One of the best places in Africa to hang with our closest relatives is Uganda's Kibale Forest National Park, home to more than 1,400 chimpanzees and the continent's highest diversity and density of primates. Most safari travelers opt for one of the twice-daily, ranger-guided, three-hour chimpanzee hikes. But as rewarding as this experience is, you are limited to spending just one hour with the primates once the guide locates them to avoid provoking stress or transmitting human-borne diseases.
To help travelers learn more, and to increase the chances of better sightings for future visitors, the park is offering fit hikers the chance to spend an entire day in the company with researchers studying a chimpanzee family undergoing habituation for tourism. A chimpanzee's natural behavior is to run or climb as far from humans as possible (in Uganda and other countries, local people illegally hunt and eat wild chimps and steal their babies to sell as pets). It takes at least two years of constant daily observation to get a chimpanzee troop to feel comfortable enough with human presence for safari chimpanzee treks to succeed. Chimpanzees share 98 per cent of human DNA and much of our behaviors, which is why observing these primates in the wild is so engaging: the Shakespearian politics of a dominant male and his sidekicks, infants playing, sibling rivalries and adolescent posturing, and the incredible athleticism of the great apes as they swing from tree branches or race effortlessly over terrain that would leave an Olympic marathoner panting.
On the park's Chimpanzee Habituation Experience (CHEX), visitors hike with a researcher to watch chimps descend from their overnight nests between 6 and 6:30 a.m. You stay with the group all day, observing and photographing the chimps as they forage for fruit, copulate, hunt, breastfeed, rest, patrol, and display until it is time to build new nests in the canopy above the forest floor around 7 p.m. The fee is $220, and the program, available to just four visitors per day who book ahead, runs November, and March through May. The hiking is arduous, because chimps can move quickly over uneven, densely vegetated terrain and steep muddy slopes. In addition to waterproof shoes with good traction, bring rain gear, insect repellent, hiking gaiters to keep biting ants from crawling up your pants, and a walking stick. Apart from the chance to spend much more time with the chimps than on a conventional trek, the day affords better opportunities to glimpse other primate species, such as the endangered red colobus and I’Hoest’s monkey.