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Uganda & the Apes
Index on Africa: Uganda
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Our flight to Uganda was on Uganda Airlines which, we were assured by friends in Uganda, didn't really exist anymore! Well our agent said not to worry and, lo and behold, there was a plane waiting to transport us. The airline doesn't, in fact, have a physical existence - no offices, no planes - but they use planes of Air Tanzania and Kenya Airlines for their flights.
In Uganda we had arranged to rent a 4 wheel drive vehicle and a driver to achieve our 2 main objectives - mountain gorillas and chimps. We made a tactical error by opting to save a few bucks and getting a tiny Suzuki instead of a more comfortable vehicle but our driver was a great fellow and all went well.
We first stopped at a little park on the way to the gorillas. Lake Mbura is one of the few parks with predators that allow walking. So after a short game drive which featured eland and buffalo carcasses, an armed ranger accompanied us for a pleasant evening walk among the buffalo, gazelle, impala, rossbuck, zebra, warthogs, topi and what have you. We saw 2 real cute infant warthogs and 2 warthogs exploded out of a hole by our feet. We saw the remnants of kills we didn't run across any cats. This nice park, which would have had hundreds of visitors in Kenya, had about 5 other tourists around.
Then Bwindi, the Impenetrable Forest, home of the Mountain Gorillas.
The gorillas were neat, but very packaged ... they allow parties of 6 to visit the 2 habituated groups in the park. That means 12 viewers per day so the place isn't overly crowded. We were assigned to M group which, we were told, is usually further from the park entrance than the others and so we might have to walk many hours. We went with about 6 trackers/guards; the process is to go to the last spot the group was seen on the previous day and track from there. We reached that point after only 2 hours; climbed about 1500 feet thru the jungle on a good trail and then down a few hundred feet. Once they found the trail it took only a few minutes to find the gorillas. Then we scurried around finding as many individuals (especially the 2 silverbacks) as possible and following them as they mosied around eating.
Once there the rules are rigid; no flash, no food around the gorillas, keep 15 feet away from any animal, don't look them in the eyes and if you had the slightest cough you better be gone!
The guides set up good camera angles for us, chopping away things in the way, etc. It was quite cool!! The animals are impressive, to say the least and, by and large, ignored us. But of course we kept at least 5 meters from them and who knows what would have happened if we'd intruded on individual space.
After an hour sharp it is time to go. At home we find our gorilla photos are entirely disappointing; dark and blurred. The combination of the dark forest, no flash allowed, an automatic camera that didn't allow shutter speed setting, and the lack of a powerful telephoto doomed us. The photo above is the only recognizable gorilla! If you go to Africa to take photos then its all or nothing; take a fast 300 mm lens at the very least.
It really is impenetrable, almost
There is some concern about safety. Last year guerillas (not gorillas) from Ruanda, entering via the DRC, kidnapped and killed several tourists. Bwindi was closed for several months and there is still tension in the air. But, we are told, things are calm right now, and security has been beefed up. In fact you can't walk anywhere in the park without an armed escort. When we returned from tracking we wanted to do a short walk to some picturesque waterfalls; we had to wait until a guard was rounded up.
While it was a neat experience I am not sure I'd recommend it for all. We had the good fortune of having a friend arrange for and buy the permits; it usually is a hassle to determine available dates and buy the very expensive permits. Once purchased they are yours ... if you can't make it, or your car has a problem, that is too bad. If you happen to have a cold on the appointed day, you can't go in (they will refund your money). And it is a grueling 20 hours of travel there and back (not to mention the potential of all day hiking through the forested mountains) so its not very time/cost efficient.
The chimps, on the other hand, was an all day affair. We were at a research station directed by a fellow Janet knows through NIH - Richard Wrangham at Harvard .. he wasn't there but they took good care of us. It was a sunday and not much was scheduled so instead of going out with a large group, each with their own observational tasks, we went with one fellow, the chief tracker. Our driver, Jackson, also came.
It was quite a day ... 8am (they normally start at 5 but this was a short sunday) to 7pm since we needed to 'nest' the chimps - that is follow them until they nested so researchers can be there before the Chimps start moving on the following morning. The tracking was neat; we found a subgroup that numbered about 9 most of the day (there are 52 in total) in about an hour. Much of the time was spent sitting and watching them eat, groom and sleep (and occasionally piss). They'd all of a sudden sack out in the middle of the trail for 30 or more minutes. So if they were sleeping, we'd nap ... or maybe go off and have our lunch (carefully out of sight/smell of the chimps). Then they'd take off and we'd run to follow ... imagine a line of 9 chimps walking along a trail and then 4 humans; all single file.
At one point they decided to head out of the forest to raid some nearby banana plantations. The tracker guessed this from the direction they headed and we trailed along. The lead chimp was at a jeep road and looking out and all the others were behind him and you could almost feel the tension and if they were people they'd be asking something like 'is it okay to go across boss? is the coast clear?' But something spooked them and they scattered. So we went over to the road at a point they were likely to cross and, sure enough, about 30 minutes later they appeared, one by one, at the road. They would peek out and suddenly run across and we only saw them because we were looking.
They spent more of their time in a big fig tree than in the bananas and when they were at the bananas they were more interested in the leaves than the bananas.
At around 3 the heavens opened and it poured. We knew we were in for it when the field assistant pulled out full waterproof gear - pants and parka big enough to include his pack. The chimps weren't happy and neither were we but the rain stopped and the sun returned. So the chimps regrouped at the fig tree.
A few hours later the storms moved in again, this time in earnest. It was interesting to watch as the rain approached and hit. The next two hours or so were fairly miserable as the storm gradually progressed and delivered hard driving hail and winds so fierce that we could barely hear one another. By the time we headed out of the jungle it
was total chaos with lightning to go with the hail and wind ... and it was dark. When we finally got up to the road we were a sorry mess but stopped to have a good laugh. Gortex parkas are not enough to keep you dry in that; and we had several inches of rain in our boots!
CK; Chief Chimp Tracker
The chimps were in for an uncomfortable night. Before we left we saw them do one of their rain displays as they jumped and danced around and howled as a way of keeping warm. It would take more than that.
While we were out 11 hours we spent a fair amount of time sitting and napping as the chimps napped. It was a total gas and while the chimps are not as imposing as the gorillas this was certainly a more intensive experience.
More Detail on the Research Station
The Kibale forest is huge, and they have a research area that is about 2 or 3 miles square. Of course the chimps can use the entire forest, and go out of it, which they do. But the research area is composed of gridded trails, all marked - letters for those running north/south and numbers for the ones going east and west. One tree at every intersection has a metal piece attached to it which is marked with the letter/number as C44 for example.
The first day we were out for about 4 hours on our own, with the map. With a compass, which we had, it is easy to navigate. There were errors in the map, but considering it was dated 1983 (!), little things like a "T" intersection now continuing through was not surprising. We were told we should be able to spot all kinds of monkeys, like colobus, L'hoest, mangabeys, you know, all the ones we just read about. Had a laminated page with pictures, fool proof we thought.
We found black and white colobus, but that was it. They were cool, swinging around at the tree tops, 100 feet above us. We could record exactly where we found them! After a while, since we kept seeing four of them, and only four, we decided that maybe we were being followed by them, but could not be certain of that.
The students at the chimp house told us some of the studies they are working on and the ways in which they go about it. One undergrad is working with Wrangham to try to see why chimps kill and eat red colobus almost exclusively. Their hypothesis is that the way this colobus jumps is the key. Most monkeys when chased by the chimps scatter randomly, and simultaneously. The red colobus if they are in the same tree, wait for the first one on the branch to take off, then the next goes, and so on, so maybe they are easier to catch. I asked if they could explore a nutritional basis for the selection, but this would be difficult to measure I suppose. But there may be other reasons then they are easy to catch. Maybe they taste better. These guys go out each day with video cameras to record the way in which each of the different monkey species jumps from tree to tree. And if that sounds easy, guess again.
A graduate student is interested in studying the relationship between lone females and reproductive rate and another is interested in studying the relationship between hormonal levels and aggression in males.
When they go out to study the chimps the primary field assistant uses a one page sheet that allows recording of the following information: name of chimp in the group, activity (sleeping, grooming, resting, fighting, vocalizing, climbing in tree, type of food eaten), time (15 minute increments)of the activity. IF there are additional field assistants they can break off and study focus activities, such as aggerssion.
The first field assistant (FA) would wait until the last chimp of the group leaves the area and follow the main group. This is what we did, since there was only one FA. I said, well maybe we can help with the other things. He laughed. Later I realized why. With our forest 'sense' we were lucky to just keep up with him. The other FA, studying aggression, would leave to follow a particular 2 or 3 chimps that are exhibiting that activity. The sheet this person uses would have space for the chimp names, time, type of aggression, result, and a note area that describes the activity in detail, and anything else that should be noted. Another FA could focus on mating activity of another pair of chimps, and so on. Since the chimps are followed from the moment they wake up at dawn in their nests in the trees to the moment they make nests at night, all activities of the group can be monitored.
The effort is enormous. After a day that begins at 5am and ends at 7pm, the data has to be entered - by someone - into the computer for later analysis. Graduate students and undergrads spend 3 months of the year at the forest, but when they are not there, the FAs are out on their own. Researchers not required to be at the university of course can spend the whole year there, and there were a couple of those folks there with their families, and children.
The effort to habituate a chimp 'community' takes about or at least, 2 years. They begin by finding a group and following them. At first the chimps run away, and the researchers do not follow. Gradually the chimps allow the people to come within sight and not run away, and slowly over time, allow them to come within 10 feet or so. These chimps recognize CK, the FA who took us out. When we first saw them, they got up and walked away when I looked at them, but after a couple of times, accepted the newcomers as part of the 'human community'. Every effort is made to simply be an observer, part of the landscape. If you want to eat your lunch you have to walk away so they cannot see you - they might start thinking that the humans have something more interesting to eat than what they find themselves in the forest.
At one point CK told us that he thought they were going to go to the village to raid banana trees. They don't eat the bananas, but just the stems, which kills the trees. The people don't like this, and chimps have been killed. Well, we waited an hour at the road, watching, talking with the folks passing by. Then all of a sudden, they started, one by one, to cross the road. A head would come out, look both ways, coast clear! and run, or lumber, across the road to the banana plantation. Then the next would appear, same thing. Very odd scene, I must say, seeing chimps act like little naughty kids, running across the road to steal the bananas.
On the way to Kibale, we stopped at Queen Elizabeth National Park and took a great 2 hour boat ride through a gorge loaded with hundreds of hippo. An elephant put on a great display trying to frighten the boat. We saw all sorts of gorgeous birds; storks, heron, fish eagle, hammerheads, ibis and many many we never identified.
We also were accosted, near the park, by an aggressive group of baboon. They were by the road and we stopped and, as Jackson immediately ordered, closed the windows. They jumped on the car and started jabbering and yelling. They saw bananas on the windshield and started pulling on the windshield wipers to get at them. They were pissed that they couldn't get them.
We stayed at a beautiful lodge that was almost empty. Across the road was a cheaper hostel which had about 15 mongoose, with bands, that were almost as tame as kitty cats.
We also planned to go to a private reserve called Semliki, owned by the friend of the friend who got our gorilla permits, but were getting tired of the jeep and the grind and decided to return to Kampala for a day of rest before heading to Tanzania. We did take a day trip over to Jinja where the source of the Nile is indicated by a monument and a
restaurant. Here the river leaves Lake Victoria on its way north and a dam provides most of Uganda's power needs and some of Kenya's. More dams, for better or worse, are on the way.
Someone told me that Uganda gets 4000 tourists per year. While I believe that number to be way low, there are not many tourists here. Uganda has alot to offer, is reasonably cheap and is calm right now and can make you a great trip! And, whatever the number is, Kenya gets as many tourists in a day as Uganda gets in a year.
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