Trying for chimpanzees

Friday August 18 2017

Budongo Forest is home to some 600-700 chimpanzees. PHOTO| RUPI MANGAT


“When the crocodile jumps into the boat, you jump out,” our guide tells us. We’re sailing the Nile to reach the base of Murchison Falls. The Nile crocodile is gigantic – almost 15 feet long. My childhood memory is of the banks lined with crocodiles; today we have only seen four. Other than that, it’s a beautiful sail.

The river is blue and there are pods of hippos.

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. Over the course of the journey we’re treated to Uganda’s colourful Red-fronted bee-eater, herds of Rothschild giraffes and buffalo coming to the Nile for a late afternoon drink.

A sliver of silver unveils in the distance; we have reached the mighty falls. The force of the water is so strong that it doesn’t allow the boat to reach its base. From here the Nile flows on to the Mediterranean Sea.


Murchison Falls sailing to its base, Uganda. PHOTO| RUPI MANGAT

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 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 for Budongo Forest Chimpanzee Sanctuary. Intrigued, we turn in.


The road leads to an eco-lodge. With no guests, there’s no booking for chimp tracking, an exercise that takes at least three hours. Nevertheless we try our luck. While we wait for a guide, we look around the eco-lodge. The posters on the walls reveal that the sanctuary was founded by Professor Vernon Reynolds in 1990. He had studied chimpanzees in Budongo Forest in 1962 while a young university student and wrote a book about them and the forest. It was published in 1965.


Posters on the walls reveal that the sanctuary was founded by Professor Vernon Reynolds in 1990, Budongo Forest. PHOTO| RUPI MANGAT

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, and chimp babies were smuggled out to Dubai and other places for wealthy owners seeking exotic pets. It spurred Reynolds to raise funds for the chimpanzees and return to his old haunt to see if there were any 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. Reynolds returned to Budongo and found chimpanzees so traumatised that they stayed hidden. Today, Budongo Forest is home to some 600-700 chimpanzees. The danger now is that some get accidently caught in snares laid out for other wildlife like small duikers.


Murchison Falls sailing to its base, Uganda. PHOTO| RUPI MANGAT

The rain clouds have been gathering as we wait, and they are still swelling ominously. The guide tells us that the chimps are far in the forest and have probably made their nests in the trees for the night; we’ll just have to return another time.

It’s great roads in and outside park. Contact the Uganda Wildlife Authority for more. Stay at Paraa Safari lodge and Chobe Safari Lodge for more luxurious accommodation. There are also basic campsites in park.