Primates are our closest living relatives and with big brains and opposable digits it’s abundantly clear when you see them as to how similar to us they are. Apart from their superb tree climbing ability – I’m very jealous of that. Africa and the Indian Ocean are home to a number of primates with some, such as baboons and monkeys, present in the majority of safari destinations. Others, which some might call the ‘key species’, only exist in a small number of places, but are top of many people’s bucket lists. Among these are: gorillas, chimpanzees and lemurs.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, Uganda
Uganda is home to gorillas in the evocatively named Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park and occasionally in Mgahinga National Park too. Tracking in Bwindi can be tricky with steep paths on ground that is wet and slippery, but all the effort is worthwhile when you get an hour with a gorilla family in their natural environment.
Kyambura Gorge and Kibale National Park, Uganda
Uganda is also home to chimps in both Kyambura Gorge and Kibale National Park. With almost 1,500 chimps resident in Kibale this is Uganda’s largest population. As well as daily tracking, visitors can also join researchers and learn more about their work and the lives of the chimps.
Virunga Mountains, Rwanda
In neighbouring Rwanda, gorillas have made the slopes of the volcanoes of the Virunga Mountains their home. This is where Dian Fossey carried out her research, studies which were immortalised in ‘Gorillas in the Mist’. The gradient here is kinder than in Bwindi and the lower slopes have bamboo forest which allows much more light in – important for keen photographers.
Simien Mountains, Ethiopia
It’s often misty on top of the Simien Mountains, but go for a walk here and the reward might be spending time with a very charismatic species, the gelada baboon. They are sociable creatures that live in large family groups on the high grasslands in Central Ethiopia between 1800 and 4400 metres above sea level. Alone among the true primates, geladas are purely vegetarian, eating mostly grass, and some seeds. They are relaxed with each other and in the presence of humans, and relatively easy to photograph as a result, and their preferred habitat is spectacular too.
Mahale Mountains, Tanzania
While Mahale Mountains chimps are typically found on the ground, this doesn’t always make them easier to watch as they can be very active. You might find them happily sitting and grooming each other peacefully, or there might be a battle for supremacy going on between two males, leading to various groups rushing through the forest. Accompanied by the crash of branches, loud hoots and perhaps even rocks being thrown, it is all tremendously exciting. You’ll be grateful for a return to the shore of Lake Tanganyika and an afternoon snoozing on the beach.
Richard Smith is Operations Director at Aardvark Safaris.