Should you do the Habituation or the Trekking Experience in Uganda?
On our recent trip to Uganda we booked an itinerary that included several primate experiences, along with some additional safari game drives. While we had an amazing time, one thing that tripped us up was that we didn’t fully appreciate what primate habituation experiences were.
We chose an itinerary that had three separate habituation experiences. They were for the chimpanzees in Kibali National Park, the mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and the Golden Monkeys in Mgahinga National Park.
Our Decision Making Process
I’ll be honest with you, we didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the Chimpanzee and Golden Monkey experiences. The main thing we focused on was the Gorilla experience. Our tour company’s marketing spiel made it sound like the Gorilla habituation experience was just a bigger and better version of the standard trekking experience.
We basically decided that the key difference was that the habituation gave you four hours guaranteed with the gorillas while the standard trekking gave you only one hour. Of course the habituation experience was double the price, so in our minds we were simply making a call on how much time we wanted to spend with the Gorillas. In the end I decided that as we probably wouldn’t be doing it again we might as well spend a bit more and get some quality time with the them.
Because we chose the tour company’s standard habituation experience itinerary without customising it, this meant that we were also booked in for the habituation experiences with the Chimps and Golden Monkeys. But as the price differences for them were quite a lot less, it didn’t really affect our decision making that much. In hindsight this was a bit of a mistake as I’ll explain later.
So What is a Habituation Experience?
Wild animals are naturally wary of humans. This includes primates such as Gorillas, Chimpanzees and monkeys. If you approach them they will typically move away, unless threatened or cornered in which case they may charge or attack you.
Habituation is the process of getting a group of primates used to being around people, to the point where they won’t run away and can be quietly observed from a distance. Habituation is important if scientists want to observe those primates and learn about them and it’s important if tourists want to get close enough to watch them as well.
In Uganda the government offers two different types of primate trekking permits. One is the standard trekking permit that most tourists purchase. This will let you trek with a guide to see a habituated family of primates. The other is a habituation permit where you will visit a group that is currently undergoing habituation.
The idea with the habituation experience is that you will learn more about how the primates are tracked and monitored, as well as how they are habituated. They will also behave a bit more normally than habituated primates. Depending on their level of habituation they will either run away when they see you or they will look at you curiously from a safe distance.
All of the groups that we visited had been undergoing habituation for several months. Habituation takes a long time. To build trust, the researchers and trackers need to visit the groups every day without fail, regardless of whether there are tourists tagging along. If the groups don’t see and hear people for a while, they’ll quickly regress to being shy again.
So how does habituation trekking differ from standard trekking?
I think the best way to explain how habituation trekking differs from standard trekking is to describe our three habituation experiences and how they might have been different if we’d done the standard trekking. I say “might have” because as we’ll see their are a lot of other variables in play that can affect how your particular experience turns out. We’re dealing with wild animals after all and they play by their own rulebooks!
Our Chimpanzee Habituation Experience
We did our Chimpanzee habituation experience in Kibali National Park. This is a beautiful rainforest. We started at around 7.30 in the morning. This is the first thing that’s different from the standard trekking. You start earlier because you need to find the Chimps. With standard trekking the trackers have gone out already and found the Chimps and your guide just leads you straight there. In our case however it seemed like the trackers had actually gone out ahead, because they were already in the forest.
We found the Chimps after about an hour of fairly easy trekking, mostly along well worn trails. However the Chimps were high up in the trees and were pretty hard to spot, let alone photograph. Still it was pretty cool to see them.
We learnt from our guide that although Chimps live in large communities of around 200 members, the communities are spread out over a large territory. Chimps in the community normally live in small groups of three or four and the community only really comes together for defence or when they go hunting for meat together.
We also learnt and soon noticed that Chimps move really fast through the forest. They are really hard to keep up with as they swing around through the trees. If the Chimps are not habituated, or only partially habituated, this makes them really difficult to photograph.
The Chimps that we visited either stayed high up in the trees feeding or when they came to the ground they ran around so quickly that it was impossible to photograph them. We kept following their trail through thicker and thicker forest but to be honest it was rather pointless. In the end they entered a part of the forest that was so dense that we called it off and headed home.
A Rather Disappointing Day
As much as we’d enjoyed hiking in the forest, we were pretty disappointed with the day. The itinerary had made it sound like we’d spend large amounts of the day in the presence of Chimps, watching them go about their daily life. In reality, Chimps that are not habituated are very hard to watch and even harder to photograph.
We met another couple at our lodge who had done the habituation experience. Their guide had actually offered to take them to see a fully habituated Chimp community when they failed to see much in the non-habituated group. That turned out to be an amazing experience for them. Unfortunately our guide didn’t offer this to us.
We were pretty disappointed with the Chimp experience, but what got us really worried and annoyed was that the guide said that none of the habituation experiences were good for photography and that it was all just marketing. Given that we had forked out a very large amount of money for our Gorilla habituation experience, this didn’t bode well. We hurriedly fired off a “please explain” email to our tour company.
Our Gorilla Habituation Experience
Our tour company assured us that the Gorilla habituation experience would be better than the Chimps because Gorillas move a lot slower than Chimps and because the family we’d be visiting was partially habituated. As it turned out this was pretty much true.
Our Gorilla habituation experience in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park was also closer to what the marketing spiel on our itinerary had promised. We left early on the morning with a full team of trackers, security personnel (guys with guns to protect against charging elephants and buffalo) and our guides.
Once we entered the forest, we hiked to where the trackers had last seen the Gorillas on the previous day. We then followed the family’s trail to where they’d made their nests for the night. Tracking Gorillas seemed a lot easier than tracking Chimps because they mainly move along the ground and the huge silverback leaves a wide trail. Of course, given that I didn’t have to do any of the tracking I’m probably making it sound a lot easier than it actually is!
Once we found the nests it was only a short walk to where the Gorilla family was. Gorillas definitely don’t move fast, unless they’re being chased.
However, our initial excitement at finding the Gorillas quickly dissipated when we realised that they were all high up in the trees around us, too far away to photograph. We had flashbacks to our Chimp experience and began to get worried that this might just turn into a much more costlier version.
Coming Down from the Trees
But our guides assured us that the gorillas would come down to the ground shortly and it turns out they were spot on. Within about ten to fifteen minutes they all came down to the ground. The most impressive moment was when the huge silverback head of the family came down from his tree. At his size I’m amazed that he even managed to climb it in the first place!
It turned out that out of the 8 gorillas in this family, four of them were happy enough to be around us. The family consisted of the silverback, 5 female gorillas and two infants. The silverback and one of the females had previously been in families that were fully habituated. They were totally comfortable with us being around. In fact, on several occasions, they both walked right past us, just a few feet away. The silverback always made sure that the infants were close behind him though, he never let his guard down.
The other female that came close was more cautious and at one point when she wanted to pass by she gave a warning grunt and we backed off. Apart from that she was pretty happy being near us. We didn’t however see the other three females at all. They were just off in the bushes somewhere. Of the two infants, the male was less shy than the female, who kept pretty well out of sight. The male tried to show us how strong he was on a few occasions by beating his chest, which was really cute. He was pretty happy to feed nearby but he followed his dad pretty closely.
Watching and Observing
At around midday the family took a break from feeding and huddled together under some thickets to rest for an hour or so. The two babies cuddled up to the silverback. One of the females crept over and timidly began to preen the huge male.
Another female managed to get lost for a few minutes trying to find the rest of the family. She cried out trying to get a response from the silverback but he left her hanging for a while until he finally grunted a reply. She sounded so sad but our guide told us she could have easily tracked them down through their scent if she’d wanted to.
The family started moving again shortly after and moved into some thicker forest where it would be hard to follow. We decided to let them be and went and had lunch before heading off home. That turned out to be a wise decision because it began to rain not long afterwards.
All in all, our gorilla habituation experience turned out great. It was an incredible experience just watching these beautiful creatures and we were able to take some fantastic photos.
Our Golden Monkey Habituation Experience
We did our Golden Monkey Habituation Experience in Mgahinga National Park. This is a beautiful national park that is a lot smaller than Bwindi where we did the gorilla trekking. You can also do the gorilla trekking in Mgahinga although there is only one habituated family that you can visit and they do not offer the habituation trekking experience.
We were on our own for the Golden Monkey habituation experience, well if you don’t include the guide, head tracker and two riflemen who came with us. The riflemen are needed to handle any wild elephants or buffalos that you come across. However they rarely need to fire a warning shot and we didn’t see either animal on our trek.
We started bright and early again at around 7am. It didn’t take too long to reach the Golden Monkey community, although the ground was rather wet and muddy. Along the way we had a beautiful mountain backdrop, so it was a lovely walk.
Our guides were quick to locate the Golden Monkeys but the problem was that being non-habituated, they were very shy and chose to stay well up in the trees in the distance. Like the Chimps, they also move very fast through the trees. That being said, there were tens of them and we could see them swinging around in the trees. We just couldn’t take any photos.
Camera Shy Monkeys
We spent the next few hours trying to follow the monkeys and get close enough to take some photos. The guides were admirably persistent in trying to get us photos. In fact we probably would have given up earlier ourselves if they hadn’t been trying so hard for us.
We chased the monkeys up and down through the forest. It was not particularly strenuous, although parts of it were muddy and slippery. We did have to contend with giant stinging nettles though which added an extra element of trickiness.
Finally we managed to catch them moving through a clearing where we could get some photos of them. However they were still too far away to get quality photos without a larger zoom. The monkeys seemed very shy, except for some of the dominant males who would stop and stare at us curiously from high up in the trees.
Our guides mentioned that this group was semi-habituated. If they hadn’t been we wouldn’t have seen them at all since they would have kept well away. The guides also mentioned that the fully habituated group will come up very close to you and are very curious. However this takes years of visiting them. If you do the standard trekking to the Golden Monkeys you should be able get good photos of them.
Are the Habituation Experiences Worth it?
That’s a quick summary of our three experiences with doing the habituation trekking. So was it worth it?
In then end although we enjoyed trekking in all three national parks (they are all beautiful, tranquil places) and we enjoyed learning about each of the primates, we really only loved the Gorilla experience. We didn’t feel that the habituation experience for the Chimps or Golden Monkeys was worth the amount we paid for them.
With the benefit of hindsight, if we had our time again we’d do the standard trekking experiences for the Chimps and Golden Monkeys so that we could get closer to them and get some decent photos. Whilst it’s nice to see how non-habituated groups behave, unless you’re really into watching them in the wild and tracking them, I don’t think the extra cost is worth it; especially since you’ll probably see less of them.
However we did feel that the gorilla habituation experience was worth the extra money because we really had plenty of time with the family and because gorillas are a lot easier to follow once you find them. Although this might have been a different story if two of the gorillas had not come from a previously habituated family.
Which trekking is more ethical?
Although we think that visiting habituated groups for the Chimps and Golden Monkeys is a better option for actually seeing and photographing them, there’s absolutely the question of whether it’s the best option for the animals themselves.
We didn’t see or hear anything that made us think that habituation had gone too far for these primates but that’s probably because we didn’t visit any of the habituated groups.
Are Gorillas Being Over-habituated?
We did hear some stories about the habituated Gorilla families that made us question whether some of the families were becoming too familiar with tourists. For example one of the families has a young male who loves to come up to tourists (specifically tourists, he doesn’t care about the rangers). He doesn’t mean any harm but on one tour he pushed a female tourist up against a tree while checking her out. The problem with this is that the Gorillas don’t know their own strength and this sort of action could easily injure someone.
The other more common story we heard about is of young Gorillas stealing peoples cameras out of curiosity, usually returning them a short time later with the addition of bite marks! This is probably less of a concern.
No Easy Answers
One downside of primates getting too habituated is that because they are less afraid of people, they will be less likely to run from poachers. The flip side of this of course is that letting tourists get close to them injects valuable money into the local community, rallying them behind preserving these beautiful creatures and dissuading them from engaging in poaching.
So there’s no easy answer to this question but it’s important to note that not all of the primates are undergoing habituation. The government is leaving several groups to roam wild, which is probably a good thing.
Other Things to Consider About Trekking
Here’s a few other tips that we learned from speaking to others who did similar treks, as well as from our own experiences.
- The tour guide you get makes a difference. Some tour guides will go out of their way to make sure you have a good experience and others won’t.
- You’re dealing with wild animals and anything can happen. For example we met one poor Canadian guy whose Gorilla trekking consisted of several hours of following a family up and down the mountain before he finally had about 15 minutes to observe them and take photos. It turned out the family was being chased by a younger male Gorilla who wanted to fight the silverback for dominance.
- The difficulty of your trekking will vary depending on which group you are visiting. For example some Gorilla families in Bwindi have a home range that is in a much steeper part of the jungle than others. If you happen to visit one of these families, you may have a lot of tiring trekking.
The weather is also unpredictable and very changeable. Given that you will likely only have one shot at the trekking, it’s possible that you will have torrential rain for the whole day. If that happens you may not see much of the primates either as they hide in the thickets.
So you can see that there are plenty of other factors that can effect your experiences, not just whether the animals are habituated or not. That’s nature for you!
Tips for your trekking or habituation experiences
- Bring a lot of water, it can last a whole day and you’ll need it chasing the primates in the forest. Bring at least 3 litres per person.
- Wear long sleeves and long pants to avoid stinging nettles, branches, insects and anything else that could hurt your skin in the jungle. You should also layer up because mornings can be chilly in the mountains. In terms of pants, make sure they are loose, not tight, or the ants will still manage to get you!
- Bring a packed lunch with you. You will normally sit down and eat during your trek.
- Bring insect repellent, a hat and sunscreen.
- Don’t forget a rain jacket, it can rain especially in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
Accommodation in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
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