For most visitors to the East African Country – Uganda, focus is the gorillas and don't not know what to expect from the chimps. There is overly 5000 chimpanzees in Uganda and Kibale Forest has the most with nearly 1500. Many tour operators do offer the standard chimpanzee trekking (tracking) in their proposals but say nothing or give very limited information about Habituation Experience. As it is the case with the gorillas, most travellers visit the chimpanzees for one hour but there is another option that allows you to be with chimpanzees for 4 hours - the Chimpanzee Habituation Experience (or Chex as most Ugandans call it).
Visiting the chimpanzees is under two programs;
Normal/Standard Chimpanzee Trekking (Tracking) and the Chimpanzee Habituation Experience.
Normal Chimpanzee Trekking is where you track the Chimps and get to spend just one hour with them. You choose to either do it in the morning starting at 8am or the afternoon program staring at 2pm. You meet with your guide/ranger at the ranger station and get put into groups with the other trekkers and proceed into the forest to the last known location of the chimps and watch them for one hour once found, leaving the chimps almost as quickly as you found them.
Chimpanzee Habituation Experience (CHEX) on the other hand works in a similar fashion EXCEPT it's limited to a small group of 4 participants plus of course the rangers, starts at the crack of dawn and takes 4 hour of observing the chimps after finding them. It used to be an all-day experience but was cut to 4 hours effective July 2020. Chimp Habituation is a 2-year process of getting the chimpanzees accustomed to human presence while in their natural habitat – a process of removing the fear of humans from the group - your visit is an essential part of the process. With the standard chimp trekking, the chimps you visit have already gone through the habituation process.
Chimp Habituation Experience is one of the several guided activities offered by the Uganda Wildlife Authority rangers in Kibale National Park. This park offers the best opportunities for Chimpanzee Trekking or the Chimpanzee Habituation in East Africa. Kibale Forest Park is the top site with over 1500 chimps and 12 other primates.
Like the Gorilla and the Golden Monkey Habituation Experience, this is a hands-on learning experience where you learn from the Researchers and the Chimpanzees as you observe them.
You are at the ranger station at 6:00 am for a short briefing and orientation. In a small group of four participants plus a few armed rangers and porters – you then begin hiking into the forest to the last known location of the chimps. Your guide will advise you on what to look and listen for as you proceed by torchlight into the dark forest. For starters, the hiking is considerably easier than for the gorillas. The terrain is mildly undulating and the vegetation far less dense. If you have a heavy camera and perhaps other items, you might consider the help of a porter, which makes things easier even though the terrain is less demanding. The tracking experience is also entirely different from gorillas, and for the unprepared, can be somewhat frustrating. The things you need to pack are the same as those for the gorilla trek except you may not need to take your lunch with you.
The chimps begin calling, to let their presence and location be known to the other chimps in the group. -- it doesn't take long before you hear the first chimps then move towards that. Once you find them, you watch them interact. They may travel a few hundred meters before coming upon another small group of chimps and ascended into the treetops to begin feeding. The chimps gingerly move throughout the canopy feeding on the various fruits and nuts, descend and move to a new area/tree as you pursue them. At times the chimps move very quickly and you are unable to pick up their trail again. As the chimps move through the trees, you often need to wait for their calls before being able to even move in the right direction.
Although a chimps group can be as large as 120 to 250 individuals, the chimps remain in much smaller groups most of the time, for among other things, competition for food especially in during the dry spell. This may consequently mean a lot of waiting.
At about 9am – 10am when the other normal trekkers are coming for their 1 hour experience, you have followed the chimps for the past 3+ hours, you already witnessed a wide range of activities and had many close up experiences with the chimps. When the trekkers get there, the chimps are probably high in the canopy, obscured by the thick foliage.
The 4-hour CHEX gives you a chance to watch chimps grooming, adults napping, infants playing and jockeying for attention etc.
At times you observe distant groups of chimps calling, come together with the chimps you are with at that moment, interact and disperse, allowing you to follow an ever increasing variety of individual chimps. Besides what you are able to witness and observe firsthand, your guide gives a lot of information explaining chimp behavior. Filling in the gaps between what you see and what is known about chimp life.
Most travellers ask for my personal opinion and advice as to whether consider Chimpanzee trekking or chimpanzee habituation experience and I don't have a precise answer. Experiences are of course different and there is nothing staged here like you would walk in a zoo on a Sunday afternoon.
If you are very keen wildlife enthusiasts but don't know what to expect from the chimps the Chex might be something for you. Having done both the Chimp Trekking and the Chimp Habituation Ex. before, the 1 hour is probably a bit too less for chimpanzees since they move around a lot more than gorillas and more active; also chances of them being high up in trees are higher. - from a photography point of view its really necessary to have 4 hours with the group. I believe it is a far superior experience if you can afford it. As described above, your hour with the chimps during the trek is limited to exactly what the chimps are doing for that one hour. If they decide to stay in the trees, so be it and you are left with minimal viewing opportunities. The Chimp Habituation in the grand scheme of things isn't that much more money and considering you get what you pay for, the extra money is well worth it in terms of the experience.
Also, with the Habituation you get to see a variety of daily activities the chimps engage in is so gratifying --something you just do not get with the one hour observation.
Warning: be ware of the fire ants as they might really ruin the experience for you if you're not prepared for them. You need to wear long trousers and carry insect repellent with you. If you can somehow tuck your pants into your boots or socks, you should be fine.
Finally the nitty gritty: Your daypack should contain: rain gear, camera equipment, torches/batteries, bug spray, snacks (peanuts, almonds and cashews) and 2 litters of drinking water and probably a banana.
You can wear the tall rubber boots (rain boots – the same kind you see 99% of the rangers/guides wearing). You can actually wear them for your gorilla hike, the Bigodi Swamp walk, the chimp trek and the Rhino Trek at Ziwa. If room allows, these are a purchase well worth the $20. Not only do they keep you from worrying about stepping in mud, elephant dung and ease crossing small streams, they help keep any safari ants off or at least they are easier to detect on your boots. Plus if you pick up too many souvenirs along the way, they can easily be 'gifted' to a guide or ranger as part of your tip or just as a nice gesture.
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