Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary Experience

Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary
Travel to Uganda and Rwanda is usually focused on gorillas. Since I was arriving early, my travel agent Ian suggested a visit to Ngamba Island’s chimpanzees. The Chimpanzee Trust is focused on caring for orphaned and/or confiscated chimpanzees that can’t be returned to the wild, educating citizens on conservation and building partnerships with organizations working on chimpanzee conservation. Ngamba Island is located on Lake Victoria about a 45 minute boat ride from Entebbe, Uganda. The island includes approximately 95 acres of forest area for the chimpanzees with an additional 5 acres dedicated to the staff. I signed up for the Caretaker Experience that included assisting keepers with preparing meals and other duties. It was right up my alley. I was looking forward to seeing how that compared to my volunteer duties preparing meals at the Feline Section of the Denver Zoo.

Note: The Caretaker Experience is hands on and does not allow much time for taking pictures. It does, however, offer the opportunity to get closer to the chimpanzees, which was my goal.

My sister, Wendy, asked me a week before I left if I had any specific hopes for my trip. One that came immediately to mind was touching a chimpanzee. I’m not sure why that was important, but I really wanted a more intimate connection and there was a possibility, not guaranteed, it might occur during this portion of the trip.

Lilly Ajarova, the Executive Director of the Trust, provided an overview of all the outreach efforts occurring across Uganda in schools and communities. They are changing the narrative on conservation and how it can help individuals and their families. It was a privilege to meet her. She was the first of many people I met who are passionately dedicated to the mission of the organization. Lilly and I both climbed aboard the boat that would carry me to the next big adventure on my trip.

Ngamba Island boat trip

Enos, the chimpanzee caregiver I was assigned to, met me at the dock. After getting settled in my tent, I met Enos at the kitchen ready to help prepare meals for the chimps.

Ngamba Island Kitchen

In Denver at the zoo, I use a butcher knife similar to those in my kitchen. Here, they use large cleavers. The diet includes fruits and vegetables to supplement what the chimpanzees eat in the forest. I have to admit, I was a little concerned I might chop off a finger. Enos was a pro. When it was my turn, I put one hand behind my back and took the first swing with the other. Once I connected with the fruit, I pushed the blade through with both hands. Before long, I was covered in sticky pulp and the buckets were full.

We headed first to the cages where several male chimpanzees waited for their meals. I looked for direction from Enos and he told me to step right up.

“Do I just hand him his food?”

“Yes.”

I picked up an orange, which is actually green, and held it out. The chimpanzee reached through the bars and gently took it from me. His hands were larger, but not so different from mine. In my first few hours, I’d been touched by a chimpanzee and it made me cry. Looking into his eyes and feeling his fingers on my hand even for a moment helped me understand why people like Jane Goodall and the staff members on the island, love them so much.

Ngamba Island Feeding

As I sniffled, I helped feed a couple other males in the cages. Then it was time to head to the electric fence that separated the forest from the public area. The rest of the chimpanzees knew it was feeding time and were waiting, many holding their hands up in the air hoping to catch our attention. I went from tears to laughing. I got into my throwing stance and heaved the food over the fence. Some of those chimps can catch like pro baseball players. It was astonishing and so much fun.

Ngamba Island Feeding Time

They feed the chimpanzees several times during the day. Those not participating in the caretaker experience watch the feedings but don’t get to help.

Ngamba Island

In the evening, the chimpanzees from the forest come into the compound to sleep in the cages. They can choose whether to stay out or come in, but those who come in are provided warm porridge and cabbage for dinner. Chimpanzees in the wild build nests each night. The limited forest area on the island cannot recover quick enough to support that level of destruction. The chimps who sleep in the cages are provided hammocks and they seem very comfortable. It requires all hands on deck to safely direct the chimpanzees through the chutes and into the right cages.

Ngamba island Night Shelter

Once those that wanted to come in were housed, it was dinner time. The staff was careful to direct me to the chimpanzees that I could help feed. The majority may not be so comfortable with strangers and they wanted to keep both the chimps and I safe. Safety is a high priority on Ngamba Island. I found that out before I even arrived. In order to be in a caretaker role, I needed ten different tests and vaccinations to ensure I wouldn’t be a danger to the chimpanzees.

Just as I was thinking the day couldn’t get any better…

Feeding Eazy

I got to feed 2 1/2 year old Eazy his porridge as he held my hand. That’s his mom beside him. Special thanks to David, from a visiting film crew, who took this photo for me.

The film crew was working on a documentary about chimpanzees and technology. They had iPads with strong plastic cases for the chimps to use. Apparently, the first thing chimps do with something they aren’t familiar with is to bite it. I didn’t get to watch any of the filming, but I did have dinner, laughs and lots of champagne with the filmmakers. I can’t wait to see how the documentary turns out. It may be on Discovery or BBC next year.

After an incredible day, I headed back to my tent, watching thousands of bats heading out for the night from my front porch. Perfect time for me to be inside.

Accommodations at Ngamba Island

Yes. There is a full bathroom and shower in the back area. Life is good.

In the morning, the chimpanzees were released into the forest and cleaning duties commenced.

Cleaning at Ngamba Island

Did I tell you I loved every minute? I did, even cleaning up after the chimpanzees.

And, not to overlook my favorite bird lovers, check out the view from my front porch.

There are lots of beautiful birds on Ngamba Island. I wish I could have spent another day photographing them.

The Caretaker Experience on the island is only for 24 hours, but I was able to make the most of every minute. For people who are interested in a more in-depth experience with the staff and chimpanzees, the Trust offers opportunities to volunteer for weeks at a time.

Special thanks to Enos, Joseph and Lilly who made my 24 hours unforgettable. I highly recommend visiting Ngamba Island for those traveling to Uganda. There is no way I can ever take pictures or put into words what this visit meant to me. I still get teary eyed just thinking about it. What a privilege.

My Uganda Itinerary Comes to Life

Planning was complete. All my work to get in shape for the gorilla trek was done. I’d gone over the itinerary online and in booklet form at least a dozen times and had sought insight from a friend who had done a similar trip several years ago. Still, I know from experience, that there is no way to totally prepare. There’s excitement and, yes, a little fear. It was finally here.

After three flights, I located my bags and officially entered Uganda. It’s always a relief to arrive at an unfamiliar destination, find all your luggage has arrived and know someone is there to provide safe transportation to your lodging. I’d arrived several days before the official tour began so I could get over my jet lag and add some wonderful solo adventures on the front end. The Boma in Entebbe provided lodging for the first few days. My room was elegant and comfortable. I settled in for what I hoped would be some decent sleep.

I was up early and had a wonderful breakfast, with bacon. Yum!

Uganda Breakfast

I studied my map so I’d know where I was going prior to leaving the hotel, hoping I wouldn’t look so touristy. Ha! As if being the only person dressed in safari gear carrying a sling bag didn’t scream tourist. Still, I was confident in my direction and plan. Today’s adventure included a visit to UWEC, the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre. The roadway was very busy with lots of motorbikes and cars. Motorbikes seem to be the primary mode of transportation and function as taxis. After watching all the near misses, I was really glad to be on foot.

I crossed the street to continue on my way and ended up walking near a group of children, one who immediately ran up and took my hand. She was about eight years old with a big smile on her face. We didn’t speak the same language but we laughed and walked together for a block or two. It was one of the special moments of my first day in Uganda. Not long after, a young man named Patrick joined me, hoping to be my tour guide. He was very friendly and knowledgable. Patrick works at the local golf club and is an amateur golfer.

The Uganda Wildlife Education Centre was established to provide a home for animals who have been confiscated from the pet trade or are otherwise unable to go back to the wild. Samuel volunteered to show Patrick and I around the property. He is fascinating and so passionate about the organization and each of the animals who make it home. The Centre received help from the Bronx Zoo in setting up the yards so that they were as animal friendly as possible. Samuel helped with some of the construction and volunteers his time to educate visitors. He knows the animals by name and they respond to him.

Uganda Wildlife Education Centre

Not only did Samuel have a way with the animals, but the children loved him as well.

Samuel at Uganda Wildlife Education Centre

Uganda Wildlife Education Centre

Uganda Wildlife Education Centre

Samuel had thrown this chimpanzee some food and the chimp used a stick to get the food close enough to grab out of the water.

Uganda Wildlife Education Centre

I enjoyed visiting the centre. Samuel was such a great example of how a guide can enhance a visitor’s experience. As a volunteer guide at the Denver Zoo myself, I learned so much from him. Thanks Samuel!

Just as I was getting ready to leave, three small children entered the zoo with their mom. They ran right up to me and held my hand with big smiles on their faces. I was so touched, it brought tears to my eyes. They were beautiful and so happy.

Uganda children

Patrick made sure I made it back to my hotel safely, with more good conversation along the way. If you are interested in a guide to see you around Entebbe, he’s the one.

My first day in Uganda far exceeded expectations. As you all know, I love wildlife and new adventures, but I find that the people make it extra special. From the smiling children to my knowledgable and friendly guides, I had hit the jackpot. And…after 19,000+ steps, I enjoyed my gin and tonic (an African tradition), a steak and a good night’s sleep.