Primates Uganda: from chimpanzees, golden monkeys to gorillas

Uganda is the land of primates. We take you to the rainforest, to volcanoes and the impenetrable forest where you can make beautiful primate safaris and where dozens of species of monkeys live; from chimpanzees, golden monkeys to the famous and rare mountain gorillas. 

Text: Angelique van Os | Photography: Henk Bothof


Dozens of primate species live in Uganda, of which the rare mountain gorilla is the best known. The chimpanzees in the Kibale rainforest are a great start to a primate safari. The park has the highest primate density with its thirteen species, including the black and white colobus, baboons, red-tailed monkeys and the grey-cheeked mangabey. Spotting monkeys obviously requires a bit of luck, as well as dry weather.

Briefing chimpanzees

After a briefing on the safety regulations and the rules (no fast movements, no imitating sounds, keeping a distance of five meters and anyone with a cold is not allowed), three small clubs of six leave with a ranger. There is mutual contact via a walkie-talkie.

Criss-crossing Kibale rainforest

Silently, almost stealthily, branches and smooth, winding tree roots are avoided. The ranger walks criss-cross through the rainforest. After about twenty minutes, a loud screeching sound suddenly sounds in the distance. The sound gives us a momentary startle reaction, but this is not aggressive behavior: the monkeys invite each other to eat figs. The guide talks into the walkie-talkie. “Follow me,” she says in a whisper. The sound gets louder and almost automatically the noses go up, towards the meters-high trees. They sit far away, sheltered behind a green canopy. Every now and then the branches move.

Lounging and posing

Spotting chimps means having patience, because nature cannot be controlled. While we peer past a number of trees, a walking specimen suddenly appears and quickly climbs up the tree. A little further away, two males are lounging in a tree while nibbling on a twig. The walkie-talkie scratches again, we continue. The other group has discovered a male almost posing on the ground. After a few minutes he has had enough of his ‘paparazzi’ who are standing barely three meters away from him.

Strong primate social bond

And the climax follows: after a ten-minute walk we see a group of four chimpanzees sitting on a fallen tree trunk. There is a lot of mutual petting, scratching and cuddling, which indicates that the monkeys have a strong social bond. A unique moment, because although the great apes are used to daily visitors, they do not often make themselves so vulnerable.


Golden monkeys

De kleine Golden Monkeys zijn minder bekend en niet makkelijk van dichtbij te zien. De goudkleurige beweeglijke aapjes (zo’n 1.100 in totaal) leven alleen in het zuidelijkste puntje van Oeganda, in het Mgahinga National Park. Dit park is omgeven door een laag bos, heide en de Virunga- vulkanen en verbindt Congo, Rwanda en Oeganda.

Virgunga volcanoes Uganda

The area is known for gorilla tracking, which is especially popular in Rwanda. The vegetation may be less spectacular than Rwenzori or Bwindi, but the Muhuvura, Mgahinga and Sabinyo volcanoes certainly compensate for the view with their mystical shapes. Those who are in good shape can climb them in one or two days and will be surprised by the beautiful crater lakes at the top.

Graceful streamers

The search for the golden monkeys is comparable to a gorilla track: trackers move forward and try to trace the animals. The climbing is fairly smooth; After about two hours the animals were found in the bamboo zone at the foot of Mgahinga. The medium-sized monkeys dance gracefully from one branch to the other.

Sometimes things go wrong when they swing over the meter-high bamboo plants and suddenly there is a hole. The thin leaves do not catch the monkeys, causing them to rush downwards at high speed. Their long tails and arms offer rescue and, just as quickly, they are in the next tree. Binoculars make it easier to follow the busy animals.

Mountain gorillas of Uganda

The absolute highlight among the primates in Uganda remains the giant mountain gorillas. The early morning drive from southern Kisoro to Bwindi Forest National Park is truly beautiful. Driving over winding roads between the mountains and low-hanging fog, the impenetrable rainforest emerges at an altitude of about 2000 meters. Of the 720 wild gorillas, approximately 320, consisting of nine families, live in Bwindi.

Lucrative business

The Ugandan newspaper The Daily Monitor reported in mid-September 2012 that the director of the Ugandan Tourism Board, Cuthbert Baguma, announced that tourism has since doubled, from $440 to $800 million. The gorilla tracking accounts for 60% of this! A lucrative business for the UWA (Uganda Wildlife Authority) and the government of Uganda. If you book well in advance, visitors pay $500 per person to spend an hour with the gentle giants. (Note that prices can increase dramatically at the last minute.)

Yet the money is well worth it, not only because it is a lifetime experience, but also because the 25,000-year-old forest is preserved. And the monkeys are protected by this. In the north of Bwindi there is a small research team studying the social and eating behavior of the animals. Finally, the UWA and its rangers monitor poachers and hunters.

Punish primate wildlife crimes

Until recently, the penalties for wildlife crimes were too lenient and too low. In addition, corruption often played a role. For example, in 2010 a gorilla was killed by poachers, with the perpetrators released after paying just a $40 fine. Absurd, of course. The Ugandan government has now changed laws and significantly tightened penalties. For example, in 2020 a poacher was sentenced by 11 years in prison for killing a young gorilla.

In addition, the involvement and transfer of knowledge of the animals is important for the local population. About 5% of the park revenues are spent on local projects such as new schools, water tanks and healthcare. Local communities in Uganda are increasingly realizing that gorillas benefit them.

Gorillas forward jump

According to ranger James Otekat, a significant leap forward has been made; he has hardly experienced any violent incidents in recent years among his three gorilla families, Nshongi, Mishaya and Kahungye, who live in Rushaga, southeastern Bwindi. It does mean that the families become more accustomed to people through daily contact, but the UWA handles this with care and respect. Gorilla advocate Dian Fosseywould be proud if she were still alive. Otekat: “It is a necessity to secure the future of endangered animals through tourism. Fortunately, there are plenty of people who are willing to pay for it. And it is so special, I experience different things every day.”

Off road Bwindi

Our walk is quite challenging and quickly goes off-road. The rangers create their own path with large machetes, following instructions from the trackers who speak to them via the walky-talky. Fresh tracks (dung, footprints and crushed crops) indicate that we just missed forest elephants. Birdsong is regularly heard and sometimes a cry from the black and white colobus (fringed) monkey. Furthermore, it is quiet.

Hello Mr. Silverback!

It is a long journey, with all attention focused on the ground. Not paying attention can cause a slip. After more than three hours of walking, the toil is rewarded: the Nshongi family has been found. Bags and food remain behind, cameras come along of course. We silently follow the trackers one by one. In his dead field, a silverback (leader of the group and older than 15 years old) is chewing on a leaf, surrounded by dense vegetation of a tree. It’s huge! Its offspring play and eat a few branches away, with one of the females carrying a baby on her back. The monkeys are difficult to see, until they start moving more after fifteen minutes.

Unique gorilla experience

A young male climbs up nonchalantly and looks down curiously at his visitors. The silverback hardly moves for half an hour, until he suddenly turns completely towards his spectators. Everyone holds their breath. Unbelievable, how close he is. Its legs almost completely disappear under its bulky body. He continues to nibble on his twig in a relaxed manner. “This is unique! This is the first time I have seen a silverback that is so vulnerable in front of people,” whispers James Otkat. When its leaves run out, it casually falls forward and is caught by a bed of leaves. A little further on he settles in the flat crop.

Shortest hour

As if the gorillas know the hour is up, they take off shortly afterwards and disappear into the impenetrable forest. It is true that a gorilla encounter is often experienced as the shortest hour of a human life; time flies and the experience makes a deep impression.

The same rules apply to a gorilla track as to a Chimp tour. Bwindi is only a denser forest, with meters high trees, sometimes slippery surfaces, steep walls and narrow paths. The search varies from just half an hour to about eight hours.

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boek-face to face-primaten-teneues

Fotocredits: Anup Shah en Fiona Rogers, by teNeues Verlag, all rights resevered

In the new book Face to Face with the Great Apesby Anup Shah and Fiona Rogers, 60 beautiful portraits of the great apes are central. Outside Africa, this is the protected Orangutan, which lives in Indonesia. In this book the authors talk about their experiences with the monkeys they photographed, where the reader can look into the souls of the animals through the expressive looks. Photographers Shah and Rogers lived together with the monkeys in the jungle for a long time, building an intimate bond of trust.

Better primate protection

Their work is a tribute to the protection of primates as they are increasingly endangered worldwide. The disappearance of their habitats, caused by humans, is causing their populations to shrink. With this photo book, the two nature photographers launch an urgent appeal to everyone to better protect our closest relatives in the animal world and evoke amazement with the emotional, intimate portraits.

Publisher: teNeues | hardcover | 176 pages & 100 photos | size: 29 x 23.5 cm | 11 2/5 x 9 1/4 in | Price: €50

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In our first magazine, Jane Goodall was already one of our Pure Heroes. From February 8 In 2024, the award-winning large-screen film Jane Goodall: Reasons for Hope will be shown on the enormous dome screen of Museon-Omniversum. A beautiful film in which Jane takes us on a journey and lets us experience three hopeful, inspiring stories for a better world. These stories focus on the fact that we can all make a difference for a better world as long as we work together and bring positive change.

In addition, the Museon has an exhibition with more than forty iconic photographs that tell the story of Jane’s fascinating life and her lifelong commitment to animals and nature, with chimpanzees in particular. Her projects in Africa and her hopeful youth program Roots & Shoots. The exhibition was created in collaboration with the Jane Goodall Institute Netherlands.

The film has been awarded the Special Jury Prize at the Jackson Wild 2023 Media Awards.

Click HERE for more info.


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