A trip to Kibale National Park, the Primates Capital

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Kibale Forest - The Primates Capital

Once a forest threatened by human encroachment, today Kibale National Park dazzles with sky-hugging trees and 13 primate species including chimpanzees that have even earned it the title of the “primate capital”. The concentration of primates in Kibale is matched by none in Africa and the park’s 1450 chimps represent Uganda’s largest population of the endangered species which carries up to 99 human-like DNA.

My three-day expedition to this 795 square kilometer jungle was nothing less of amazement as I bush-bashed to see how man’s closest cousin survives in this land of extremes. It all started like any other Uganda safari but ended in the most amazing way possible. From the city centre to Mityana Road through the Northern

Bypass sounds like a common story by a common resident of Bulenga. But the whole picture starts taking shape when you arrive in Mubende town although the feeling gets even stronger as you embark on a 26 kilometer dusty drive, southeast of Fort Portal.

Baboons line up by the roadside to receive guests at the forest gate. If you haven’t seen baboons steal then you are yet to see natural-born thieves and so it is discouraged to fling food at these cunning gangs while in the park because it tempts them into ‘bad manners.’ For me, the six-hour drive had sniffed the heck out of me and I couldn’t wait to reach the lodge and take a nap. I simply wasn’t in the mood to play a buffoon with baboons.

By the time I reached Kibale Primate Lodge – my home throughout my stay – I was very exhausted but if you are a nature enthusiast expect no time to rest because here nature never goes to sleep and wonder starts right at the doorstep of your room. Birds sing while monkeys, as if dancing to the tune, acrobatically leap from one tree branch to another – in your eyesight and earshot. Simply irresistible!

However, the best of the action comes the following day when you hit the road for chimpanzee tracking. Boredom is not an option here because there is more to awe you beyond the amazing chimps of Kibale. It all starts with the 351 trees’ species some rising up to 55 meters tall and growing up to 200 years of age. President Museveni once said that all medicine can be found in Kibale and it cannot pass without saying that actually Kibale is one of Africa’s foremost research sites thanks to the wide range of tree species and the primates.

With this kind of jungle you are always assured of something special– trees that send impotent men to a whole new world; those that heal diabetes, a tree that resembles a nude man and those that take animals to wonderland. The cathedral like trees provide shed to a collection of animals whose mountains of dung return the favour to the trees in the shape of manure.

Meanwhile, several species of monkeys share the rooftops of the thick forest. My guide, one of the most senior rangers here, Mr Silver Byamukama made it a memorable experience taking me to all corners he expected to find the best wildlife. He first took me to the Tree House which is just a couple of metres from the lodge. Here we met a Dutch couple who had spent three days secluded from the rest and they told us they couldn’t exchange their experience at the Tree House with anything.

The previous night they had watched a family of elephants march through an oasis that is just adjacent to the wooden structure – a playground for monsters. Through the house’s window you can watch animals eat, drink and play in the open grassland. In fact, we found fresh footprints of elephants that somewhat made our stroll a little complicated because we had to analyse every other footprint on the way and listen to every sound in the jungle. There is no worse nightmare than falling in an elephant ambush although it is not really hard to maneuver while in thick trees because elephants are not designed for zig-zag chases.

But Kibale still has a couple of other surprises under its sleeves. We also stumbled upon a green mamba which raced off on seeing us. The park also houses buffalos, leopards, warthogs, golden cats and duikers although I didn’t see any of the above because they are hard to see in dense forests. Most animals see you before you spot them and they always try to stay undercover. But nothing could stop our walk because the prize on the other side of the forest was a group of primates who are not far different from humans in behaviour; the animals whose reflection represents man’s behaviour some million years ago – indeed well worth the stroll through the deep jungle.

The legendary chimpanzees!

We were alerted by another ranger attending to a group of about 10 expatriates who called Byamukama saying they had stumbled upon a family of eight chimps. We rushed there and found the eight divided into four groups; a mother and a baby, four females grooming each other, one resting male and a juvenile who concentrated on trying to impress us by hanging in trees on threaded leaves.

When the bigger group of tourists left the chimps also descended down the trees to move somewhere else. This is when we got a chance to follow them on the ground. And it immediately turned into a ‘hide and seek’ game. They peeped at us and moved deeper and deeper into the jungle and the more we followed them the more it became obsessive and the more they felt comfortable with us. These great apes have been persecuted by man for thousands of years
but with Uganda Wildlife Authority curbing poaching and spreading the conservation gospel, human-beings have gained the trust of the chimpanzees once again.

But then something went wrong during our tracking – a disagreement between a male and a female chimp. The male brutally hit the female and the thud surged through the trees at rocket speed into our ears – a full grown male is stronger than five strong humans (think of five Golola Moses).

And what started as a one on one altercation ended with the entire forest engulfed into deafening whoops as the rest of the jungle residents reacted to the violence news. Byamukama told us that a few weeks back a group of tourists were left in tears after a huge alfa male chimp attacked and killed a stray juvenile in their eyesight.

One of the starnest jungle rules dictates that humans have to let nature take its course even when you see one animal killing another. The best thing about these animals is that they have learnt to respect an imaginary line between them and tourists. When their comfort zone is breached though, they will attack. But we held behind that ‘line’ tightly and I can tell you that the experience and knowledge I left the Kibale National Park with is something you don’t find every day.

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