Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Ngamba Island

Most of us encounter numbers, statistics and percentages on a daily basis but may not realize that small numbers can mean big differences.  Chimpanzees for example differ from humans by only 1.3% of their DNA makeup; small number, big difference starting with the fact that I drive a car and that I’m writing this article.  To learn more about our closest relatives I visited the Ngamba Island chimpanzee sanctuary.

Ngamba Island is 23km from the shores of Entebbe on Lake Victoria and is operated by the Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife Conservation Trust (CSWCT) an NGO formed in 1998 as a conservation effort.  Ngamba Island was purchased to provide a home for rescued chimpanzees and to create awareness of their plight.  There are a number of factors contributing to the decreasing chimpanzee population including human encroachment on their natural habitat, deforestation, consumption of bush meat and the pet trade.

Ngamba Island is 100 acres divided into a 95 acre forest habitat for the chimpanzees and the remaining 5 acres as an eco friendly area for staff, veterinary facilities and guest amenities.  Currently there are 44 chimpanzees that inhabit the sanctuary that have been confiscated either from illegal trading or found being kept as pets.  When confiscated they are generally in bad condition and in need of medical attention.   Before being placed on the island, they are kept in quarantine at the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre for several months and nursed back to health before being moved to Ngamba to become part of a social group of chimpanzees living in a safe environment.  Four recently confiscated chimpanzees are currently in quarantine and will be transported to the island in the coming months.  The sanctuary provides an opportunity for guests to observe the chimpanzees, learn how they are cared for at the facility as well as what is being done to conserve the species in their natural habitat.  Ngamba does not participate in a breeding program but focuses on providing a good life for the rescued chimpanzees while ensuring the survival of the species in the wild through various community projects.

My husband and I plan for an overnight visit to Ngamba.  We leave Kampala early in the morning, drive to Entebbe and board a motorized Ssesse canoe from the jetty at the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre. The trip can also be made with a speedboat to make the journey quicker.  The Ssesse canoe was plenty big for the few of us that were on it and was equipped with life jackets and other safety equipment.  The skies were clear, the sun was shining and the lake was calm making for a very pleasant journey to the island.  During the 1 ½ hour journey we saw fisherman and various species of water birds.  When we arrived on the island we were welcomed by the sanctuary staff that introduced us to the facilities and told us more about the CSWCT and their projects.  The 95 acre forest habitat does not provide enough food for the resident chimpanzees and is therefore supplemented with four meals a day.  Visitors witness the feedings and your length of stay will determine how many feedings you see.  After our orientation to Ngamba it is time to see the 11am feeding.  Together with the caretakers, we walk to the viewing platform where the chimpanzees are already waiting for their meal.
The wooden viewing platform is approximately 3 metres off the ground and is accessed by stairs.  Between the platform and the chimpanzee habitat is a 6 metre electrified fence.  Some guests see this as obtrusive and awkward for photographs, however it is there for guests’ security and safety.  Ngamba Island is all about the experience of having a close encounter with chimpanzees which the viewing platform provides.  Several of the chimpanzees start to make a lot of noise and we realize it is because some of the caretakers are approaching the platform with buckets of food.  The food consisting of various fruits and vegetables is thrown over the fence as we watch them catch it, eat it, squabble with each other over it and collect as much as they can in their hands.  Some are greedier than others and this probably has to do with their status in the hierarchy.  It is fascinating to observe the chimpanzees up close and watch their behaviour and interactions with each other.  The most incredible thing to see was a chimpanzee using a stick to collect food that had fallen just outside of the fence.  Soon after the food is finished, the chimpanzees’ disappear into the forest and although they can no longer been seen, they are often heard.

Since we were overnight guests on the island we were shown to our accommodation, a large canvas tent on a wooden platform, overlooking the lake.  Inside were two single beds, a desk and an en suite bathroom equipped with a self contained marine type toilet and a shower.  There was no running water inside the tent but water was provided in clay vessels and warm water in a flask for hand washing.  Camp showers were available upon request and delivered to the room either hot or cold.  The large partially covered veranda with comfortable chairs was a great place to relax.  The accommodation was clean and comfortable however there were a few things that we noticed that needed some maintenance such as the handrails and the shower pressure.  The tent next to the one we stayed in had been removed for maintenance so it did appear that the issues were recognized and being worked on.  These things didn’t detract from a comfortable night on the island.

We had three meals during our stay from their preset menu.  For lunch we were served pasta Bolognese and fresh fruit.  Dinner was fresh poached tilapia served with cumin rice and carrots followed by banana fritters for dessert.  Breakfast was eggs cooked any style served with sausage, bacon and juice.  Coffee and tea were available all day along with a variety of cold sodas and beer.

The benefit of an overnight stay is that you have the opportunity of more time with the chimpanzees.  We were able to experience the chimpanzees coming back into their enclosure at dusk and receive an evening meal of porridge served in bowls from which they drink.  Once they have finished their porridge they carefully give the bowl back to the caretakers.  This was amazing to watch and experience.  After their evening meal the chimpanzees took handfuls of straw, climbed to the top of their enclosure and made nests inside net hammocks strung from the ceiling and settled in for the night.  In the morning the chimpanzees were eager to get into the forest for the day and we watch as they are released from the enclosure.  After they are let out, the caretakers get to work on cleaning the enclosure and preparing it for their return in the evening.  There are other activities that you can take part in including being a caretaker for a day and an integration walk in the forest with a few selected chimpanzees early in the morning before the others are released.  These both sound like amazing experiences but require proof of specific vaccinations and a health check prior to your arrival on the island.  Check with the CSWCT at the time of booking to confirm requirements and fees for these activities.

In terms of value for money, you will get the best experience by staying overnight resulting in more time with the chimpanzees.  Half day trips may entail more travelling time to and fro than you actually are spending on the island itself so a full day trip may be more worthwhile.  The staff and caretakers are extremely knowledgeable and are able to answer any questions you may have during your visit.  The island is also home to over 130 recorded bird species and a large population of monitor lizards, more than I have ever seen in one place at one time, so it is a worthwhile place to relax and enjoy all that the island has to offer.

Before my visit to Ngamba Island, I knew very little about chimpanzees and had never experienced close observation of them.  I appreciated my time with the chimpanzees, the passionate staff of CSWCT and all that I learned about this endangered species.

Chimpanzee Sanctuary & Wildlife Conservation Trust - CSWCT
+256772221880 or +256414320662

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