Earthwatch Really … ?

the Royal Mile

If you have been following my African adventure this far it may have crossed your mind that an Earthwatch expedition may be a good idea. It is not merely a good idea – it is a great idea. Put yourself in the picture above, surround yourself with beauty …

 

and meet interesting people.

There were five of us at Budongo. Two were PhD qualified professional biologists, one was a keen amateur with postgraduate qualifications in ornithology, one was a zoo keeper with a wealth of knowledge about primates in captivity and one was a banker.

Four out of five brought a great deal of biological knowledge with us, but it was the odd one out that proved you needed none of that to make a contribution. Five out of five took a great deal away with us.

The program was top class. It started with the trees themselves, from buds to ripe fruit. It moved on to the birds, the monkeys and the apes, the wildlife that depend on the forest. It reached into the surrounding farms to provide the human context that will determine the future of the forest.

Huge thank yous needs to go to Geoffrey Muhanguzi, the director, a quiet man of enormous authority and depth, to the effervescent Zephyr, facility manager, to Dr Caroline Asiimwe, Conservation Coordinator, to Moreen Uwimbabazi, bird bander extraordinaire and to all the field assistants and station staff that made our stay so rewarding.

What of the flagship research?

As food supplies decline, chimps in the Budongo Forest are raiding farmers’ crops. What is causing the decline in food? How can the area support both farmers and primate foragers?

The phenologists are keeping a close eye on forest productivity. We must take their word for it that, for now, productivity is declining. Our observations will do nothing to explain why that is the case.

Chimpanzees are raiding farmers’ crops. Well, it was probably always thus. More frequently now because of declining fruiting? The research model will not answer that, largely because the people asking the question have done a lot to improve conditions for the chimpanzees, numbers have increased and so has their health. As they tend towards the carrying capacity of their habitat they will look to take advantage of the crops next door, regardless of forest productivity.

Do the farmers care? Regarding chimpanzees – no. Their concern is the enormous amount of human time taken in guarding their fields. Losses are tolerable if the animals are promptly driven away. Losses are total if the crops are not guarded. So long as baboons, bush pigs and monkeys raid crops those crops must be guarded. Full time. Partial reduction of raiding will not reduce the time spent guarding by the farmer and their family.

So if our efforts as researchers did not break any new boundaries in science did we make any contribution at all?

Yes we did. If you want to maintain a research facility focused on chimpanzees that is available to undergraduate and postgraduate students you need people in the field to maintain habituation of the animals, you need accommodation and you need expertise. In other words you need money.

One way to get the money is to build a five star hotel and fill it with rubberneckers. That requires considerable capital input and entails a large commercial risk. If successful it might bring a host of new problems in its wake.

Alternatively a steady stream of interested and motivated visitors who will take one star accommodation in their stride and pay their way will bring in some of that much needed income. That was us … quiet and intelligent tourists who paid our money and in exchange were given an experience way more valuable than our meagre contribution.

We helped to support a facility that is doing a great job.

Could it be you?

It can and it should be you. There is almost certainly an Earthwatch expedition that will appeal. If it’s to be Budongo you need to be sure that:-

  • you can walk 15km a day (10 miles)
  • some of it at 5 km/hr (3 mph)
  • you can and are prepared to use a squat toilet

So here are the links. Click now.

The food, by the way, was delicious.

Black-and-white Casqued Hornbill

 

 

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