A Spotlight on Africa’s Great Primates

By Mary Grimwood

There is nothing more exciting than an up close and personal encounter with the amazing wildlife which resides on the African continent. Each of us will have a story to tell. Whether it was the frisson of excitement when a lazing lion, slumped in the shade of your game viewing vehicle, raised its head and those cool amber eyes made contact with yours or holding your breath as a magnificent bull elephant lumbered past giving you some side eye as it continued on its journey; we have all had ‘that’ moment.

For me though, coming face to face with one of Africa’s primates was on another level. The very first time I saw a gorilla I was truly taken aback at just how emotional I felt. As fanciful a notion as it may sound, when I first looked into a gorilla’s eyes it felt like I was looking into its soul. That we share 98% of our DNA with them is clearly demonstrable when you spend time with them and observe their mannerisms and interaction with one another.

For most people gorilla trekking is a once in a lifetime experience. The high cost of the permits alone can be prohibitive but the positive impact of this eco-tourism in both Rwanda and Uganda has seen gorilla numbers increase to such an extent that they have been upgraded from critically endangered to endangered and at the end of last year numbers of mountain gorillas were recorded at 1063. That number has since increased with the wonderful news of the arrival of no less than eight new babies since July this year, born to different families in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park.

Gorilla trekking will never fail to disappoint whether you’re in Uganda or Rwanda, our two featured destinations.

Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is dense, lush and incredibly beautiful. With conditions often living up to its name, the trekking in Bwindi can be more challenging due to the steep and often very heavily vegetated slopes. Access to the region has become easier of late but in Uganda, gorilla trekking does still, more often than not, make up part of a longer trip exploring this beautiful country.

Rwanda is definitely viewed as the ‘easier’ of the destinations both in terms of access and the trekking itself. The Parc des Volcans is reached in around three hours by road from Kigali making it ideal for travellers wanting to see the gorillas in as short a time as possible. The hiking is in general a little easier than in Uganda (although the higher altitude can catch people out) and the more open terrain can result in more comfortable sightings.

Daily flights from Kigali into the heart of the Serengeti and light aircraft connections from Bwindi to the Masai Mara allow for the ultimate safari combination; trekking for the majestic mountain primates combined with superb big game viewing on East Africa’s vast open plains.

Ultimately, the decision for many people as to which destination to choose may be determined by budget. Trekking permits in Rwanda increased to $1500.00 per person per trek in 2017, and since that increase we have seen Rwanda reposition itself as a five star destination. Permits in Uganda are currently less than half the price at $700.00 per person per trek.

You can read more about gorilla trekking in Rwanda and Uganda here.

Of course gorillas are not the only primate attraction in East Africa. In Uganda chimpanzees can be seen in various places including Kibale ForestQueen Elizabeth National Park (both Kyambura Gorge and Kalinzu Forest) and Budongo Forest in Murchison Falls National Park whilst in Rwanda Nyungwe Forest is the prime destination whilst habituation process is underway in Gishwati Forest.

Further south in Tanzania, Rubondo Island is home to a healthy population of chimps. Introduced to the island in the 1960s the original chimps were rescued from captivity but have adapted well to freedom and established a breeding group which now numbers around 40, living free and independent lives. You can read about Rob’s visit to this beautiful island earlier this year here.

The densely forested slopes of the Mahale Mountains in western Tanzania provide a spectacular backdrop to Lake Tanganyika and are home to eight species of primates including, amongst others, both Red and Black & White Colobus, Yellow Baboons, Red tailed and Vervet monkeys. The most populous however are the chimpanzees of which there are estimated to be around 1000 living in the park, divided into different families, one of which, the Mimikire clan, has been habituated by researchers since the mid 1960’s. In my opinion, hiking to visit M group, as it is known, is one of the best chimpanzee experiences you will find anywhere in Africa.

The mysterious Red Island of Madagascar is a hotspot of wildlife diversity but is best known for the lemurs which are endemic to the island. Found throughout the vast land mass and often unique to their local habitat, they come in all shapes and sizes. The biggest of all is the Indri with its haunting tell-tale call, whilst the Verreaux’s Sifaka is known as the dancing lemur due to its propensity to jump across the forest floor on two legs. Found in the drier regions, Ring-tailed lemurs are now, thanks to the movie Madagascar, more commonly known as King Julian lemurs, whilst the stunning, teddy bear like Coquerel’s Sifaka prefer the rainforest regions. These are just a few of the 117 species on the island.

Hiking to see lemurs is likely to be part of a varied itinerary travelling throughout the island but spending time with these curious creatures will definitely be a highlight. Madagascar is like nowhere else and this also holds true for the primate experience. Gone is any true sense of wilderness as you are never far from a village and the hiking is definitely easier than in the mountains of East Africa, but as long as you travel with the correct mindset, neither of these facts will detract from your enjoyment.

Mary’s Top Three Primate Encounters
1.Mind Out The Way – Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda

I have been lucky enough to go gorilla trekking three times but my last adventure is the story that I still dine out on. Along with my colleague Frances, I was in Rwanda’s Parc des Volcans and we set off in bright sunshine on our hike. Not long before we found the gorillas the heavens opened and in a clear demonstration of our kinship, the gorillas scattered, taking cover from the rain in dense bush. After waiting patiently to see if they would emerge our guide announced that the gorillas had headed down the mountain and asked if we wanted to follow. Of course we did! We proceeded to slip and slide down the muddy slopes trying to catch sight of our objectives. We came to a sudden impasse with a sheer drop to the lower slopes and a plan was quickly made for the trackers to lower us down one by one.

As I waited my turn I was looking around and soaking up the dramatic scenery. I got a heck of a shock when I looked behind to find an imposing blackback gorilla sitting not too far behind me as if waiting his turn. The collective breath of those of us still waiting was held as our new friend brushed past us and in one easy movement swung down to the lower slopes showing us just how to do it! We eventually caught up with the rest of the family and were allowed to spend some more precious minutes observing them. By the time we returned to our vehicles that afternoon we had been trekking for seven hours and were covered in mud but the only thing we could talk about was the up-close and personal encounter with the blackback. What an immense privilege it was.

2. Stiking a Pose – Chimpanzees in Tanzania

The contrast of the dense green vegetation on the slopes of the Mahale Mountains and the crystal clear waters of Lake Tanganyika lapping the shores combine to make a stunning backdrop for chimpanzee trekking. As with any wildlife experience we are always at the behest of the animals and here it was no less true as in one morning the chimps both vexed and enchanted me.

Staying at Greystoke Mahale Camp, we spent a frustrating amount of time in camp waiting for the call that the chimps had been found before we could head up the slopes. Even then there was a lot of waiting around as the chimps looked like they were heading away and into a neighbouring valley. Then they changed direction, heading straight for us. Unlike my experience with gorillas, which were relatively static and more interested in feeding, this was a high octane encounter; as we started back down the slopes with them, the chimps went about their own business and were completely at ease with us. They were highly energetic, naughty, playful and raucous; the decibel level of screeching was equally high when they greeted one another as when they were arguing. My favourite moment however was with one female chimp who just loved the camera. As she moved down a trail, she would regularly lie down to pose for photos as if she was one of Rubens’ models.

3. A Conspiracy of Ring-Tailed Lemurs – Madagascar

Such is the varied nature of a trip to Madagascar that each lemur trek I have done has been completely different: trekking in remote and dense primary rainforest, sometimes walking close enough to villages to hear the noises of everyday life, slipping and sliding in torrential rain and even trekking in the dark. Each adventure has been unique and memorable.

My favourite experience though was in the south of the island not far from the village of Ifotaka (loosely translated as Place of Mud). Leaving Mandrare River Camp early in the morning we drove through the vast sisal plantation until we reached the river where boots were removed and we waded across to reach the beautiful galleried forest. It was magical making our way through the forest accompanied by beautiful birdsong and watching the ever changing patterns of light as the rising sun crept through the tree line. This was not arduous trekking, rather it was an enchanting walk with the objective of finding ring-tailed lemurs. It took a while but after a few false starts of seeing tails flying off into the distance, we finally came across a good sized troop (the official collective noun for lemurs is the rather wonderful ‘conspiracy’!).

At first, they were in a constant state of motion, scurrying left and right, up a tree, along the branches, under a fallen tree stump, often tumbling over each other in their haste and always on the lookout for food. As quickly as the commotion started, peace suddenly descended as the lemurs suddenly settled into what was obviously good feeding grounds. What a privilege it was to be in such close proximity of these small primates as they went about their daily business without a thought for us!

Photo Credits: Volcanoes Safaris, Sabyinyo Lodge