Chimps have a complex social life that seems too human to be true. Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, even cousins, all live together playing, grooming, exploring and searching for food. The role of the Alpha Male (or Boss Chimp) is to protect the group and promote harmony amongst members. Dominant males are usually 20 years or older.
In the wild chimpanzees are very good mothers. Families generally share a close bond, and community members show a great deal of interest when an infant is born. Chimpanzees are dependent on their mothers until they are about five years old when they are weaned. Like human children, loving care is vitally important in their first years of life.
Chimpanzees show their feelings with gestures and facial expressions. Individuals groom each other regularly to keep clean and promote long-lasting friendship. Chimps experience all the same emotions as we do – the laugh, show anger and grieve when they lose a friend.
Like human children, chimpanzees love to play! They frequently laugh when playing favourite games such as chase or tickle. At this time they are inquisitive and think quickly, learning or practicing skills they need as they grow. Play sessions between older individuals commence when one approaches with a “play walk” – back rounded, head slightly down and movements exaggerated. One of the two then reaches to thump or tickle the other, and the game begins.
The chimps are fed four times a day as there is not enough food on the island to sustain the number of chimps held here, and visitors can witness this spectacle from a raised viewing platform. In addition, each day, a maximum of three participants may walk through the forest to interact with the chimps. This must be pre-booked and there are many medical, behaviour and other restrictions
Ngamba Island is a 100-acre sanctuary with lush vegetation and many species of food trees. A total of 39 chimps are kept here, and have the run of the majority of the island. Just a small are for visitors is fenced off – as adult chimps can become quite aggressive and have been known to attack humans.
Now considered an endangered species, chimpanzees have long been traded as bush meat or kept as pets and their territory is decreasing as the human population encroaches on the forests throughout the region. There are now thought to be only 3,000 chimpanzees in the wild in Uganda and numbers are reducing. The sanctuary can help educate visitors and local people about these remarkable animals who share 98.4% DNA with humans and the importance of conserving their fragile forest habitat.