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

 

 

Snare Patrol …

Our last full day as Earthwatch Researchers at Budongo would be spent on patrol looking for signs of illegal activity in the forest.

Hunting in the forest was once the legitimate pursuit of some families. They could eat or sell what they caught. What they have done honourably for many generations is now poaching.

There are six former hunters employed to police the forest. The leader of the group I went with was Ofen.

The other experienced set of eyes belonged to Dr Caroline Asiimwe, the Conservation Coordinator at Budongo.

Then there were three beginners.

Ofen has worked for Budongo for 18 years. He has a wealth of knowledge.

Traditionally a hunter had a patch to himself, he would set as many as 200 snares and walk around them every couple of days. In order to find them efficiently he made marks on the trees near where the snares were placed.

The main target animals were Duiker and Giant Rats. He would look for the regular trails that Duiker used, determine whether it was Red or Blue Duiker, find a place where the trail was narrow and a snare could be concealed and then set up his trap. The snare would be smaller and set a little lower for Blue Duiker than for Red.

For the rats the technique was different, a noose, a trigger mechanism and a bent sapling. Set at the entrance to its burrow. The unfortunate rodent would put its head through the noose as it released the trigger, the sapling straightens tightening the noose and hoisting the rat into the air.

If a hunter found an animal in someone else’s snare he took a leg. To take the whole animal would, according to tradition, cause the thief to die.

We started out by visiting an area which had recently been illegally logged. The loggers typically bring only beans and their logging equipment. They set traps to supplement their diet, mainly with Giant Rats. The pit sawing equipment had been destroyed by the Forest Authority and the area thoroughly searched by the Snare Patrollers. Our follow up visit found no evidence of renewed activity.

We then turned our attention to an area closer to the edge of the forest and Ofen found the first snare. To sharpen our eyes the rest of us were invited to find it as well. It took a while but helped develop a search pattern. Find the Duiker trail, look where it narrows, look very carefully in the foliage. Also look for a cut stick about two metres long, there isn’t always a sapling or tree conveniently placed where the snare is to be set. Even if the stick comes free from the ground it will soon get caught in a narrow place on the trail. No point these days looking for the traditional marks, the poachers know that the patrollers will find them all too easily.

I’m especially proud of this one …

because I found it all by myself.

By day’s end we had found 6 wire snares (these days made out of motorbike throttle cabling) and an old sapling and liana spring trap. None contained any animals.

Ofen spoke with pride about the work the team had done for their chimpanzees. When he started work around 2000 the team were finding 200 traps a day, sometimes as many as 300, the chimpanzees were fewer in number and many had limb injuries from snares.

Back at camp we were shown a shed full of “man traps”. These are very spiteful devices using  car springs to close a pair of spiked jaws. One was set up for us. It took a man’s weight applied to the end of a stout lever to open the jaws which were then held open by a trigger mechanism …

dig enough of a hole to set it flush with the ground and cover with leaves…

An animal or human stepping on the plate seen to the left of the upper photo is in for a very nasty surprise.

 

Back to Budongo …

By that evening we were home again, and it really did seem like home. What could be more natural than encountering chimpanzees or a troop of baboons between the house and the dunny?

By this stage we had also found the hang outs of some of our nocturnal neighbours and could walk around after dark and say hi to the Civet, the Servaline Genet and the Bushbuck., whilst listening to the Tree Hyrax – to get the full effect turn the volume up as high as it will go …

and they look exactly as you see them in the video!

We would have two more full days at Budongo.

In times past the forests of tropical Africa were far more extensive, the human population far smaller.

The monthly household income in rural Uganda, including the value of goods received in kind, is (2009/10, Uganda Bureau of Statistics ) 142,700 Ugandan Shillings or $40 US. Put another way, two parents will have an annual income of $480 to support themselves plus perhaps three children and a grandparent.

Subsistence agriculture is the main activity for rural people. An increasing population requires an increasing area of land.

The biggest threat to wildlife in Uganda and many other places is habitat loss. The biggest threat to subsistence farming is the wildlife.

Hunting was an honourable pursuit in the past, it provided much needed protein and a little cash income. In Budongo it is now illegal, timber getting likewise.

I and the folk working at Budongo, and I’m sure, all my first world readers want to see chimpanzees and all that surrounds them secure in a living forest. But none of us want a child to starve.

Tomorrow after a morning on primate watch we would visit the adjacent village. The day after that would be snare patrol.

Stay tuned.

Chimpanzee …

chimpanzee (n.)

1738, from a Bantu language of Angola (compare Tshiluba kivili-chimpenze “ape”). Short form chimp first attested 1877.

There was a fruiting mango tree in the camp. Chimpanzees had wandered through for a feast every day. We had kept a respectful distance so as to keep our germs to ourselves, now that we had passed our quarantine period we could follow them more closely.

My first full day with them was with the Sonso group, named for the river than ran close to the camp. This was the first group to be habituated and could usually be found without too long a hike.

The aim was to spend long periods with a target individual recording their every activity in ten minute blocks. Their daily life can be summarised in a list of eating, traveling, resting, grooming and sorting out their social life – just like ours.

So far as eating goes, chimps like ripe fruit. They supplement this with young leaves and will also eat flowers. They will ingest clay occasionally. They drink mainly from puddles in tree hollows but we saw a few drink from a stream which is where they found their clay. They also like to eat monkeys.

They travel with ease along the ground or through the trees. They climb by putting their hands beyond the tree trunk, their feet go on the near side. They are expert at making the more slender trees sway until they can make a transition from one tree to the next. And they make frequent use of outer branches to slow their rate of descent towards the ground or a more rigid branch. Their internal map is in 3D, we have given up a dimension.

When they are having a break from eating they are often involved with grooming, usually in pairs or groups of pairs.

Their social life seems to be all about status and sex. It involves a lot of noise and showing off. Human parallels might be bikie gangs or drug cartels, big males capable of forming useful alliances will rise to the top. And stay there ruthlessly until toppled from power.

The Sonso group hunted Colobus twice on the day I was with them and were successful the second time. The field assistants were very quick to recognise their intentions. The group spread out around the Colobus troop, some on the ground, some at mid level and some high in the trees, all making some attempt to conceal themselves. Then a couple of individuals go after the monkeys. Colobus tend to all rush in the one direction which may be the reason they are the preferred target … you can stay concealed until the first one goes past then grab the next.

The successful chimpanzee will then rip open the monkey’s abdomen and start eating the entrails, the monkey might still be screaming at this stage.

Whilst the hunting is communal the eating is definitely selfish. A lucky few will get some meat. They will ignore the most pitiful begging of subordinate individuals. Why then take part? It doesn’t take that much effort and you may win the lottery.

The next day it was off to the more recently habituated group. We found them after about two hours roughly 8 km from camp. They passed the morning slowly moving towards camp. Then the afternoon moving away!

They had a female in estrus with them, the alpha male was guarding her very carefully. For all his efforts though it was a subordinate that got lucky whilst the boss was chasing off the number two male. There was a fair bit more hooting and drumming on trees than the day before, tensions were raised, it seemed.

They didn’t hunt and the field assistants told us that they had not hunted in recent weeks.

Meet the monkeys …

Our trial run at primate tracking and data collection was with the monkeys.

Specifically Blue Monkeys and Red-tailed Monkeys.

Blue Monkey
Red-tailed Monkey

Their big cousin, the Chimpanzee, is a ripe fruit specialist although they are not averse to eating monkeys, too. One way to coexist with them is to get in early and eat unripe fruit. We watched them do exactly that, feeding in trees where most of the fruit was green but taking such ripe fruit as was available and some young leaves for variety.

We also got to see them grooming each other, and hear some of their vocabulary.

The other monkeys present in the Budongo forest are the Olive Baboon and the Guereza Colobus.

Olive Baboon

The Baboon seems the odd one out. It has a much more terrestrial way of life and a rather ape-like demeanour, however it is a monkey and is more closely related to the previous two than it is to the Colobus.

They are extremely inquisitive and extremely smart. They are always hanging around the Research station accommodation and would be in in a flash if they got the chance. If that happens no one is game to throw them out … you just wait until they leave and then clean up the mess. Some of the staff on campus have their small children live with them, baboons are a threat to their safety. A baboon control officer is always on patrol near the staff quarters. Most of the time his weaponry is for show, most of the time …

Baboon control officer at work …

This is the real odd one out. Look carefully at its thumb, well actually, look carefully for its thumb. It doesn’t have one, an odd feature for a creature that picks leaves and fruit and climbs trees. You’d think a thumb would come in handy.

Guereza Colobus

 

Banding Birds in Budongo …

The local birding team …

Raymond, Andrua, Moreen, Patrick.

Moreen Uwimbabazi started the banding project as her honours research. Raymond on the left is a red hot local bird guide who was drafted for our benefit. If you need a bird guide in northern Uganda he is your man. You can contact him on 0777 319 865 or 0752 930 065.

The process is fairly straight forward. You set a mist net between poles, keeping it very taut from one end to the other and endeavouring to keep it out of the branches of the adjacent trees. In the shade it is almost invisible which is why I chose to photograph the end in the sunlight.

Mist net

Visit regularly, carefully extracting any birds that have found their way in. Identify the birds, measure them (wing length, head and bill, tail length), weigh them, band and release.

Andrua and Patrick were just learning the ropes so we were able to ensure their technique improved. In exchange they were able to ensure we made our identifications correctly as we encountered birds that were completely new to us.

Forest Robin
Dusky Long-tailed Cuckoo
Doesn’t hurt a bit …

Budongo …

After arriving at the Budongo Research Station we were each assigned to a single room in one large house. The toilet was in the back yard and consisted of a concrete slab with a hole in it. Beneath that  was very deep hole in the ground. Zephyr, the always genial manager of the accommodation showed us where to put our feet if we were to be successful with our aim. Very useful advice. And for the novice squatter it’s a bit further forward than you think.

Our house
The dunny

The showers were about 150 meters away. The fire would be lit at 4.00 pm every day, if you wanted to shower before that it would be cold.

It was  basic, a bare bulb in a bare concrete room, but a comfortable bed with a mosquito net, a bolt on the bedroom door and on the outside door to keep the baboons out.

My room

Tomorrow would start with a comprehensive briefing followed by a lecture on chimp health. Since chimps are prone to many human diseases, especially upper respiratory tract infections new humans are kept away from them for five days. There is plenty to do, however, in the afternoon we wandered down the Royal Mile for some bird watching.

There are about 700 chimps in the Budongo forest. Two groups, about 150 individuals, have been habituated and are tolerant of human proximity. These are followed, quietly, on a daily basis by visiting researchers and field assistants. The researchers may be doing undergraduate honours research or more advanced studies. The field assistants are the real experts, most have been working at the station for years and all can recognise and name all the chimps by sight or even sound.

Days three, four and five are occupied with phenology, bird banding and then following monkeys.

Phenology (my spell checker hasn’t heard of it either) is the study of the progression of plants, in this case food trees, from budding through leaf formation to fruiting. We followed transects scoring marked trees essentially for their usefulness as primate food sources at that instant. Not the most exciting component of our stay but a 12 km walk in a tropical forest has to be good for you.

The bird banding was our chance to shine. Stay tuned.

Monkeys are definitely more exciting. They don’t come close enough to catch the flu and are excellent practice for following the chimps. With clipboard in hand we watched a target monkey for ten minutes at a time, recording their behaviour and if they ate, their food.

For instance , they might eat young leaves and unripe fruit, move trees, call, groom and resume eating. Or they might spend ten minutes resting. Or they might disappear into foliage and not be seen again in which case you choose a new one to follow.

 

Blue Monkey

If we’d had to wait five days for our first glimpse of a chimpanzee we would, by this stage, be at fever pitch. In fact we’d seen chimps every day, we had just had to be well behaved humans and keep a safe distance away to safeguard their health.

Note the presence of mature leaves, ripe and unripe fruit. For the moment please ignore the chimpanzee …

 

Meet the Team …

I started bird watching at about eight years of age. A book that my parents had and a keen classmate got me going, after that it was self sustaining. It usually consisted of a long walk making a list of what I found, I loved doing it then and I still love doing it 60 years later.

Along the way I took the time to study ornithology and earn a Graduate Diploma. I got involved in some research projects and have a Licence to Band Birds. While banding migratory waders I met Dr Will Steele who got his PhD studying sea birds on Marion Island. I met Dr Mark Antos whilst banding bush birds, he earned his PhD studying foraging in forest passerines. They are both professional biologists. We have been friends for many years.

We were in Uganda to join an Earthwatch Project investigating threats to Chimpanzees but we would also get the chance to share our knowledge of bird banding with a local team.

At breakfast the next morning the group of three Aussies were joined by Cristina and Silvana. Cristina, originally from Brazil, is a zoo keeper at Dallas Zoo looking after Chimpanzees, Gorillas and Baboons. Silvana is a banker from Switzerland.

l to r – Silvana, Mark, Cristina, Will, Geoffrey, McGee

At 8.00 am two vehicles pulled up, Geoffrey Muhanguzi, director of the Budongo Research Centre, was driving one. We were soon on our way. Our route took us north through the outskirts of Kampala then on to Masindi where we had lunch. After lunch we left the main road and slowly bumped our way north-west to the Budongo Forest arriving late afternoon. The journey was a shade under 300 km, it took about 5 hours actual driving. The traffic around Kampala was chaotic, the main road was fairly poor, beyond Masindi it was really poor.

Along the way we got to see life on the streets.

And almost everything you could imagine being transported on a motorbike from building materials to furniture. Mum Dad and three kids, no problem, four adults likewise. To transport a few planks lay them across the saddle and sit on them, just don’t try going through a narrow gap, the same technique will work for a dining table.

In the country side we passed the odd herd of extremely well horned cattle …

And eventually we reached our destination …