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Rwanda: Chimpanzee tracking

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Chimpanzee tracking | Rwanda | Africa

[Visited: February 2013]

When I woke up at 4.30am that morning, I was immediately thrilled: I was off to track chimpanzees! I also realized that it wasn't even sure I was going at all: when I found out the previous evening that even if I would rent a private vehicle, I would still be tracking the chimps with two couples, which made me decide not to dish out the money for the one hour drive. Fortunately, the friendly couple staying at the same guesthouse offered me one of the empty seats on their good old Landrover, and when we drove off, it was still pitch dark. To my surprise, we drove away from Nyungwe National Park, and I at once realized we were headed for Cyamudongo Park, a tiny annex of big Nyungwe. I hoped that going to the small park would increase our chances of spotting chimps, as I had read that there is no guarantee at all to see them. When light finally seeped through, we were surrounded by fog, making the hilly landscape dotted with trees look mysterious. We continued to pass small villages and people already up to work the land, which surprised me, as I had thought the chimps would live in a more isolated spot. The last stretch was in a pretty bad condition; our driver showed his skills by steering us safely over the muddy track. When our driver parked the car, our guide gave us walking sticks, and we were off on the trail leading into Cyamudongo Park.

Picture of Chimpanzee tracking (Rwanda): Chimpanzee sitting on the forest floor of Cyamudongo, not wanting to show his face

We had been briefed not to speak, so as not to let the chimpanzees know we were there, and it struck me how silent the forest was. A dense, humid air surrounded us, and the trees and plants were mere shadows in a grey environment. Walking the trail was easy, and sooner than I had expected, the guide asked us to stop. We had reached the spot where chimps had been spotted the day before, and our guide hoped they would show up in the same area. In a whispering voice, he now explained us a little more about the habits of chimps: how they never sleep at the same spot, how they build nests in trees every night, because they do not trust to be on the ground and prefer to be higher up, and how they are 98% similar to human beings. In short: vagabonding primates in the rainforest. Still, we did not hear them; it seemed we had come too early. We did now start to hear all kinds of birds, and since I had never heard chimps, I wondered if we heard them, too. At my question, our guide laughed - no, the chimps made a different noise. We now learned that there are several trackers who walk the forest during the day; connected by walkie-talkies, they follow the monkeys, and are in touch with the guide as well. No positive feedback meant we continued walking the trail, until we reached some enormous strangler figs. The fog seemed to lift, and subtle light was filtering through the canopy high above us, making the mosses on the trees shine a rare green.

Picture of Chimpanzee tracking (Rwanda): Fog enveloping the trees of Cyamudongo forest in the early morning

The silence of the forest was broken by the creaking of the walkie-talkie of our guide: the chimps were on the way; we back-tracked, and then, a loud shrieking sound pierced the early morning forest. I could feel my heart skip a beat, and was very excited when we made our way through the thick forest, on a tiny slippery trail. The thick vegetation around us proved very useful: I used it several times to prevent from falling. Then, the guide took my elbow and pointed ahead of me, and indeed: I saw a shadow move through the bush. I imagine I was holding my breath while watching the shadow move forward; it was hard not to make a sound now. The chimp disappeared, but one of the trackers who was now with us, gestured we should come his way, and indeed: we now spotted several chimps of various sizes come down one of the trees. It was amazing how fast they moved, and like before, I found out that taking pictures was virtually impossible. The beasts were moving too fast, their dark skin added to the challenge, and there were almost always branches and leaves between them and my lens - and we were lucky, because the sun was shining above the trees. The chimp colony here is 37 animals big, and I estimate we saw around ten of them. We hiked back to the main trail as fast as possible, where we saw two chimps just ahead on the same trail. A little further down, one of them was sitting close to us, but unfortunately, we could not see his face. Then, others - some very small - were coming down trees, and disappearing into the undergrowth like lighting. I was thrilled, and very happy that the primates has actually shown up on this early morning! Our guide now asked us if we wanted to see Mona monkeys as well; according to the quite funny tariff system used, we had to shell out another 70 USD. It turned out to be just a few minutes before we found a large group, high up in the canopy, and it was a lot of fun to watch them play and jump. We all walked out of the forest with a big smile on our face after a morning well spent.

Picture of Chimpanzee tracking (Rwanda): Cyamudongo forest in the early morning
Picture of Chimpanzee tracking (Rwanda): Young chimpanzee in a tree in Cyamudongo forest
Picture of Chimpanzee tracking (Rwanda): Young chimp coming down a tree in Cyamudongo forest
Picture of Chimpanzee tracking (Rwanda): Chimpanzee on a branch in the canopy of Cyamudongo forest
Picture of Chimpanzee tracking (Rwanda): Taking it easy: chimpanzee walking one of the trails of the forest
Picture of Chimpanzee tracking (Rwanda): A foggy morning in Cyamudongo forest
Picture of Chimpanzee tracking (Rwanda): Trunk of tree in Cyamudongo forest covered by moss
Picture of Chimpanzee tracking (Rwanda): Long-tailed Mona monkey in a tree in Cyamudongo
Picture of Chimpanzee tracking (Rwanda): Trail through Cyamudongo, annex of Nyangwe National Park in southwest Rwanda
Picture of Chimpanzee tracking (Rwanda): Behind the branches, a chimpanzee is visible
Picture of Chimpanzee tracking (Rwanda): Silhouette of a Mona monkey high up in the trees
Picture of Chimpanzee tracking (Rwanda): Mona monkey high up in a tree
Picture of Chimpanzee tracking (Rwanda): Monkeys play on top of these tall trees: it is a challenge to spot them

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