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Trying for Chimpanzees

Discovering more of the Nile at Murchison Falls and looking for chimpanzees in Uganda

Published 19 August 2017 – Saturday magazine, Nation newspaper

Above: Chimpanzee baby playing in the forest – Image by: Michael Nichols

Part 2 of 2

“When the crocodile jumps into the boat, you jump out,” tells our guide on the sail to reach the base of Murchison falls.

The Nile crocodile on the banks of the Nile near Murchison Falls - copyright Rupi Mangat

The Nile crocodile on the banks of the Nile near Murchison Falls – copyright Rupi Mangat

The Nile crocodile is gigantic – almost 15 feet long lying still as a statue with gaping jaws revealing a set of sharp-pointed teeth. My childhood memory is of the banks lined with crocodiles – we see only four now.

It’s a beautiful sail – much more compared to the sail on the Nile l’ve done in Juba South Sudan and in Cairo. The river is blue with hippos – pods of them.

Everybody is eager to see the thundering falls where the entire Nile crashes through a 20-foot wide chasm – but it’s a 45-minute sail to reach them. In the meantime, we’re treated to Uganda’s colourful Red-fronted bee-eater – a real stunner with seven colours. Herds of Rothschild giraffes and buffalo come to the Nile for a late afternoon drink. There’s amazing birdlife with plenty of Saddle bill and Open bill storks, egrets, bee-eaters and pied kingfishers doing the split-second dives into the water – and majestic African kingfishers.

The first sight of Murchison Falls from the boat Copyright Rupi Mangat

The first sight of Murchison Falls from the boat Copyright Rupi Mangat

And then the sliver of silver in the distance – the mighty falls. The force of the water is so strong that it doesn’t allow the boat to reach its base that’s a whirlpool. From here the Nile flows on to the Mediterranean Sea.

Some tourists jump off at the bank to climb up to the top of the falls along the escarpment – we opt for a game drive. A monkey by the side has us intrigued – it’s the Patas. Hartebeest, warthogs, Uganda cobs and cute little orbi – in Kenya we see them in Ruma National Park feed off the vast savanna grassland on rich red earth with dome-shaped anthills and towering borassus palms. Rain pelts the night away and morning departure from Paraa is delayed. Driving out of the park we read a sign-post – Budongo Forest Chimpanzee Sanctuary.

Intrigued, we turn in. It’s quiet in the rain forest that sits atop the Albertine Rift – a forest that stretches 435 square kilometres.

The road leads to an eco-lodge. With no guests, there’s no booking for chimp tracking that takes at least three hours.

Dr Jane Goodall with Uruhara pant-hooting, 1996. Courtesy: GRASP - Great Apes Survival Partnership - www.un-grasp.org

Dr Jane Goodall with Uruhara pant-hooting, 1996. Courtesy: GRASP – Great Apes Survival Partnership – www.un-grasp.org

Nevertheless we try our luck. I’m so excited having heard Dr Jane Goodall talk about her pioneering work in chimpanzee research in the 1960s. Like gorillas, chimpanzees are the last of the great apes and our closest relatives.

The chimpanzee sanctuary at Budongo Forest near Murchsion Falls. Copyright: Rupi Mangat

The chimpanzee sanctuary at Budongo Forest near Murchsion Falls. Copyright: Rupi Mangat

While we wait for a guide, rain clouds build up. Browsing around the eco-lodge, the posters on the walls reveal that the Budongo Chimpanzee Forest Sanctuary was founded by Professor Vernon Reynolds in 1990. He had studied chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii)  in Budongo Forest in 1962 as a young university student and wrote a book about them and the forest – published in 1965.

Then came Idi Amin’s brutal regime. For two decades – 1970s and 1980s – Uganda was ravaged by war with thousands of civilians killed.

Wildlife suffered – like the chimp babies that were being smuggled out to Dubai and other places to wealthy pet owners.

It spurred Reynolds to raise funds for the chimpanzees and return to his old haunt to see if there were any chimpanzees left in the forest. Research shows that when poachers come for the baby ape, they have to kill the mother and the rest of the clan for like humans chimpanzees protect their young.

With his Ugandan counterpart – Chriss Bakuneeta, they chose Budongo as the base and found chimpanzees so traumatised that they stayed hidden.

The good news today is that Budongo Forest is home to some 600-700 chimpanzees with three troops that can be followed around and researchers studying them. But the danger now is that some get accidently caught in snares laid out for other wildlife like small duikers for the pot.

By now, it’s about to rain in the late afternoon. The guide tells us the chimps are far in the forest and probably made their nests in the trees for the night – we’ll just have to return another time.

Fact File

Great roads in and outside park – for info on parks Uganda Wildlife Authority

Stay at Paraa Safari lodge and Chobe Safari Lodge – at each end of the park – to see more and avoid back-tracking. Luxury on the Nile.

Basic campsites in park.

At Budongo forest trek chimpanzees in the wild.

Rates for East Africans: $30pppn – 24hr– pay at entrance. Car: one time – UGX15,000 (Ksh 450). Ferry (driver and car: UGX 20000) Per person UGX 5000.

Ferry crossing: 7,9,11am and 12,2,4,6,7pm

 

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