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A primate safari on a trip to visit Rwanda or Uganda is often overlooked as a safari in its own right, even though most primates have the power to captivate our attention and imagination over most other mammals.
In Africa, primates represent nearly 100 species, of all mammal species, ranging from the big old silverback gorillas that forage their way through the rainforests of Rwanda, Uganda & Congo, to the agile small sized galagos (part of the bushbaby family) whose wail calls haunt the hills by night.
Primates are truly fascinating creatures to observe in their natural habitat, generally living in large closely-knit troops whose intricate behaviour includes playing and quarrelling, grooming and bullying, mating and foraging which are a close reminder of a boisterous gang of teenagers in a forest playground.
There is no better primate encounter than mountain gorilla trekking in Rwanda and Uganda. It is also helping with the conservation of this volatile species. It can be physically demanding, but tracking gorillas through the misty mountains of Africa is such a thrilling experience, from that first glimpse of a powerful silverback to a group of clumsy adolescent fluff balls.
Dian Fossey wrote of one early encounter, “On perceiving the softness, tranquillity and trust conveyed by her eyes, I was overwhelmed by the extraordinary depth of our rapport.” For most trekking gorillas and having these close encounters it is both an epiphany and life-changing.
Chimpanzee trekking is a bit more of a "hit-and-miss" adventure because chimps tend to range far more widely than gorillas do. So on a bad day, the experience amounts, in the words of a fellow tracker I overheard, to “chasing a few furry bundles through the forest”.
If you do happen to catch the chimps feeding on a fruit tree, grooming intently or out on an aerial monkey hunt, it can be exciting to watch these large apes go about their daily chores. For those who don't have the privilege of getting close enough, the chimp’s extraordinary high pitched hoot call; a hysterically explosive, group-bonding ritual, must be one of Africa’s most spine-chilling wildlife sounds.
The fact remains that a majority of safari operators tend to pay inadequate attention to these and other primate experience opportunities that offer great value to visitors. This is in part because primate diversity is lowest in the habitats where most "well-known" traditional safaris happen to take place. Even while on safari in the Serengeti or Kruger you can be sure of encountering troops of the baboon and vervet monkey, both of which are sociable creatures that display a wide range of human-like behaviours to capture attention and provoke a good chuckle.
There are also many wonderfully accessible and affordable African forest reserves that offer superb and varied monkey viewing that are not well publicised.
Volcanoes National Park is most likely Africa’s most famous primate viewing destination, made famous by its gorillas. It protects the Rwanda portion of the Virunga Mountains, a string of active and dormant volcanoes that runs along the borders with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Volcanoes National Park is also a very important stronghold for the critically endangered gorilla and is also where the famous primatologist Dian Fossey undertook gorilla habituation and conducted her research program documented in the movie aptly named 'Gorillas in the Mist', and the movie was also shot on location. Gorilla trekking is absolutely superb at Volcanoes.
The park is also known for the opportunity to track the near-endemic golden monkey and for the spectacular volcanic silhouettes it offers against a vivid African sky.
Nyungwe National Park is home to East Africa’s largest section of montane rainforest and its habituated troops of up to 400 Angola colobus monkeys, easily seen from trails around the park headquarters.
The handsome L’Hoest’s monkey is a certainty, as most of our travellers have come back with great footage. There is also half a dozen other primate species to be seen, including the grey-cheeked mangabey and silver monkey. Chimpanzee trekking is offered here, but cannot be compared to the best locations in Uganda and Tanzania.
Mahale Mountains National Park is set on the eastern shore of Tanzania’s Lake Tanganyika. It is 30 times larger than Gombe Stream National Park and home to an estimated 1000 chimpanzees. Mahale also has a magnificent setting below towering forested peaks that rise 2000m above the transparent lake waters.
Accessible by charter flight, Mahale National Park is probably the best place to go chimpanzee trekking anywhere in Africa. The habituated Mimikere Community is comprised of an estimated 80 individuals. Red colobus, yellow baboon, blue monkey and red-tailed monkey are among the other primate species in this area. There is also an endemic troop of Angola colobus which inhabits the higher altitude forests.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is Uganda’s premier site for gorilla trekking and is also one of the most biodiverse national parks in East Africa. Bwindi is also home to unhabituated chimps and large numbers of Angola colobus and blue monkeys. There is a staggering total of 120 species of mammal and around 300 species of bird.
Zanzibar is best known for its beaches, sun, sea, marine life and old Stone Town, but did you know it is also home to one of Africa’s most localised and endangered monkey species, the wild-fringed Kirk’s red colobus. This sociable leaf-eater has become exceptionally habituated in the small Jozani Forest Reserve of Zanzibar.
If you have and still are dreaming of adding a primate safari to your traditional safari , then look no further as Africa and its primates will delight you and the experience will touch you.