… could be a day in your life that you will never forget.
Earthwatch have written to me …
If you have any friends, family, or colleagues who you think might benefit from the once-in-a-lifetime experience of living a day in the life of a chimpanzee, please let them know that we have a team in need of more volunteers running from October 7-18, 2017, as well as 6 teams scheduled throughout 2018 that need a good head start on their recruitment …
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:-
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 …
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.
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 …