Watching habituated chimpanzees is one of the world’s most thrilling wildlife experiences. Chimps are found in the forests of Equatorial Africa from Tanzania to Gabon, with one of the largest populations being in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The total number has declined precipitously over the past two decades — by 90 percent in the Ivory Coast alone — as a result of deforestation and the construction of logging roads that make it easier for poachers and hunters to access the interior.
Between 150,000 and 250,000 are now estimated to be left in the wild. Most of them are unused to people and extremely shy. But a few groups have been studied by scientists for decades and have become completely indifferent to the presence of humans. The most famous group is the Kasakela community in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park, at the northeastern end of Lake Tanganyika, where Dr. Jane Goodall began her pioneering research in 1960.
The only place to stay in the area is the relatively simple Gombe Forest Lodge. On my recent trip to Rwanda, I watched chimps in the Cyamudongo forest and stayed in the comfort of nearby Nyungwe House. The chimps were unafraid and easy to observe through binoculars.
However, the place that is generally acknowledged to provide the most unforgettable chimpanzee sightings is Mahale Mountains National Park, a remote and beautiful reserve located on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika, about 115 miles south of Gombe. Some of the Mahale chimps have also been studied since the 1960s. The two days I spent tracking chimps there rank among the top-five wildlife experiences of my life. While sitting on the ground watching a habituated group, one female chimpanzee came so close that I felt her brush my sleeve as she walked past.
Mahale has no roads and is accessible only by boat, but it does have a first-rate lodge. Greystoke Mahale has six comfortable and stylish thatched wooden bandas set at the edge of the forest, on a white-sand beach that shelves gently into the gin-clear water of Lake Tanganyika.
The food is excellent, and the staff are well-trained. Guests are escorted into the forest by guides and trackers and are allowed to watch the chimpanzees for one hour a day. As the chimps move around constantly in search of food, it is advisable to stay three or four nights to be virtually certain of an encounter.
The remote and timeless location; the atmospheric lodgings; the pristine beauty of the lake and the forest; the remarkable wildlife viewing.
This is not an easy place to get to, and the three-and-a-half-hour flight from Arusha aboard a light aircraft can be very tiring.
To protect the chimps, the rules have been tightened: It is now possible to watch them for a maximum of one hour a day, and wearing a surgical mask, to prevent the transmission of human diseases, is mandatory.