Brogan Mace completed her MZool degree in Zoology with Animal Behaviour at Bangor University in 2019. She was one of the first students who came to Uganda in September 2018 on Bangor’s field course in primatology in Kibale National Park. She tells us about her first encounter with wild chimpanzees.
Thick undergrowth obscures our path. We step over huge tree roots and duck under low hanging vines. Up ahead, our guide stops and stares into what looks to us as an impenetrable wall of foliage. Then, he points. We follow the line of his finger and there, through the understory, a glimpse of black hair.
Something, or someone, is out there.
She moves up onto a fallen log and is now unobstructed. Cautious eyes, sclera black, peer out from a hairless face. We all gape in wonder and I feel the hairs on the back of my neck raise. She turns and wanders further into the forest and we follow her in palpable excitement.
In the distance, screams herald the arrival of the rest of her party. We rush to the next clearing and can scarcely believe our luck. All around us, on the ground and high up in the trees, are the chimpanzees of Kibale National Park.
When we arrived in Uganda, Bangor University’s first primate-based field trip, we were greeted by a wall of heat – vastly different to the famously cold, wet weather of North Wales in the UK. A long minibus journey later, passing through amazing landscapes so different from back home, we arrived at our first stop – the Makerere University Biological Field station inside Kibale National Park, which would be home for the next two weeks. We would go on to visit Queen Elizabeth National Park and be surrounded by elephants, be dazzled by the busy-ness of Entebbe, stand on the shores of Lake Victoria as ibis fly overhead. But one place stands out in my mind and in my heart: Kibale.
Kibale National Park is a gem hidden within Uganda. The tropical forest, covering almost 800km², is home to one of the highest densities of primates in Africa, including a number of habituated groups of chimpanzees. These apes are the star attraction here and have been observed by people for over half a decade. We’ve gained much scientific understanding of them and ourselves through them, with several research groups studying different chimpanzee communities within the park.
We, like many a tourist before us, made our way to the Kanyanchu Visitor Centre and, after a briefing from the rangers of Ugandan Wildlife Authority, embarked into the forest to search for the elusive chimps. There are strict rules visitors to the forest must follow and with good reason. Chimpanzees are one of our closest living relatives, sharing 98% of our DNA and, consequently, they suffer from many of the same ailments as us. In humans, a cold is relatively harmless but for chimpanzees, colds can be fatal. As such, those who are ill cannot go on the trek. Even when healthy, you shouldn’t approach chimpanzees closer than about 10 metres. These apes are incredibly important to both tourism, conservation, and science and are rightfully well protected.
We spent our time with the chimps quiet and observant, soaking in the glory of the forest and its inhabitants, surrounded by a chorus of bird and insect song. Many chimpanzee dramas unfold: friends spat over ripe fruit or mating privileges; alliances are forged and broken in the throes of chimpanzee politics.
The day we visited we were lucky to be surrounded by so many chimps. They moved all around us, graceful in the trees despite the bulk of some males. Their screams ran through me as a juvenile is denied a share of his mother’s fruit and throws a fit. A female approaches a dominant male, pant grunting a respectful greeting.
A juvenile peers downs at us from high in the branches above, seemingly unperturbed as we grin in awe and aim our cameras for a series of snaps.
On a mossy branch an infant takes a few bumbling steps, learning the ins and outs of his forested world. His mother watches carefully, never more than an arms-length away.
An adult male carefully folds lush branches into what will be his carefully constructed bed of leaves for a daytime nap. Once complete, he reclines back and stares into the dappled canopy above. I can’t help but wonder what a chimpanzee thinks of in those moments.
It became clear that, like humans, each chimpanzee has a personality of their own.
It was hard to tear ourselves away from the group, and as we pile back into the minibus I know I will cherish those memories forever. But the reminders of the threats to my beloved chimpanzees and their environment surround us – risk of disease from ecotourism, the armed guards who served to protect us tourists also protect the chimps from poachers, and the ever-expanding tea and palm plantations reducing forest space. We’re at risk of these becoming just treasured memories for me, and a mere story to others.