Chimpanzee Tracking in Mahale National Park

Natural World Safaris

02 Jul 2013

Tracking Chimpanzees in Tanzania

In truth, the best months to track the chimpanzees at Mahale is from mid-August to October, with September being the best month followed by October. This is because it is traditionally seen as the driest months in Mahale and the chimpanzees are likely to have moved down from the steep ravines and gorges and into the lower parts of the forest, generally making it an easier all round experience.

It was now June, generally regarded as one of the worst months to track the chimpanzees in Mahale National Park. Despite being largely dry, having recently exited what is traditionally termed as the wet season (mid-March, April and May), in June the chimpanzees are still likely to be high in the steep ravines, far from the shores of Lake Tanganyika, possibly a 1,000m climb. Out of the possible three full days of trekking, we managed to successfully track and find the chimpanzees twice, on the first two consecutive days, but the chimpanzee experience on both days were very different.

On the first day, the excitement grew as we learnt that after a couple of days of not being seen, the chimpanzees had finally been located. Added to this, they had been located, uncharacteristically for this time of the year, on the lower slopes of the forest, about an hour away. We didn't need any persuasion, and rushed down the rest of our breakfast and left the sandy lake shores for the dense rainforest.

After an hour of tracking, we were told to put on our surgical masks in preparation of spending the hour or so with our closest relative. All trackers, including researchers and the Tanzania National Park Authority (TNPA) park rangers have to wear mouth and nose masks in order to reduce the chances of chimpanzees contracting human diseases. This is now mandatory after a relatively recent flu outbreak amongst the chimpanzee population, thought to be caught from the human population.

Then suddenly we there we there. There, in the middle of the dense forest, amongst a group of chimpanzees in the wild. In their habitat, getting a glimpse into their daily lives. Interestingly, the two tracking experiences on the two days were very different. As the chimpanzees on the first trek were located in the lower slopes of the forest we had managed to find them quicker and therefore they were still resting on the forest floor, relaxing and preening one another. This is what they do early on in the morning. Then after approx. 11:00hrs, the chimpanzees are known to move briskly through the forest in search of food. During this period they are more vocal.

The chimpanzees had, on the second day, moved very quickly from the lower reaches to the very high parts of the thick forest. The trek on this day was a complete contrast to the first. It was long and tough, and on par with a mountain gorilla trek. I was astonished to see that we had to track up some very steep terrain. Areas where we had to scramble on all fours, grabbing as many vines in the dry soil as we could to aid our desperate progress. This is what tracking the Mahale chimpanzees in June is traditionally like. If, however, I thought this was tough then I had to think again. It is not unusual for treks in June to last 9 hours (return trip), and we did it in 6!

Despite the tough trek, it was great to be with the chimpanzees and it was definitely worthwhile to have the two different experiences. It was great to be able to sit with the chimpanzees in the forest. In Uganda, I had been lucky enough to track the chimpanzees about 6 or 7 times, but never had I had the opportunity sit be able to sit with them in the forest and intently watch their behaviour and truly watch their interaction so closely. In the main, they would busy themselves by pruning each other, however you could clearly see that there was a ranking system and all sorts of politics would come into play. If, for example, the alpha male decided to move, then many of the lower ranked individuals would make way.

I think my most memorable experience was on the second day. We were very close to loosing the entire troop as they were about to venture high into a gorge that was an uncharted part of the forest, too steep and too much of a dangerous trek. We had the privilege of sitting roughly 10 metres away from two female chimpanzees who were in fact sisters. They lay on their backs next to each other holding hands. Not only that, but they would intertwine their arms and hands together, a sign of true affection. Another memory that I will savour for the rest of my life!

Find out more about chimpanzee tracking

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