Journey to see Great Apes of Africa

By: Leigh Glerum, DVM, DACVS
My journey to see the Great Apes of Africa had been on the “bucket list” for many years. I chose to go this year because I celebrated a milestone birthday, but more importantly I had a certain sense of urgency to visit these creatures before I simply could not—not because of
family, professional, or personal health concerns, but because these fabulous creatures may not be around in the future. Habitat encroachment/loss is very real, and protecting enough habitat to support life for the great apes is a daunting challenge. Luckily, there are many individuals, private groups, and governments that work together to see that the remaining great ape population sustains and perhaps even grows.
My husband and I joined a 10-day group trip to Uganda and Rwanda with National Geographic. We generally travelled by vehicle, and we were able to observe village life, city life, and countless members of the African animal kingdom. (I will detail only the “great ape” portions of the trip, but please know that there was a great deal more to the experience.) Our trip began in Uganda at Lake Victoria, where we were able to visit Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary. This facility was established to care for chimps that were confiscated from poachers and smugglers at a young age and cannot be returned to the wild. The most sobering fact to realize about this group of chimps is that, in order to access and capture a young chimp in the wild, essentially their entire family unit has to be destroyed in the process. There is not ample natural vegetation on the island to support the group of 49, so the chimps’ diets are supplemented with regular feedings. We were able to participate in and observe one of their feeding sessions, and it was fascinating to see how the chimps have adapted to and are thriving at the facility.
Our next encounters with chimpanzees occurred in Kibale Forest National Park. As with all of our “natural” great ape encounters, the visited chimps have been habituated to humans. This means that they should not see us as a threat and that our presence should not disrupt their social interactions and daily goings-on to any significant degree. In order to minimize our impact, we were divided into small groups that traveled with a ranger/guide. Once we were in the presence of the chimps, we maintained a minimum distance from the animals and were limited to 1 hour of observation time. We spent time in the forest in both the morning and afternoon. It was truly breathtaking to walk amongst the chimps and to be witness to their, at times rather noisy, interactions.
Our first encounter with mountain gorillas occurred in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The name of this forest is no joke—the terrain was quite rugged and steep. Our guides carried and regularly used machetes to clear a path through the dense brush. Our porters held our hands, pushed us, and pulled us through the mud, along steep inclines, and over creeks. Of course, the trek was more than worth it. We were rewarded by spending an hour of quality time with a group of gorillas ranging in age and rank from toddler to silverback.
Our final mountain gorilla experience was in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. The volcanoes were not active, but the rain certainly was. Turns out that gorillas seem to enjoy getting rained on just about as much as we humans do, so part or our hour was spent watching them huddle and sit quite still. A yawn was one of the most exciting actions we observed for a while, but things got more exciting when the rain stopped and they began to move about to seek out food. This day was a reminder how socially oriented and gentle these animals can be with one another. We later visited Karisoke Research Center to learn about their conservation and advocacy efforts. The center was founded by Dian Fossey and has now become more of a household name due to the interest of Ellen DeGeneres.
In the end this was an amazing trip. These are amazing creatures. The great apes are our close relatives in both DNA and spirit, and it would be a travesty for them to disappear from this Earth. Please educate yourself about their lives and environments, supporting them and the organizations that advocate for them if you are at all able.
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