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.”