Mark Fernley's first trip to Photograph the wild Chimps

Updated: Oct 19, 2020

Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) range across the tropics of Africa and inhabit the dense rainforest of the dry Savannah woodland from West Africa to Uganda and Tanzania in the east. These common Chimpanzees, along with the infamous Bonobo are the closest living relatives to the human. Much like us these species are highly intelligent and have incredible complex and social structures combined with the ability to use tools to make day to day tasks easier as do we humans. Many studies have shown they are altruistic, plan for the future and have a grasp of basic numeracy. They live in hierarchical social groups of up to 150 individuals, held together by the strong bonds between male chimpanzees. Smaller, lower-ranking males will form coalitions and will work together to depose a stronger male. Large groups of Chimps will fight other unknown groups and have been documented to kill one another over territorial conflict particularly in the Ugandan forest where I am at present.

To make foraging far easier the Chimp has been well known to create tools from sticks and broken roots along with chipped rock. This is very much like human behaviour, creating a way to make a task easier in day to day life. Along with this fascinating technique, they also maintain a complex cognitive map of their territory. They use this to repetitively find food on a daily basis: fruit, insects, eggs and meat are typical examples.

The Story

My journey began in Entebbe, Uganda and I made my way to one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet, Kibale Rainforest, home to a most fascinating species, the Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes), a great ape native to the forests and savannahs of tropical Africa. So I travelled from Entebbe to a small town called Fort Portal, and then found myself making my way to the Kibale Rainforest. It is a dense, hot place. I would get up early and trek the rainforest floor. Having worked and spent much time in the Amazon Rainforest however, I noticed that this forest was more open and at an altitude of 1590m it was clearly more suitable as a home for these large primates such as the Black-and-white Colobuses monkey, the Grey-cheeked Mangabey and the Olive Baboon. As they roamed the forest in search of fruits and leaves, I continued my search for the larger primates.

After three days of searching, my guide and I were in luck finally spotting a group of Chimpanzees resting on the forest floor. The group was highly social and interactive with one another. With an AK47 at our side to fire in the air to make a loud noise if charged, we managed to get to a safe distance. I got on all fours with my Canon backup 80D and 150-600mm Sigma lens made my way towards the chimps. Slowly I crept forward my lens held in one hand seemed heavier than normal. I began to get shots of the group interacting with each other; grooming and playing and capturing a body language made me feel accepted in the group. As the lighting was low under the canopy, a common problem in this environment, one we wildlife photographers have to deal with, I had to increase the ISO. This was to increase the sensitivity of the sensor, a more sensitive sensor thus brings in more light as a long shutter speed was not possible and my aperture was the lowest I felt was acceptable. With slight grain peeking through I wished I’d had my Canon 5D Mk 4 with me to benefit from its ISO capabilities.

What astonished me was how the large male kept on coming up to me and challenging me. He would open his mouth and proudly show his teeth to me as a warning. This was also done I felt to impress the others in his group; he must have been was the brave alpha male. Unfortunately he was about 1m away from my lens so I could not capture an image of him in fish eye, now that would have looked stunning! The entire experience lying close to this large male was overwhelming, the smell of his fur, and the sound of his heavy yet soft breathing. One shot in particular that I captured was of a very small chimp that was climbing on the back of its mother as the group was heading away. With the 150-600mm connected to my available Canon 80D and with the shutter speed at 1/250th of a second, F-stop at 5.6 and to compensate for the lack of light an ISO at a high 1600, the image came out mildly grainy due to the low light of the forest. Trying to face this alpha-male that was staring me down was truly a challenge.

Later the group moved on and we found that they were going to feed in another location near the river. I grabbed my gear and we followed them all the way to a large tree that had grown overlooking the chimps resting location. One male that stood out to me was a specific individual that that I named Gandalf. I gave the photograph the title “You shall not pass”, the individual being captured holding a stick almost like a staff just like the scene in the movie The Lord of The Rings. With the large group surrounding us but at distance, I began to get more photographs of each chimp in their own specific and individual way.

One memorable photograph was of a male Chimpanzee, a close up. The image captured was of its head. There was a depth of contrast, which emphasised such drama and the hard, fragile life that these chimps endure in this vast rainforest here in Uganda. The lighting was dark because the forest was dense, this could be tricky, not allowing my camera’s sensor to do its job. However, with my Canon’s ISO at 1600 managed to obtain the best image I could with my shutter speed at a 1/125 of a second. The image was clear and sharp. These close ups enabled me to study facial movements and expressions of each chimp. Their expressions seemed to impact on me more than the other feeding animals such as Baboons! Fascinating! So many expressions! So Human! What a stunning species of primate!

Written by Mark A Fernley