From 2020 to 2022, MNR faculty member Dr. Omchand Mahdu supported USAID/Uganda's local partnership efforts remotely and on site, working with local indigenous organizations to implement development programs. While there, he explored the country’s abundant wildlife and natural beauty. Below is an account of his experience going on a chimpanzee tracking trip.

By Omchand Mahdu

Unlike its East African neighbors, Kenya and Tanzania, Uganda is not well known for its safaris and game parks. Yet, this small land-locked country of about 42 million people has ten officially publicized national parks, including Kibale Forest National Park

map of Africa
Uganda is located in East-Central Africa, west of Kenya and Tanzania. Image: Google Maps

Located in the western part of the country, about six hours from the capital, Kampala, this thick combination of lowland and montane forests is a mecca of biodiversity. It boasts over 350 varieties of trees, 370 bird species, and 120 mammals, including 13 primate species. The list of primates includes the gray-cheeked mangabey, blue monkey, black and white colobus monkey, the endangered red colobus monkey, and the rare, yet vulnerable, L'Hoest's monkey. 

Because it has one of the greatest varieties and highest concentrations of primates in East Africa, the forest is colloquially referred to as the primate capital of the world. Combined with the Queen Elizabeth National Park, it creates a continuous wildlife corridor where many species move back and forth throughout the year.

Perhaps the forest's most prominent resident is the largest population of chimpanzees in the country. Approximately 1,500 strong, they are divided into multiple communities, four of which are used to humans. Hence, the forest is a popular destination for foreign residents and visitors like myself, eager to catch a glimpse of or possibly an up-close and personal encounter with these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat.

A long journey into the forest
On a warm Friday afternoon in April 2022, I joined a few colleagues and friends and made the six-hour drive from Kampala via Fort Portal Tourism City, continuing onwards to Turaco Tree Tops lodge, located on the outskirts of Kibale Forest National Park. Despite a few rough patches of roads under repairs, the long drive was relatively smooth, allowing me to soak up the picturesque journey full of lush green hills and tea plantations. There was also the occasional stop to avoid colliding with one or two troops of baboons congregating on the roadway, hoping to score a quick snack or meal from vehicles passing. We arrived after dark and in time for a late dinner, but too late to enjoy the panoramic vista from the viewing deck overlooking the forest.

A tea plantation bordering Kibale Forest National Park. Photo: Omchand Mahdu
A tea plantation bordering Kibale Forest National Park. Photo: Omchand Mahdu

The following day, we anxiously awaited the chimp tracking experience. We were advised to prepare for between two and six hours of trekking, since the chimps are constantly moving in search of food. Outfitted in hiking gear and armed with our $150 Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) tracking permits, cameras, daypacks, and no shortage of insect repellants and sunscreen, we sat for an early breakfast before departing the lodge for the starting point, the Kanyanchu Visitor Centre located a short drive away. 

There we completed our registration and received an orientation, including the usual dos and don’ts while in the forest. For example, we were not allowed to mimic the chimpanzees in any way. Although some of the chimps are habituated, they are still considered wild animals, so it was important to observe all the safety protocols while tracking them. After the orientation, and having been assured of a 90% chance of finding the chimps, we drove on a dirt road deeper into the forest, escorted by a knowledgeable UWA ranger armed with an AK47, just in case. We were in search of the Kanyantale chimp community, which has been tracked by tourists since 1993.

The first encounter 
We were on the road for about fifteen minutes before coming to a slow stop. As we exited the vehicle to begin the tracking, we heard loud hooting and screaming sounds, both frightening and exhilarating. The UWA ranger who doubled as a guide turned around and asked us to remain calm and quiet before taking off in the direction of the sounds, and our small group of six followed in close pursuit. As I weaved through the trees, vines, and shrubs in the humid forest, the sounds seemed closer with each stride, and I felt it was only a matter of time before my first encounter.

The Alpha male chimp climbs a nearby tree after making eye contact with Dr. Omchand Mahdu. Photo: Omchand Madhu
The Alpha male chimp climbs a nearby tree after making eye contact with Dr. Omchand Mahdu. Photo: Omchand Madhu

After approximately ten minutes, and much to my surprise, I came across the first chimp sitting high in a nearby tree. With my eyes fixated on the tree, I initially failed to notice two more chimps seated on a fallen tree about thirty feet away, grooming each other. I quickly moved in for a closer look and the photo ops this unique grooming ritual offered. Within a few minutes of observing these great apes, their human-like qualities, behavior, and mannerisms were not hard to miss. After all, humans and chimps share 98.8% DNA, making them our closest primate relative.

Over the next hour and a half, our group would encounter many more chimps, including the alpha male who made his presence felt in no uncertain terms. The alpha male is the leader and dominates all chimps in a respective group. According to the UWA ranger, male chimps gain alpha status through size and strength, intelligence, and forming alliances. He further noted that males submit to stronger and more powerful members by grunting and reaching out their hands and subsequently begin to groom the powerful member. In her book, In the Shadow of Man, Jane Goodall offers evidence of these strategies.

Chimpanzees perform a grooming routine, which is often done for cleanliness, relaxation, and bonding. Photo: Omchand Mahdu
Chimpanzees perform a grooming routine, which is often done for cleanliness, relaxation, and bonding. Photo: Omchand Mahdu

Getting to know the alpha male
Now older, wiser, and showing signs of gray, the group's alpha male kept a close eye on proceedings, staring me in the eyes as he walked by and climbed up a tree. While recording another chimp, he came from behind, hooting and screaming, narrowly missing my left leg as he chased another chimp up a tree. Perhaps the most frightening moment occurred when a young male started to hoot and ran towards the direction I was recording, thumping a tree in the process, before hurriedly making his way past me.

Chimp tracking in Kibale Forest National Park offers a unique opportunity to learn more about chimpanzees and efforts to protect them while observing our closest relatives in their world and on their terms. Considering the humidity, we were lucky to come across these highly intelligent creatures so quickly on the trek. If you are ever in Uganda and have some time on your hands, chimp tracking is highly recommended. You will even receive a participation certificate upon completion.

Dr. Omchand Mahdu, Virginia Tech MNR faculty

Dr. Omchand Mahdu is an Associate Professor of Practice in Virginia Tech’s Master of Natural Resources program, where he teaches the core course Global Issues in Environmental Sustainability. As an international development practitioner, Dr. Mahdu has extensive experience in conflict and post-conflict environments. He currently oversees global compliance at Heifer Project International, an international development NGO based in Little Rock, Arkansas, working to end poverty and hunger by supporting small farmers and sustainable agriculture in about 20 countries in Africa, Asia, and the Americas.