Adventure vehicle driving through water
Andy Cochrane

Searching for the Lost Chimpanzees of Kyambura Gorge

Seeking an endangered family of chimps in Uganda’s sunken forest of Kyambura Gorge: a misadventure with a greater mission.

Wading through murky, thigh-high water, I follow our tracker with careful precision, trying not to disturb the group of 6,000-pound hippos we spotted a minute earlier. The river channel in this section of the lower Kyambura Gorge was wider, and therefore slower moving, which made it a great hangout for these large—and often deadly—animals.

Despite their size, hippos are remarkably good at blending into their environment, submerging their bodies so just their eyes and snout poke above the surface. To make it more challenging, the water around us was loaded with dirt and clay runoff, a byproduct of weeks of flooding, which made it impossible to see anything below the surface. Locals later told us it was the wettest rainy season in 15 years.

Hippos just under surface of water
Andy Cochrane

A dozen steps farther and our tracker—a ranger with the Uganda Wildlife Authority—signaled for us to stop. We stood silent for perhaps 20 seconds, before he shook his head and slapped the water with his walking stick, a simple and effective way to keep the hippos at a distance. Not a second later, we heard our first chimp scream, easily distinguishable from the chorus of birds echoing in the canopy. That gave us a sliver of hope that we may actually find them that day.

A Few Hours Later

“There’s an inherent conflict between conservation and high concentrations of humans,” says Praveen Moman, a native Ugandan of Indian descent who’s spent the last quarter-century walking a tightrope between the two. “This area, the Albertine Rift, is one of the richest areas of biodiversity in the world. It’s also one of the most densely populated areas on the continent.”

The Rift is famous for gorilla trekking, Nile boat tours, and 4×4 safaris to see lions and tree-climbing leopards, but I was here for another reason: to visit the ancient Kyambura Gorge, a lesser-known gem in Queen Elizabeth National Park, sometimes called the “Valley of the Apes.” I wanted to search for an endangered group of 34 chimpanzees that live in the gorge while they were still here.

Lodge in rain forest
Andy Cochrane

Sitting on the patio at Kyambura Gorge Lodge with a fresh set of dry clothes, I took in the view. Perched high on a hill, miles of open savannah sprawled in front of us, dotted with acacia trees and little sign of human life. This wasn’t a coincidence. Moman had gradually purchased this land, parcel by parcel, to create a 4-km “buffer zone” around the gorge to keep humans a safe distance away. On the horizon, the Rwenzori Range, or the Mountains of the Moon, were barely visible in the haze.

Lodge porch at dusk
Andy Cochrane

Moman is the founder of Volcanoes Safaris, a collection of four luxury lodges in Rwanda and Uganda, and Volcanoes Safaris Partnership Trust, a non-profit that works to rewild key wilderness areas left in the region. To some, this will sound contradictory: Why bring more humans to places that likely need fewer? Moman believes sustainable tourism is the solution to big conservation problems, including survival of the great apes. A steady revenue stream would fortify conservation efforts in the long run.

Valley of the Apes

At the base of the hill lies the Kyambura wetland, which feeds into the gorge itself. The gorge isn’t large—just 10-km long, 1-km wide, and 100-m high—but big enough for stable populations of elephant, hippo, baboons, monkeys, and a small family of chimps to call it home. Inside is a dense sunken forest that’s typically hidden from view, unless you sit at a vantage point like ours. After hiking in the gorge all morning, I knew it was a world unto itself.

When Moman first visited the area with this family in the 1950s, the Rift had the highest collection of large animals in all of Africa. By the mid-1980s, it had lost nearly all of its biomass, due to ivory poaching and an ongoing civil war in Uganda. However, over the last three decades many populations have started to recover, depending on the conditions, home ecosystem and, most of all, impact of nearby humans.

Aerial view of jungle
Andy Cochrane

The Kyambura Gorge is a good example, with a small group of chimps cut off from the rest of the jungle by human development and deforestation. Without a safe migration path, the apes are unable to visit neighboring communities to mate, and have become endangered. “The gorge is isolated and the chimp gene pool is very small,” said Moman, who opened the Kyambura Lodge in 2011 to drive visitation numbers, increase economic benefit for the community, and awareness of the issue at large.

To make it worse, poaching and human-ape conflict is on the rise. The Rift is one of the poorest places in Africa; most households make less than a dollar a day. People who live adjacent to the gorge often use it for firewood for cooking, while relying on small plots of land for subsistence farming. One of the lodge’s biggest challenges is finding ways to work with the community as part of the solution, not the problem.

African village as seen through the back of a Land Rover
Andy Cochrane

Nothing Good Comes Easy

Earlier that morning, just getting to the gorge proved harder than expected. Leaving the lodge at 7:30 am, we drive a few miles on tarmac before turning onto a dirt road that leads into the park. Only a few miles long, this should have been a forgettable few minutes of my life. However, with heavy rains, the road had devolved into a rutted, nearly impassable mud pit, even for our lifted Land Rover Defenders.

After getting stuck twice and pushing the truck out, we arrived at the rim of the gorge an hour and half later than expected. This was foreshadowing for the hike to come. Unlike our treks to golden monkeys and mountain gorillas, Uganda’s larger eco-tourism efforts, chimp trekking is different.

With gorillas, dozens of trackers head into the park at sunrise to search out the group and radio their location to the guides before clients arrive. For this chimp trek, we were the trackers, going into the gorge nearly blind.

We followed our tracker single file, descending a steep, slick trail into the gorge, holding onto branches for stability. He carried a rifle over his shoulder, in case of closer encounters with hippo or elephant, but reassured us that he had rarely needed it. Chimps travel on ground when searching for food, but spend most of their time in the trees, safe from predators. When it floods, they rarely come down.

African village as seen through the back of a Land Rover
Andy Cochrane

Last Piece of the Puzzle

After two hours of hiking through deep mud, thick jungle, and murky water, we hadn’t heard a single call. Suffice to say, hope was fading. We had spotted more than a dozen hippos and at least as many birds, but no chimps. I started to wonder if this was Africa’s version of a wild goose chase.

In the end, despite hearing the chimps a handful of times, we never actually saw them, likely because of the flooding. A little disappointed, I walked back to the truck in silence, wondering if the trip was worth it. But in our failed search was an important lesson: These are wild animals fighting to survive. And with very few left, they can’t take chances, especially with the river raging and food being scarce.

This isn’t news to Moman, who—in 2019—launched the Kyambura Gorge Eco-Tourism project, a collection of efforts aimed at safeguarding the gorge ecosystem. Their next big conservation goal is to build a forest “bridge” to nearby swaths of jungle, 12 or more kilometers away, by planting seedlings along the entire path. This is the final piece of a decade-long effort by the Volcanoes Safaris Partnership Trust to help save the chimpanzees in the gorge.

Moman calls this migration corridor the “next piece of the puzzle.”

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