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Blog: Tracking chimpanzees in the Mahale Mountains
Our resident chimp enthusiast and all-round primate specialist Ric had an incredible once-in-a-lifetime encounter with habituated chimpanzees in the Mahale Mountains in Western Tanzania. Read more about his experience with our closest cousins here…
It’s just gone nine in the morning and I am slowly scrambling my way up a rainforest covered mountain, it’s already hot and I am exhausted. Promises are made to myself about eating better and running to work every day (the latter has already been broken) as I take a big gulp of water which immediately exhausts my supply. To my left, the shining mirror of Lake Tanganyika offers a glimpse of the Congolese mountains on the horizon, a brief break from the forest.
I am in the Mahale Mountains, in the far west of Tanzania, in search of a community of habituated chimpanzees known as ‘M Group’ whom our tracker Dennis has somehow already found somewhere in the darkness ahead – an impossible task for the untrained eye. I have been fortunate enough to work with chimpanzees in Uganda for some years and we often talked about what we might learn if we were ever to see these far more isolated cousins. The adrenaline of this quest at least keeps me on my feet for now.
My day had begun on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, where I was awoken along with the yellow baboons around my tent by what appeared to be a wonderful sunrise reflecting on this massive body of water. I had arrived the day before on a charter flight from the equally wild Katavi National Park followed by a ferry up the lake, slaloming through fishing boats. Arriving at the boundary of the Mahale Mountains National Park, human presence quickly evaporated as mountainous green forests absorbed the horizon for miles. One of the first to welcome me was the resident pelican (affectionately known as Big Bird), who decided to immediately take me under his wing for the next couple of nights (think of a four foot tall puppy that can fly), and I can’t help but look back as I struggle through the forest and wonder whether swimming, going fishing and staying up past midnight playing fetch with the pelican was the wisest preparation.
Just as I snap back to the present, our guide Ramadan (who had demonstrated his ability to ‘talk chimp’ on the boat ride to the trailhead that morning) informs us to put on our face masks; it is time to meet the chimps. The masks are in place to stop the risk of respiratory infection for the chimps as they share so much of our DNA and germs are easily transmitted. We find Dennis crouching on the trail up ahead. It is the wet season, food is widespread and the 70-strong ‘M Group’ is fragmented, but as Dennis beckons to the trees ahead we see that he has found two male chimps. I am always a little apprehensive meeting chimps; they are loud, fast and much, much bigger than you expect. But I found our new friends perfectly relaxed and entirely unmoved by our presence, feeding glutinously in the low trees over the trail. Instantly cameras come out in abundance and the group goes into full paparazzi mode. Chimps are like people – they can’t take off or teleport – these two are relaxed and far from the group so should stick around. Sit tight, enjoy and the photo opportunities will come, I tell myself.
Dennis and Ramadan provide an invaluable commentary to our visit, telling us the history of M Group – how former alpha males rose to power, toppled leaders, were killed by revolutionaries and others reinstated to serve as ‘Prime Ministers’. It sounds like the plot of a Mafia epic, but this is the life of these remarkable animals that have their own cultures, languages and even politics. Our two males seem far more interested in feeding than fighting though, and before long they are climbing down from the trees, walking among us and of course letting their guard down for a few decent photos, before climbing effortlessly up the next tree, out of the glare of the cameras. Heading back down the mountain is a far more pleasurable experience than the route up, as we all discuss what we have seen and of course who might have the best photos. It feels great to wade through the waters of the lake back to the boat. It is still only just midday and, like the chimps, I think how nice a little snooze back at the lodge would be. But just as I think about resting my eyes on the deck, a great swoosh comes up from behind me, and I open my eyes to a pelican, ready to play…
Our favourite lodges for chimp trekking in Mahale are:
Kungwe Beach Lodge – the unique setting comprising beach and mountains makes the perfect backdrop for this simple yet comfortable lodge.
Greystoke Mahale – the most stylish option for exploring Mahale, Greystoke is the crème de la crème of base camps for tracking chimpanzees.
You can’t wait to follow in Ric’s steps tracking down chimpanzees in Mahale?
Check out our Unchartered Tanzania itinerary and get in touch with one of our Tanzania specialists on 020 3141 2810.