I recently wrote a blog about the Maharajah Jungle Trek located in the Asia section of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. I called this attraction a “hidden treasure” since it is so often overlooked by guests visiting this park. Today, I’m writing about its sister attraction found in Africa, the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail. This is another hidden treasure and should not be skipped. “Pangani” is Swahili for “place of enchantment.”
Located near the exit of Kilimanjaro Safari, the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail offers guests a chance to view a number of East African animals at a more relaxed pace than the “two-week expedition” that they may have just enjoyed. But entrance into this nature preserve is not limited to those who just returned from the safari. Pangani Forest Exploration Trail is open to anyone in the area with the entrance just to the left of the Harambe Railway Station.
The Exploration Trail passes through the Pangani Forest Conservation School and Wildlife Sanctuary. This educational center is a joint effort between the citizens of Harambe and international preservation groups. It is overseen by Dr. Kulunda and is staffed by research students from around the world. These students are stationed throughout the center and are more than happy to answer any questions you may have about the animals.
The first exhibit found along the trail is an abandoned termite mound. A side portion of this rock-hard structure built of mud and termite saliva has been cut away. This allows guests to peer into the hidden world of this subterranean insect. Careful observation will reveal food storage areas, underground farming, air conditioning, nurseries, and water reserves.
The next stop along the trail is the Endangered Animal Rehabilitation Centre. This area has been set aside for the care and rehabilitation of wild African species. Endangered animals are provided with shelter, medical care, and relocation to a protected environment once it is considered safe to do so.
Currently, the Angolan Blank & White Colobus Monkey is being cared for here. These monkeys are from neighboring forests where over-hunting has caused serious declines in their population.
Colobus monkeys live in small groups of ten to fifteen. Births peak during the rainy season and the newborns are completely white. Their coloring doesn’t begin to emerge until about three months of age. Their black and white fur is a form of protection as it breaks up their outline and makes it difficult to spot them in the trees.
Further down the trail is an Observation Blind. Blinds like this are used to observe animals without disturbing their instinctive behaviors. Careful study of an animal in its natural habitat is the first step to understanding how they survive in the wild. This information can then be shared with others and solutions for insuring their protection can be found. One of the best rules to follow when observing animals in the wild is to be quiet. All of the surrounding creatures can hear better than you.
Two of the animals currently seen here are the Yellow-backed Duiker and the Okapi.
The duiker (an antelope) eats leaves, buds, herbs, berries and several insects like termites and ants. They weigh between 125 and 175 pounds and they can live from between 10 and 12 years. Their natural enemies are the leopard, crocodile, and python.
Even though you might think the okapi is related to the zebra due to the stripes on its hind quarters, it’s actually the only known relative to the giraffe. It is theorized that the giraffe developed a longer neck in response to heavy competition for food in the sparse savannah grasslands. Whereas the okapi didn’t face similar struggles in the densely overgrown rainforest. On a nearby table, the skulls of both animals point out the similarities of the two beasts.
Near the Observation Blind are chalkboards and a bulletin board containing information about recent sightings. Dr. Kulunda and the research students take copious notes which can be studied here at your leisure.
Next along the trail we come to the Research Center used by Dr. Kulunda and the team of research students. A desk and numerous bookshelves and cabinets store the equipment they use in their studies.
Also in the Research Center are a number of terrariums housing such creatures as the Spiny Tailed Lizard, Pancake Tortoise, Spiny Mice, and African Hedgehog. These are all being studied by Dr. Kulunda.
But the most interesting of all the specimens here are the Naked Mole Rats. These animals were unknown to the modern world until the mid-1970’s when researchers brought their unique lifestyle to light.
Neither a mole or a rat, these creatures are more closely related to porcupines, chinchillas, and guinea pigs. They are considered “eusocial” which is extremely rare in mammals. Their behavior more closely resembles ants, termites, and bees as they live in a social atmosphere with a queen, several drones, and many workers. Colonies in the wild range from 20 to 300 individuals with the average consisting of around 75. Naked Mole Rats have extremely poor eyesight and for the most part, are hairless. They live their entire life underground and constantly dig tunnels in search of food.
When leaving the Research Center, you enter a large aviary. A wooden walkway crosses over a stream filled with several varieties of colorful fish. A beautiful waterfall is on hand and twenty-three species of birds fly and swim in this area for your enjoyment.
In the 1950’s, the Nile Perch was naively introduced into Lake Victoria for commercial fishing purposes. In no time at all, this aggressive fish began to decimate the native aquatic population and continues to drastically change the ecosystem here.
As part of an international conservation effort, Harambe and the Wildlife Sanctuary have been selected to study the “Lake Victoria Cichlid,” one of the endangered species. It is hoped that they can learn more about this fish and help rebuild its population.
In order to get the most out of the aviary, you need to take your time. Many of the birds are well camouflaged and careful observation is required to find them. A Bird Spotting Guide can be picked up as you enter the aviary. Here we see an African Green Pigeon and the African Jacana.
Note, guests with service animals should check with a host or hostess before entering the aviary.
The next stop on our journey brings us to the hippopotamus viewing area. Like many of the other animals found in and around Harambe, the Pangani Wildlife Sanctuary is studying these unique animals.
There are an estimated 125,000 to 150,000 hippos living throughout Africa, but habitat loss is a continuing problem. It was once thought that pigs were the closest genetic relative to the hippo, but in the 1980’s it was discovered that they are more closely related to whales and porpoises. Despite their short legs and considerable size, a hippopotamus can easily outrun a man and is considered to be the most aggressive animal in the world. To keep their large bodies cool, hippos spend much of the day huddled together in lakes and streams. At dusk, they emerge to graze on nearby grasses.
When looking for hippos at the Sanctuary, be sure to peer deep toward the back area of the wading pool. Often, they can be seen here, sleeping on the lake bottom. If you visit this area between 4:00 to 4:30, the hippos are frequently more active and you can see them walking near the viewing portals.
The two big attractions at the next observation point are the gerenuk and meerkat.
The gerenuk is a species of antelope and the name means “giraffe-necked” in the Somali language. The unique construction of the animal’s pelvis allows it to stand on its hind legs and reach leaves, shoots, flowers and fruit that are out of reach of other animals. Male gerenuk grow horns and the species mate year round. Their life span is about eight years in the wild, but they can live thirteen years or more in captivity.
Have you ever wondered what animal Timon from The Lion King was patterned after? Well wonder no more. It’s the meerkat.
Meerkats are members of the mongoose family and eat a variety of insects along with reptiles, plants, and eggs. They live in “clans” of about twenty and forage for food as a group. However, one meerkat is always designated as “sentry” and stands a protective watch for about an hour before being replaced by another clan member.
Many tribesmen in Zimbabwean believe the meerkat to be a sun angel that protects villages and stray cattle from werewolf attacks. I don’t remember Timon mentioning this in the movie.
The last and largest viewing area of the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail showcases the Lowland Gorilla. Visitors first enter a research camp where a large window has been constructed for observation. It’s important to note, the gorillas can see and hear you so please be respectful of their home and do NOT tap on the glass.
Researcher spend days at a time monitoring these animals. In the surrounding area you can see a field desk used by Dr. Kulunda and bunk-beds complete with mosquito netting.
There are also a number of displays scattered around the observation room. One features the skulls of a male and female gorilla next to a human’s. In addition, the researchers have prepared a large chalkboard with interesting facts about this close relative to man. And as always, a student is on hand to answer questions.
If you examine some of the nearby crates, you’ll discover that poaching is still a constant threat to these remarkable animals.
If none of the gorillas are currently in view here, continue moving along the trail where you’ll come to a swaying suspension bridge. On the other side is a beautiful valley where the animals spend much of their time. A nearby map describes their daily activity patterns complete with nesting and feeding areas.
Gorillas are the largest of the primates. Adult males achieve a height of almost six feet and weigh from 310 to 440 pounds. Adult females are around 4 1/2 feet in height and weigh around 220 pounds. A gorilla’s life expectancy is between 30 and 50 years. Adult males, typically over the age of twelve, develop a distinctive patch of silver hair on their backs.
Gorillas live in groups called a troop with one dominate male making all decisions. A troop consists of between 5 and 30 animals. Gorillas are herbivores, spending most of their day eating fruits, leaves, and shoots.
The valley is a “quiet zone.” Please speak in hushed tones to preserve the natural atmosphere found here. Gorillas view excessive noise and waving arms as a threat. This is their home and we are just visitors in this “place of enchantment.”
Near the exit of Pangani Forest Exploration Trail is a Kids’ Discovery Club desk. Here, a cast member will help children with several clues related to animals. For example, Clue 1 challenges children to identify the tracks found in the ground with the appropriate diagram. When they have solve all of the puzzles, the cast member then presents them with a Kids’ Discovery Club Membership Card. On the reverse side, the six lands of the Animal Kingdom are listed. The cast member will help the child stamp the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail space, indicating that they have completed this challenge. Check your guide map for a “K”, indicating the other “Kid Discovery Club” locations around the park
As you exit the park, pay attention to the cave you are about to enter. It takes very little imagination to discover that the rocks form a giant turtle.
Found earlier along the trail is a rock formation in the form of Jafar from the movie Aladdin. See if you can find him without asking for help.
The Pangani Forest Exploration Trail is a wonderful part of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. It should not be skipped just to race to some “thrilling” attraction. The animals here are magnificent and provide a “natural” thrill if you’ll just let them.