Kibale National Park has long been considered the best place in Uganda to see chimpanzees in the wild, and it may just be one of the best places to do so in the world. However, when we get to the park, the rangers warn us that chimpanzees are not always sighted, and even when they are, they sometimes stay high in the trees. While there are about 1,450 chimpanzees in the park, only three communities of them are habituated. Luckily we are the only people in the park, so we get our choice of communities to visit, and set-out to find one of the largest communities of about 120 chimps called the Canyatare community.
We leave mid-morning to try and catch them after they finish feeding in the canopy, when they can come down to the ground. A community can have a territory of twenty square kilometers, and spread out into smaller groups to feed and move around. The community was sighted the day before, far from where we are, so we jump in the car to get closer to the trailhead, which allows us to hear a little more about chimpanzee behavior.
When describing the diet of the chimpanzees, Jessica, our ranger and guide, mentions fruit, leaves and monkeys, which immediately piques our interest. She describes how she has witnessed chimps hunt a couple times in the past. They come together in a group to hatch a monkey hunting plan. They then spread out into the forest looking for an unsuspecting troop. The red colobus is their favorite, but also the one the fights back the most viciously.
When they find a troop, they cooperate together so that some approach from the ground, surrounding the tree that they are in, while others encircle the troop in the canopy. Those in the trees divide-up. Some chase the monkeys towards others waiting near the bases of branches. As a monkey leaps for a designated branch, the waiting chimp bends it out of the way at the last second, causing the monkey to miss, and fall to the ground. The chimpanzee ground troops move in, grabbing the dazed monkey’s tail and spinning it around like a lasso until it is very weak, at which point they start devouring it alive.
I had thought chimps only ate fruit and insects, and this changed my whole perception of them. What a complicated plan to hatch, and what coordination it took to execute. I was both appalled at the violence, yet also impressed with their intelligence.
We hear them immediately upon entering the forest. We stop to listen to their chatter, trying to triangulate their position. Every once in a while we hear what sounds like the baritone vibration of a great drum in the forest, and the ranger explains that they are beating on the buttresses of big trees to call out to community members. From what we now know about chimps, it feels like it could be their ominous drums of war.
We break into a clearing where a tree has fallen and find three females and two juveniles sitting there grooming each other. They pay almost no attention to us, but then scatter as a big male drops down from the tree and runs to the middle of the log. He faces me, staring intently. He is only about 50 kgs (150 lbs.), but he is close enough to me to see the taught bulging muscles in his arms.
He pounces down from the fallen tree, and starts knuckle walking directly at me. The ranger instructs me to back away slowly, which I do, but he keeps following me through the bush. I am very intent on not having to fight him, but I am increasingly wondering if I have a choice, and then after about 10 meters, he turns and walks off in a different direction. He was just sizing me up.
After he leaves, the females and babies come back, and the females make themselves comfortable by bending tree branches into little nests, or lounging on logs. The babies practice jumping onto vines, swinging around, smacking each other playfully, and chasing each other through the foliage.
Then we hear the baritone beating of tree trunks all around us, and a group of male chimpanzees comes swinging aggressively through the trees, screeching loudly. Branches and leaves pour to the ground around us. The females climb higher on trunks and scream back, all the trees around us start swaying with chimpanzees, and I feel very much like a dazed red colobus monkey on the ground. It is an impressive show of force.
However, the males pass by us shortly, and everything goes back to normal again. We find them later, grooming each other calmly on the ground as if nothing ever happened. They seem so caring, meticulously sifting through each other’s hair, and loafing on the forest floor.
It feels confusing to see such social sophistication from a species that commits such vicious violence. However, the savagery of the chimps also seems no different than the atrocities our own species commits. We still share a brutal side that over five thousand years of civilization has still not been able to reconcile with our perception of our advanced evolution. Observing chimps does not put us in a position to judge them before we have judged ourselves. It is an opportunity for reflection, and chance to understand the wild forest blood that still flows through our veins.
Author’s Note: Permits to track the chimps in Kibale National Park can be bought at the Ugandan Wildlife Authority office in the park. In 2016, they offered discounted rates in April and May, said they would do so in November as well, and would likely continue in coming years. While Kibale is the place to see the chimpanzees, do not overlook the Bigodi Wetlands for sightings of all the other species in the area.