Monkey in the Middle

This blog entry about the events of Thursday, January 05, 2012 was originally posted on January 12, 2012.

DAY 8: In 1960, British researcher Jane Goodall came to Africa to study wild chimpanzees, and over the past fifty years she’s became a household name associated with the species of ape (ape = tailless monkey) — but I think most of that popularity is contributed by the overall appeal of chimps. I mean, what’s a Tarzan movie or 70’s trucker TV series without them? (R.I.P. “Cheetah”)

Jane Goodall did her most of her work in northwestern Tanzania, near Lake Tanganyika and the border with Burundi, but her influence is seen everywhere chimpanzees are found, as is the case at the Budongo Forest Reserve in Uganda. The Jane Goodall Institute, in cooperation with Uganda’s National Forestry Authority and the Budongo Ecotourism Development Programme*, have established a chimpanzee tracking center, where official trained chimp trackers bring chimp-loving tourists on treks to see the famed monkeys out in the wild. (*Disney’s Animal Kingdom sponsored all the information panels at the center, plus a woman was wearing a Disney Conservation Fund t-shirt, so perhaps Mickey Mouse has a hand in it as well.)

“Will we see them?” Maggie asked Joshua, our chimp tracking guide with 17 years experience. She was a little concerned; chimp sightings aren’t 100% guaranteed — as is any animal in the wild — although anti-poacher park rangers monitor chimp groups and generally know their whereabouts each morning based on clues.

“The possibility is very high,” Joshua told us.

Jean had a 0% chance of seeing chimps that morning, for he opted not to go and hang back at the lodge; he had already gone (and paid for) a chimp experience in western Uganda where chances for close encounters with chimps were greater (and he had pictures to prove it). For the rest of us, we were hopeful.

Behind the eco lodge was a path that led into the semi-deciduous rainforest, filled with the morning sounds of birds calling and insects buzzing in the crisp, humid air. We had to keep as quiet as possible as we walked single file along the network of trails — with our pants tucked into our socks to prevent ants in our pants — following Joshua, who was keeping radio contact with trackers already in the forest with information about the chimps’ whereabouts. It only took about twenty minutes before we encountered a solitary chimpanzee, right in the path, quite unexpectedly.

“There! There!” Joshua exclaimed in a whisper.

Speechless. A chimpanzee was just sitting on the man-made path, looking upwards to his family hanging out in the trees just above. Maggie got the first encounter on iPhone video, but the chimp went away and started climbing a tree before either of us could take our bigger cameras out.

CHIMPANZEES, LIKE GORILLAS, are one of our closest relatives, sharing over 95% of our DNA. The average chimpanzee lives up to forty years of age, and mostly on a vegetarian diet of young leaves, but with the occasional carnivorous splurge on a colobus monkey. On a normal morning, chimps are mostly found hanging out in the upper canopy of the rainforest eating their greens, which is mostly why we spent most of our morning looking upwards as they fed, waiting for them to come down after breakfast.

“When they are done eating, they will come down,” Joshua informed us of their usual behavior. We waited patiently while most of them just stayed in the trees, watching us from above. “As much as we want to see their behavior, they want to see ours,” Joshua told us. We kept conversation down to a whisper while waiting for a closer encounter; most of what we saw were specks of monkeys far away, and we could only really see them via binoculars or by zooming in with my camera lens, and then zooming in again on the played back image.

Maggie, our “guest zoologist” from Singapore, was also mindful of the other animals around us; it was a jungle out there after all. Different birds, including loud-flapping hornbills flew around us. And then there was something different. “A colobus monkey.”


“You see the white tail that looks like a leaf?”


“Take off your sunglasses,” Maggie said to Alice.

“They’re prescription,” she replied.

In the distance, a lone colobus monkey had been spotted by us, but not the chimps — just yet. “Maybe they will hunt,” Joshua told us. A chimp hunt!

According to Joshua, chimps hunt in a strategical way; they divide into two groups, one to go to the ground and distract the colobus, while another group climbs above. Then the bottom chimps chase the colobus upwards while the upper chimps come down, and they meet together to catch the literal “monkey in the middle.”

The lone colobus jumped to another branch, and one chimp took notice. The jig was up. The observant chimp alerted the others, and subsequently all the chimps went, well, ape shit. We waited for the hunting formations to begin, but the colobus must have gotten away because that excitement ended rather anti-climactically.

No matter, more and more chimpanzees appeared above our heads, climbing the branches and eating — male adults, females and even one baby from far away (picture above). Shaka, the oldest male, climbed down from a tree only about 20 feet away from us, but on the complete other side of the tree, out of our view. He went away before we could catch up, although we did make the effort, walking through the jungle vegetation. Joshua spotted another chimp that had come down — with a baby on her back — but they had gone away before we could catch up to them.

And so it was back to looking upwards, watching chimps in the trees from afar, swinging and being monkeys. “I have ants,” Maggie announced, scratching her arms; I think we all did. We were also itching to react to any movement on the jungle grounds.

“There!” someone exclaimed. “There’s movement.”

“That is human movement,” Joshua answered; we weren’t the only humans in the forest tracking chimps, and perhaps the monkeys had just been accustomed to all the humans each morning. Joshua said that once he went tracking and a chimp alerted him and his group that there was a python near them — so I guess the chimps have got our back; we’re distant cousins after all.

In the end, after our allotted three hours, it was a decent show although a little disappointing that we didn’t see any chimpanzees extremely up close. We did see two chimps grooming each other far away, but then Joshua signaled us it was time to go. “It’s not in their programme to come down today.” Sad.

AFTER LUNCH, IT WAS A FOUR-HOUR RIDE back to Kampala, where city life remained just as it was before went journeyed out into the wilds of Uganda: traffic, Ugandan tabloids, and friendly peanut and soybean vendors. (Have the soybean.)

Alice got dropped off at the Shangri-La where she was staying; Maggie got dropped off at a bus station to try and change a ticket, and Jean and I head back to the hostel, with a quick stop at the Jaguar bar company to get me a ticket for the overnight bus to Rwanda; chimpanzee tracking represented the last activity I’d do on my final day in Uganda.

Our group parted ways, but not without some farewells and final thoughts of our three days together.

“Are you ready to bore your friends back home who don’t care about animals?” Alice joked to Maggie — but she didn’t care; animals have and will always be a part of her life it seemed.

“I love Africa,” Maggie said. “I don’t want to leave.” Obsessed with safaris, she would eventually go off to Kenya for yet another one, at Masai Mara National Reserve, but would go back to Singapore in a couple of weeks in time for Chingay (Chinese New Year); she’d promised her mother and boyfriend she’d be back for it, much to her chagrin.

I’d sold Jean on the rafting trip with Adrift, and he went off to book that while I packed my clothes and ate some food in a hurry; the 1 a.m. bus to Kigali, Rwanda had been sold out, leaving me only an hour to get ready for the only available bus — 8 p.m. — to get me in Rwanda in time for my appointment to see our other primate cousins: gorillas. Whether or not I’d get the same kind of show as I did with the chimpanzees was yet to be determined, but I was optimistic.

Next entry: Jungle to Jungle

Previous entry: Alice in Gandaland

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Comments for “Monkey in the Middle”

  • Monkeys!

    Still catching up…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/12  at  01:13 PM

  • Smart stuff, I expect reading more.

    Posted by buywowgoldfzd  on  01/18  at  11:39 PM

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This blog post is one of eighteen travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: Monkeying Around," which chronicled an eighteen-day journey through Uganda and Rwanda in eastern central Africa.

Next entry:
Jungle to Jungle

Previous entry:
Alice in Gandaland


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