I remember the first time I looked in the eyes of a great ape in the wild. There was an instant connection, a mutual understanding that I was there not to harm her but to observe her. That particular ape was a chimpanzee named Fifi, who had become famous thanks to a story in National Geographic documenting the groundbreaking work of primatologist Jane Goodall. Fifi was lying on her back and using her feet to hold her infant daughter up in the air while she tickled her with her fingers. It was so similar to how human mothers play with their kids that it took my breath away.
This encounter happened at the start of my doctoral research into animal behavior, and I knew right then I wanted to learn everything about how young apes develop. I’ve spent countless hours in the 17 years since watching apes in the wild.
As a primatologist and a National Geographic emerging explorer, I’ve accompanied National Geographic Expeditions to Uganda and Rwanda. A featured stop on these “Great Apes” adventures is one of Africa’s top primate research sites, Uganda’s Kibale Forest National Park, where the staff has habituated a group of wild chimpanzees to the presence of humans.
Led by a guide, we walk quietly into the tropical forest listening for chimp “pant hoots,” calls the animals make to locate one another. Once we hear a hoot, we follow it, and soon it happens—we see wild chimpanzees. They’re curious about us but remain calm. I explain how each chimp is recognizable by individual facial features, size, and fur color. Our guide then shares who is playful, who is dominant, who is serious.
We all are captivated by Kibale’s chimps—but three more parks lie ahead, so soon we’re off to the next, Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park. Framed by the Ruwenzori Mountains, this UNESCO Biosphere Reserve encompasses grasslands, forests, wetlands, and lakes, and is home to more than 90 mammal species. Excursions will include a game drive to spot such classic African animals as antelopes, baboons, and lions (including uncommon tree-climbing lions), and a wildlife-watching cruise along the Kazinga channel, where we’ll view hippos and entire families of elephants.
A week into our trip now, we head to one of the most spectacular parks I’ve visited, Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, where we will see one of the rarest animals in the world, the mountain gorilla. Largest of the great apes, mountain gorillas also are the most endangered: Fewer than a thousand remain.
I always considered myself a “chimp person,” but the instant I spotted a mountain gorilla in the wild, I understood what kept legendary American primatologist Dian Fossey out in the rugged forests of East Africa for so many years. Peering into the eyes of these intelligent apes changes you. Suddenly, it becomes clear how precious these, and the planet’s other wild creatures, are—and how our world would be a much emptier place without them.
“Entering Bwindi can feel like time traveling,” Molly Feltner, a veteran of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, says. “One moment you’re in a landscape dominated by man, the next you’re in a scene from the Mesozoic era. Bwindi’s rain forest, a labyrinth of ferns and trees, envelops you in green.” The plant life is so dense, Feltner notes, that “I’ve heard and smelled more wildlife there than I’ve seen. The big exception is the mountain gorilla. If you’re willing to climb steep hills and wade through damp undergrowth, Bwindi’s habituated mountain gorilla groups will allow you into their world.”
Our final destination is Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, which was made famous by Fossey’s research here with mountain gorillas (supported by the National Geographic Society). We gather at park headquarters and divide into groups assigned to one of ten habituated gorilla families. Each group is taken to the trailhead closest to where its family slept the night before (gorillas make new “nests” nightly), and prepares to hike in. The trek will take up to six hours, but nobody minds; we’re walking in Fossey’s footsteps. Once at the nesting site, we pass our allotted hour mesmerized by the adult gorillas as they eat, rest, and groom while their youngsters romp.
On our return down the mountain, I’ll overhear members of my group exclaim about how huge the silverback male was, how adorable the youngsters were, and, if we saw a baby, how amazing it is that such a tiny thing could grow into a silverback. The relatively little time we have passed in the presence of one of Earth’s rarest and most majestic animals has made us some of the luckiest people in the world.
Go Deep: Guided Safaris Into the Heart of Africa
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This article originally appeared in the April/May 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine. Primatologist Elizabeth Lonsdorf is an assistant professor at Franklin and Marshall College and a National Geographic emerging explorer.