support, the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) singled out Kaniyo Pabidi, in the far north-east of the reserve, as a particularly good spot for visitors. Conveniently located on the route to Murchison Falls, it’s well-endowed with chimp-friendly trees, and unlike Kibale, Uganda’s leading chimp-watching destination, there are no forest elephants to contend with, while the terrain is also flat enough to make hiking a breeze. JGI staff devoted over a decade to cutting trails and habituating the Kaniyo Pabidi chimps to their presence, with the result that now, on a morning or afternoon guided walk lasting two to four hours, you’ve an excellent chance of finding chimps for yourself.
Budongo’s eco-tourism project aims to promote conservation while minimising the likelihood of disturbing the chimps’ behaviour or transmitting infections – human illnesses such as the common cold have proved fatal to wild chimps elsewhere, so groups here are strictly limited and anyone showing signs of a cold will not be admitted. It has proved so successful that the forest’s chimp experts are now habituating another community of chimps to visitors, with the help of paying volunteers like me.
We were getting closer. In a clearing up ahead, a confetti-shower of leaf fragments danced in a shaft of sunlight, and beyond, epiphytic elephant stag ferns curled down from the branches like clumps of wilted cabbage. Chimps, which have catholic tastes, have been known to nibble their shoots.
To calm my nerves, I tried summoning all the words I knew for the colour green: emerald, verdant, viridescent…
“Do they ever attack?” I asked, meaning, of course, the chimps.
“Sometimes,” whispered Sam, and I felt my eyes unintentionally widen. Moss, sage, eau de Nil… “But when they’re not fully habituated, they’re more likely to run away than charge us. It can take up to 15 years for them to relax in the presence of humans. They don’t seem to realise they’re much stronger than we are… If they did,” he added after a moment’s thought, “we’d be in trouble.”
A racket of pant-hoots rang out, nearer this time. “We call that a kelele,” said Sam. “It’s like everyone’s yelling at once.”
In some African sanctuaries, parks and reserves, wild animals such as great apes and big cats show up seemingly on cue. Usually, it’s down to dedicated safari guides who can drive you right up to a herd of elephants, silent but for the flapping of their ears. But it’s hard to beat the thrill and satisfaction of tracking animals on foot – particularly ones that rarely see humans from one week to the next.
Just as I was considering all this, there it was – a glimpse of a muscular shoulder covered with black, immaculately groomed hair. It wasn’t the kind of sighting you’d post on Instagram; we were some distance away, with the canopy blocking the light and a tangle of branches obscuring our view. But we’d worked for it, and that made it special.
“In a few years, maybe, we’ll be able to get closer,” explained Sam. “Even then, we’ll try to stay seven metres away. That’s our rule. Mind you, the chimps don’t always comply.”
Before we knew it, the chimp and his companions had catapulted off through the forest. “We won’t try to follow,” said Sam. “They’re moving like lightning. Some of the habituated ones are pretty close. Come see.”
Once again, we let our ears guide us, following the jubilant whoops of a kelele and the thrumming of palms on buttress roots, a male chimp’s pumped-up drum solo.
Suddenly, the excitement and energy of life as a chimp was unfolding all around us. Like the cast of a physical theatre troupe whose drama had just begun, chimps started emerging in the trees and appearing in the shadows below. Some were leaping nimbly along branches or shinning down vines; others simply stared up into the canopy with wise, brown eyes.
A female and her grown daughters munched on star apples, ignoring us studiously, while a trio of youngsters tumbled and dangled above them, throwing us curious stares.
“When you’re standing under a tree full of chimps, you need to look out,” said Sam, seeing me pull an apricot-scented chunk of star apple out of my hair.
As each scene played out, Sam delivered updates with the flair of a reality TV commentator. “Colobus! Will they try to hunt it?” he said, before one woeful attempt at an ambush.
“Leaf sponge – that’s a Budongo speciality!” he exclaimed as a chimp reached into a brook to drink.
“Tearing leaves – he’s inviting her to mate,” he whispered as, out of sight of the alpha male, a chancer sidled along a branch. The resulting commotion would have been heard halfway to Kampala.
Realising that my fear had given way to fascination, I suddenly wondered who was habituating whom. But it wasn’t just the extended encounters that were changing me. It was the joy of the long, thrilling search, wrapped in the forest’s leafy embrace, with birdsong and pant-hoots beckoning me on.
The author travelled with Gane & Marshall (01822 600 600), who offer a four-day, three-night tailor-made trip to Budongo and Murchison Falls, designed to be an extension to a longer safari in Uganda or East Africa. The itinerary includes a stopover at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, a game drive and boat trip in Murchison Falls National Park, and a chimp-tracking excursion in Budongo Forest Reserve.
The full-day Chimpanzee Habituation Experience in Budongo Forest Reserve is only available during low season (January–June and October–December. Half-day Chimpanzee Tracking walks are available all year round.
Uganda has been slow to catch up with the standards set by Africa’s top safari destinations, but it compensates with inclusivity, offering hotels, lodges and camps to suit a wide range of budgets. A stay at the Budongo Eco Lodge is modest but comfortable.
Relatively little-visited, this semi-deciduous forest is superb for guided hikes and tracking wild chimps that have been habituated by primatologists. It’s also a beautiful spot for birdwatching.
The waterfall which lends this park its name is one of the most dramatic in Africa. On a boat cruise to its foot, you may spot hippos, elephants and red-throated bee-eaters.
Home to 13 primate species in total, including around 1,200 of Uganda’s 5,000 or so wild chimps, the atmospheric, mature forest of Kibale is an unbeatable chimpanzee-tracking and primate-watching destination.
Spanning the Equator, QENP is Uganda’s safari showcase, with savanna, woodlands and wetlands rich in wildlife, from elephants, buffalo and big cats to giraffes and migratory birds.
Despite being one of the two best places in the world to see mountain gorillas – a critically endangered sub-species that has never survived in captivity – Bwindi remains refreshingly low-key for visitors, with some attractive lodges on its fringes and a thoroughly appealing community spirit.
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