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Budongo Trail at Edinburgh Zoo: Chimpanzee Conservation, Research, and Fun

We’ve said it many times before- we are truly thankful for the fact that we live in the same city as Edinburgh Zoo, and our membership has been a saving grace for us as we navigated through this difficult past year. Being able to enjoy fresh air, wide-open spaces and amazing animals truly helped (and continues to help) our mental and physical health (the Zoo is on a hill which offers incredible views but also a nice workout. You can read more about Edinburgh Zoo here). One of our favourite places at the Zoo is Budongo Trail which is home to a fascinating troop of chimpanzees. Their interactions are filled with personality, rambunctiousness, heart, and soul- we could literally spend an entire day just watching them. Therefore, this week, we would like to give a particular ‘shout-out’ to the Budongo Trail chimpanzees, introduce them to you, and let you know about the great work being done on their behalf.

I studied anthropology at university and was fortunate that my programme applied a four-field approach. This means that I took courses in biological anthropology which included studying primates (primatology). Some of my favourite aspects of this involved learning about chimpanzees. From the get-go, I was completely taken with their abilities, expressive nature, and the communities they form. While I eventually focused my post-graduate studies in cultural anthropology, my love for all fields of anthropology- specifically primatology- has not wavered. Therefore, I am quite happy to have regular access to Edinburgh Zoo and their world-class research centre- Budongo Trail.

Budongo Trail at Edinburgh Zoo

We are strong advocates for animal conservation, and Edinburgh Zoo excels in that arena. They are part of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) family which (among many other projects) provides direct funding for chimpanzee research in the field (more on that in just a moment). At the Zoo itself, is the Budongo Trail complex. It is a wonderful place for visitors as they can learn more about chimpanzees in a variety of ways. As soon as you enter the building, you can observe the Budongo Research Unit, where researchers work directly with the chimpanzees.

Working in partnership with St Andrews University, the Budongo Research Unit offers students the opportunity to conduct crucial research with participation by the chimps being strictly voluntary. The researchers observe the chimps take part in activities such as solving different types of puzzles, investigating new objects, or interacting with others in the troop. Speaking of the troop, as you move upstairs, you can see an array of windows throughout the first floor that provide a fascinating peek into chimpanzee life at Budongo Trail.

Let me tell you, these chimps have an impressive set-up- both indoors and outdoors. Inside, there are multiple, large rooms that, according to Edinburgh Zoo, “have different environmental conditions such as temperature, humidity and lighting, so each chimp can choose their preferred ‘hangout’. The enclosure was specially designed to stimulate the chimps to use and show natural physical, social and mental behaviours that would be observed in the wild”.

The enclosure is home to 17 chimpanzees with diverse personalities who hold various ‘ranks’ in the troop. For example, Qafzeh was born at Edinburgh Zoo in 1992 and is currently the alpha male at Budongo Trail.

Much further down the troop hierarchy is Velu. He was born at Edinburgh Zoo in 2014 and his mother is the low-ranking female chimp, Heleen (although Budongo Trail points out that her status has risen a bit since Velu’s birth). Velu is appropriately described as ‘mischievous’ and we have witnessed many occasions where he has lived up to this description. For example, on one active day we watched him swing happily from rope-to-rope in one of the inside enclosures, ‘teasing’ the other chimps. At one point, we waved at him, he saw us, and immediately swung over to the windowsill where we were standing and gave a ‘high-five’ through the glass. It was a quick interaction, but it was delightful that he chose to greet us.

However, the chimp that has stolen our hearts this past year has been Velu’s little sister, Masindi. Born to Heleen on 3 February 2020, it has been a true pleasure to watch her grow. One of our favourite moments observing her happened last November. After cuddling with mom for a bit, she decided to venture out and explore her surroundings.

Well, let’s just say it was probably a grand time for Masindi, but she had us ‘on the edge of our seats’. If you look carefully at the pictures below, you can see her dangling from her perch quite high up. Now, we are aware that chimpanzees have excellent climbing skills and abilities- even Masindi who was only 10 months at the time. However, we couldn’t capture her most daring move when she proceeded to dangle by just one of her wee hands. We were quite relieved when Heleen eventually decided she had enough and grabbed Masindi and pulled her in to a much safer spot next to her.

Chimpanzees socialise through bonding and grooming, and it is always quite touching to see the chimps take part in such ‘human-like’ activities.

The Budongo Trail chimps also have a spectacular outside set-up with fun climbing structures and enough vegetation to create their very own ‘jungle’ environment to explore and play in.

On one recent, sunny afternoon, we had the pleasure of watching some of the chimps run around and have fun. Although, it might not have been fun for the chimp on the receiving end of Velu’s stick 😂 (pictured below).

A particularly favourite time for the Budongo chimpanzees is during outside food enrichment activities. We’ve often come upon the viewing area that overlooks their outside space to see that we just missed the party as evidenced by the bits of food spread out on the ground.

However, the chimps aren’t always on the move. Sometimes they just have a nice rest in the sun- with some even bringing their blankets out for optimal comfort.

An easy way to keep an eye on the chimps at Budongo Trail is by following them on Twitter. They often post fun videos of the chimps as well as important updates.

Budongo Conservation Field Station in Uganda

Throughout Budongo Trail, visitors also learn a bit about the crucial conservation field work that RZSS funds in Uganda at the Budongo Conservation Field Station (BCFS). Unfortunately, chimpanzees are in danger in their natural habitats- mostly due to human activity. The BCFS is a project that was set up in 1990 in the Budongo Forest- a rainforest covering over 100,000 acres- to protect over 600 wild chimpanzees.

According to Edinburgh Zoo, most of the team are local Ugandans whose work “combines research and conservation to ensure sustainable management and use of the Budongo Forest Reserve. There are many different projects taking place at the BCFS such as monitoring chimpanzee health and disease”. Head over to their website for the most up-to-date information on their conservation and research work.

Supporting Budongo Trail & Chimpanzee Conservation Efforts

As we outlined in our Return to Edinburgh Zoo article, this past year has been an incredibly straining and difficult time for the Zoo as they have lost most of their income due to the pandemic. If you would like to support our chimp friends- including the youngest members of the troop- Velu and Masindi- please check out the Zoo’s ‘Support Us’ page.

Another easy way you can support Edinburgh Zoo is by getting a membership. If you know that you will be in Edinburgh a few times in the year- getting a membership is a win-win for both you and the Zoo. Afterall, you never know what you will see at Budongo Trail- it’s a family that never fails to bring joy and laughter.

Until next time- Explore & Discover!


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