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Chimpanzee Trekking in Tanzania

By Rachel Nash

Posted: 5th August 2014 15:31

Africa is unrivalled for its natural beauty and its diverse range of wildlife.  Its biological wonders have attracted students, researchers and tourists for decades, all seeking a once in a lifetime opportunity to get close to the continent’s rare and magnificent creatures.  Despite being the subject of such close scrutiny and attention, the continent continues to unearth some natural gems that are becoming increasingly popular with those seeking a true face to face encounter with animals they would not get the chance to see anywhere else in the world.  At the forefront of this new wildlife boom is East Africa’s largest country, Tanzania, and in particular its world famous population of chimpanzees. 

The Story of the Chimpanzees

Fascination with Africa’s chimp population quite possibly derives from their close relationship to humans.  Along with gorillas and orangutans, chimpanzees and humans are members of the Hominidae family, with chimps splitting from the human branch of the family around 4 to 6 million years ago.  As such, chimpanzees are the closest living relatives to human beings.  Africans have been in contact with chimps for millennia, but it was not until the 17th Century that Europeans first came face to face with their distant cousin.  Little was known about chimpanzee behaviour until the 1960s, when Tanzania came to the fore as an important centre of research into these familiar yet mysterious creatures.  Jane Goodall, the British researcher, journeyed to the country’s Gombe forest to live among the chimp population and went on to make a number of ground breaking discoveries.  Over 50 years later, Tanzania continues to thrive as the most important and popular location for catching a glimpse of one of the world’s most fascinating creatures.    

The Tanzanian Chimpanzee Experience

Chimp trekking in Tanzania is unlike any other safari or wildlife tour you are likely to experience anywhere else on earth.  Walking through the tangled vines and steep slopes of the Tanzanian national parks is far removed from the vast open plains of the Serengeti, and the constant beat of the sun is prevented by the protective shade of the towering tree canopy.  The unique landscape of the county’s rainforest creates a dark and sometimes eerie atmosphere that is perfectly suited to the intimate nature of a chimpanzee trek.  Expert guides skilfully track the chimps, meaning that a trek usually lasts only one or two hours and leaves you in a remarkable position to witness first-hand the social interactions of these magnificent creatures.  The majority of chimps are comfortable around human beings, meaning there is a good chance you will come within a few feet of each other and be able to return their enquiring gaze.  The gestures, sounds and expressions of the chimps will quickly reveal the subtleties of the different relationships within the group: the powerbrokers, the celebrities, the supporting characters.  If you are lucky enough, you may even hear the laughter of younger chimps as they play together in a remarkably human way.  A Tanzanian chimp trek is a profound and thought provoking experience that takes you straight to the heart of human history, bringing together human beings with their closest and most recognisable relative.   

Where to Trek

The shores of Lake Tanganyika, the world’s longest freshwater lake, provide two of the top locations for chimpanzee trekking in Africa.  Gombe Stream National Park – the site specifically chosen by Jane Goodall in 1960 for her pioneering study into the lives of chimps in their natural habitat – remains the smallest national park in Tanzania, covering only 20 square miles.  Its terrain is marked by deep valleys and the forest vegetation ranges from grassland to alpine bamboo and tropical rainforest.  The park can only be reached by boat and offers a number of activities alongside chimpanzee trekking, including hiking, swimming, snorkelling, and a chance to visit the famous site where Henry Stanley met Doctor Livingstone.  Around 80 miles south of Gombe is the larger but lesser-known Mahale Mountains National Park, home to a population of around 800 chimpanzees.  This stunning location, with rivers cascading down from mountain tops and a mosaic of overlapping rainforest providing cover for various species of birds and mammals, is the perfect setting for a magical chimpanzee trek.  Accessible only by boat, Mahale provides a secluded and tranquil environment for this once in a lifetime experience.