Gazetted as a game reserve in 1945 and made a national park in 1965, Gombe Stream is one of a handful of African national parks that could reasonable claim to be a household name in the west. It is best known for its chimpanzees, or more accurately perhaps for the research in to their behaviour undertaken by the ground-breaking primatologists. Yet, surprisingly, it remains a rather remote and low-key reserve, one whose popularity has diminished in recent decades thanks to a decline in backpackers traffic precipitated by unusually high entrance fee, the introduction of chimp tracking in several Ugandan reserves like Kibale Forest National Park among others, and the eastward shift of popular overland routes following the succession of civil wars in Rwanda, Burundi and DRC. Depite this, Gombe Stream remains a thoroughly worthwhile destination. True, the more southerly Mahale Mountains National Park is much larger, and correspondingly wilder in atmosphere, but Gmbe is the more accessible goal for independent travellers. Furthermore, Mahale Mountains aside, it is difficult to think of anywhere else in Africa that offers an in-your-face encounter with wild chimpanzees as regularly as Gombe Stream — one of the most extraordinary and memorable wildlife experiences our planet has to offer!
FLORA AND FAUNA
Gombe extends over 52 km2 of hilly terrain climbing from the lakeshores, at an elevation of 773 m, to above 1,500 m at the top of the rift escapment. At no point measuring more than 3.5 km from east to west, the narrow national park is bisected by 13 streams that carve steep valley into the rift escarpment before flowing in the lake. This rugged topography is coverd not in the rainforest one might expect of a reserve whose best-known inhabitants are chimpanzees, but rather in thick brachystegia woodland that gives way to narrow belts of lush riparian forest along the river courses. Gombe is most widely associated with a renowned chimpanzee research project that was initiated by Jane Goodall in 1960 and now ranks as the world’s longest running study of the an individual wild animal population. Goodall was originally sponsored by Louis Leakey, an anthropologist and palaeontologist who believed his proteges lack of scientific training would allow her to observe chimpanzee behaviour without preconceptions. After initial difficulties trying to locate her subjects, Goodall overcome the chimps’ shyness through the combination of a banana-feeling machine and sheer persistence. Since the late 1960s Goodall’s work has achieved both popular and scientific recognition. Her painstaking studies of individual chimps and the day-to-day social behaviour of troops have been supplemented by a series of observations confronting conventional scientific wisdom. Observations that initially caused controversy — tool-making, inter-troop warfare and even cannibalism — have since been widely accepted. Much of Goodall’s work is described in her books — In The Shadow Of Man — and Through A Window, which are highly recommended to inrerested readers. Fifi, a three-year-old when Goodall first arrived at Gombe in 1960, was regulary seen by tourists until shortly before her death in 2004.