As our stay at Budongo reaches its conclusion. It’s time to thank the Field Station Director Geoffrey Muhanguzi for his hospitality and, as always, his wisdom. Also to say thank you to Moreen Uwimbabazi for allowing us to assist in her bird banding project and congratulate her and her team Patrick Arua and Godfrey Andrua on their progress.
The Royal Mile, so called because it was indeed a favorite spot of Ugandan Kings, is one of Africa’s best forest birding spots. It is possible for a visiting birder to buy a permit and stroll under the majestic trees. I believe the fee has to be paid in Kampala. The best way forward is to contact Raymond in advance, he lives near the gate and knows the place backwards. The numbers I have for him are 0777 319 865 or 0752 930 065. You can rely on him to give clear instruction.
He is the man who can find you your Chocolate backed Kingfisher.
But that only takes you as far as this sign …
and paradise is on the other side of it. Tourism is specifically forbidden by the project’s charter, to pass Go you must be sponsored by your university or another entity.
It was during my last day or so at Budongo that I became increasingly aware of some red and itchy spots on my left arm.
The farflung margins of the ancient world were occupied by all sorts of amazing creatures, chimpanzees included, half real half legend.
From about 1640 onwards the animals themselves took more tangible form as they slowly found their way into European menageries.
Darwin Published The Descent of Man in 1871. In it he identifies the great apes as our nearest relatives, Africa as the location where our common ancestors lived and he espoused the view that we differ merely in degree rather than in kind. Darwin’s personal experience of apes seems to have been limited to meetings with an Orangutan at London Zoo in 1838. You can read about his encounters <HERE> it’s an interesting story.
That was just about as good as it gets until 1960. By then Chimpanzees were in Zoos, circuses and laboratories. The following year there would be one in space (Ham, January 31, 1961) but no one had studied them in their natural habitat. It is possible that no one had even photographed them in the wild at that point.
That year three different young scientists took themselves to the forests of Africa and set about observing the behaviour of chimpanzees. Jane Goodall who went to work in the Gombe Stream National Park in what is now Tanzania became the most famous. Less familiar pioneers were Adriaan Kortlandt working in what was the Belgian Congo now DRC and Vernon Reynolds in the Budongo Forest, Uganda.
Reynolds and his wife Frankie spent a year at Budongo. The only trails there would have been for logging purposes, the chimpanzees would have fled screaming as the humans approached. It would have been hard work. Nonetheless the exercise culminated in the book Budongo: a forest and its chimpanzees and Vernon went on to a successful academic life eventually becoming Professor of Biological Anthropology and a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford.
Uganda meanwhile fell on hard times. Two major civil wars brought governance to a halt in the 1970’s and 80’s. In 1988 Prof. Reynolds read a report in the New Vision, the main Ugandan newspaper, that chimpanzee infants were being captured in Budongo Forest and smuggled out to wealthy pet-owners in Dubai and elsewhere. In 1990 Reynolds returned to Budongo and with a local researcher, Chris Bakuneeta, set up a base to see if there were still chimpanzees to be found.
There were. The base evolved into the Budongo Conservation Field Station and its work centres on understanding what it takes to make sure chimpanzees will always live in this beautiful place.
My reading of the moment is Travels in the Interior of Africa by Mungo Park, published in 1799. He was traveling in the Gambia and seems not to have been a great fan of the forest …
The country itself being an immense level, and very generally covered with wood, presents a tiresome and gloomy uniformity to the eye; but although Nature has denied the inhabitants the beauties of romantic landscapes she has bestowed on them, with a liberal hand, the more important blessings of fertility and abundance.
Perhaps now that travel is so much easier the landscapes have become more romantic.
The Budongo Forest covers an area of about 435 km² which reportedly makes it the largest forest in Uganda. It’s a mixed forest and was once important as a source of mahogany. Left to itself the mix would simplify, at climax it would be dominated by Ironwood (Cynometra alexandrii) more valuable timber species would be excluded. Mahogany is much more attractive to foresters. The efforts to encourage a rich mix to persist were successful but Celtis (hackberries or nettle trees) and Ficus (figs) species were more inclined to grow than Mahogany. These have no timber value but do provide food for primates and birds.
The forest looks natural enough but the parts that have been molested are better for birds and primates than a couple of reserved areas that have never been touched. Who’d have thought.
We were kept hard at work but a couple of hours every afternoon were ours to go for a walk down the Royal Mile or around the camp.
Moreen was keen to get as much from our visit as possible. There would be no slacking off.
Her field assistants were just back from Kenya where they had undergone some additional training provided by the Nairobi National Museum. She was keen that they put their new skills to use under supervision to really consolidate what they had learnt.
Much progress had been made. Patrick and Godfrey had been very efficient at the mechanics of catching and handling birds but had struggled a bit with measurements, partly because of poor equipment and partly because of inexperience. Experience had been gained in the last 18 months and we’d brought some first class equipment which would be theirs to keep.
The routine was simple. Nets were set in the afternoon and closed for the night. Where possible they were set in one continuous line … 228 metres long. Which is way more net than a small team would attempt to handle in Australia, but some of the hazards we face are absent in Uganda – no Butcherbirds, Kookaburras or birds of prey to start eating your catch; the cool shade of the forest interior rather than a dessicating sun and on average larger more robust birds. Not a bird was lost.
The nets would be opened at first light, birds caught, processed and released until about 1pm when the nets would be packed up. After lunch they would be carried to the next day’s catch site.
The team heading to Uganda this time consisted of the three Aussie bird banders that had visited in 2017 plus one.
Dr Will Steele and Dr Mark Antos are both professional biologists who find the natural world so fascinating that they go on studying it even after they’ve knocked off work. Along with the McGee we had had the pleasure of doing some training with the fledgling bird banding team at the Budongo Research Station. We would be returning to offer some more encouragement, some more training and some more equipment.
Our new recruit was the lovely Gayle McGee, also experienced in the process of catching and banding birds.
It is most of a day’s drive northward from Entebbe to Budongo. Our first call was in Kampala where we picked up Moreen Uwimbabazi who heads up the project.
Then it was a long but fascinating drive via Masindi to the Royal Mile and Budongo.
Much of life in Uganda goes on in the streets. Foodstuffs and furniture …
and having bought your food and furniture you load it onto a van, or a motorbike or even a bike.
From time to time on the highway street vendors rush every vehicle that stops.
As well as the fresh fruit and drinks you can buy chicken and goat meat on skewers … maybe not a great idea for the unpracticed intestine.