Category Archives: blogging

Bwindi’s wild bananas

It’s one of those times of year at ITFC when everyone is busy analyzing and writing up their completed research and we chose this opportunity to talk to Frederick Ssasli about his interesting study conducted on the little known wild banana species (Ensete venticosum) in Bwindi.

The objective of his study  was to investigate the ecology of the wild banana by recording the animals that visited and utilised the plant’s fruit and flowers. Most fruiting plants in Bwindi are seasonal, however these wild bananas are special as they fruit and flower all year round, possibly providing a reliable ‘fall back’ food source for animals. Little is known about wild bananas and even less in Bwindi, so Frederick expected some exciting results.

A convenient site was chosen less than a kilometre from ITFC’s premises. Ten camera traps were set up, each on a different tree, five focusing on the flowers and the rest on the fruit. The study ran from 2011 to 2012 in the months of November to April and has just come to an end. 

Now for the results, what everyone had been waiting for! The most frequent visitors to the fruit included L’hoste monkeys, baboons, squirrels and mice which were viewed feeding on the ripe bananas, or in the L’Hoeste’s case, humorously squabbling over them (as they often do). The flowers’ visitors included some nectarivorous birds in the day and lots of bats (which are yet to be identified to the species level) and mice during the night. Even more interesting was the presence of the predatory two-tailed palm civet (Nandinia binotata) which was captured on several occasions visiting the flowers and in one case with a mouse in its mouth!

Two-spotted palm civet after catching a mouse

Two-spotted palm civet after catching a mouse

Bat on banana flower

Bat on banana flower

L’Hoest’s monkey on banana fruit

This study has set the stage for further research at Bwindi to find out more about these inter-specific relationships and to test the list of hypotheses stimulated by each camera picture. There are also some interesting implications for crop raiding. Could the conservation of wild bananas help in preventing increased crop-raiding incidents by providing an alternative food source in the low fruiting season? Could the wild banana be a new keystone species (a species which has a large effect its environment and that many species rely on)?

We hope to see some interesting papers in the near future!

On a side note this is our (Lucy and Andrew’s) last blog. We hope you enjoyed them!

squirrel on wild banana

squirrel on wild banana

Phenology week at ITFC

This week we joined Frederick Ssali (ITFC’s research officer) and other ITFC research assistants conducting their long-term phenology monitoring project. This programme was borne from a long-term phenology project started in 2004, focusing on gorilla food trees, which itself began after a PhD student conducted phenology studies linked to gorillas in 2000. The data from gorilla-focused studies was limited, so this more general project was started in 2011, thanks to a grant from WCS for Climate Change Studies in Bwindi.

photo by Andrew Kirkby

Photo by Andrew Kirkby

Every month, a team of highly trained field assistants collect data on 52 species of selected trees from plots on three transects. The team’s skilled eyes examine fruit, flowers and leaves using binoculars. Information is collected for both the canopy and the ground, on the number of ripe, unripe and rotten fruit, as well as the number of flower buds and open flowers and the number of new, old, dead and damaged leaves. The observational ability of the field assistants is amazing!

ITFC researcher observing a tree for phenology.

Photo by Andrew Kirkby

This project aims to link plant cues for flowering, fruit and leafing to climate change and plants’ responses to climate change. It is also relevant for agriculture as it can help inform farmers about pollination issues and timing of when to plant crops. Such general forest ecology knowledge is highly important for understanding the forest ecosystem and contributes greatly to other studies in Bwindi. It can, for example, inform about when certain food items as available for particular animals.

fruits and leaves of Olinia rochetiana (photo by Andrew Kirkby)

Fowers of Allophylus abyssinica (both photos by Andrew Kirkby)


The first analysis of the data is ongoing and Frederick aims to publish the results this year. Although the funding is coming to an end, the hope is that the value of this project will be recognised so that ITFC receives funding to continue this on a long-term basis.

Photo by Andrew Kirkby

Photo by Andrew Kirkby

Lucy and Andrew

TEAM back from the field

Last week Badru Mugerwa, the Bwindi-TEAM site manager at ITFC, and a group of research assistants, came back from a stint of data collection for TEAM (Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring Network). If you have followed our blogs, you will already know about this as an international network of monitoring; operating in 17 tropical forests around the world.

Badru and team heading to the field site

TEAM has been running for four years in Bwindi and along with the climate stations and camera traps, there are six tree-monitoring plots around the park, containing a staggering 3281 trees at the last count. The recent data collection involved tree monitoring at three of these plots. While recruitment was noted, a number of losses were also apparent – a surprising number of unexplained dead stems were noted in one of the high-altitude plots, thought to be due to a fierce storm. Field work is never without interesting or unexpected events; during the tree monitoring  near Ruhija in December, the team was accompanied by a lone silverback for a day, feeding a mere 20 metres away.

Marking trees for measurements

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the global TEAM network, which was celebrated with the news that they had captured their 1 millionth camera trap image (of a jaguar in Manu National Park, Peru The TEAM network continues to provide high quality, standardised, long term data from tropical forest sites all around the world that is freely available to all. The data from Bwindi has so far been used in two university theses and published in 2 peer-reviewed journals (with a third article currently in review).

Recently TEAM produced a short movie about TEAM in Bwindi, check-out ‘Badru’s staory’!


Lucy & Andrew

The search for Bwindi’s River Otters

As we set off, through the tea plantations, past the abrupt transition to tropical forest (as is often the case around Bwindi), the heavens opened up on us with the force of a true tropical storm. We continued our wet, slippery journey down to the Ishasha river (along with numerous comical slips and disappearances down holes), in the hopes we might find what we were looking for… a picture of an otter!

Frederick looking at the impressive tree ferns

Frederick looking at the impressive tree ferns

Otters have previously been recorded in Bwindi between 1990s and 2000. A social study in 2000 by Andama Edward on the ‘Status and distribution of carnivores in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park’, identified that local people around Bwindi knew of two species of otter, the Clawless otter (Aonyx capensis) and the Spot necked otter (Lutra mavulicollis), however there has yet to be a camera trap photo to confirm this.

Frederick Ssali (ITFC’s research officer) is undertaking a study which aims to camera trap in areas not being done by ITFC’s TEAM project, investigate the ecology of Bwindi’s otters and other aquatic and semi aquatic animals, as well as open up the area to further research. The study, which started in 2001, also plans to use water quality as a factor that could influence the distribution and presence of the different species.

Setting up the camera traps

Setting up the camera traps

So far, the otter team have conducted six camera trapping sessions along the Ihihizo river at the ‘neck’ of Bwindi, but were unlucky and didn’t catch a glimpse of any otters. However, they still found an abundance of wildlife including the African Golden Cat, African Civet, Bush Tailed Porcupine and Yellow Backed Duiker. The team then changed their location to the larger Ishasha river (where we went) and have been camera trapping along its steep banks.

Camera trap picture of an African Golden Cat

Camera trap picture of an African Golden Cat


After 10 camera trapping sessions and still no sign of an otter (although an exiting glimpse of a long tailed pangolin), the team plans to move their study site somewhere closer to home (Ruhija).

Let hope that, in the future, we can report that the otters have finally been spotted!

The Ishasha river flowing through Bwindi

The Ishasha river flowing through Bwindi

Andrew & Lucy

ITFC end of year party

ITFC’s 2012 end of year party finally arrived! A little overdue, due to the hard work taking place, but still full of celebration and fun. The party was not just about celebrating the end of 2012 and the start of 2013, but also congratulating ITFC’s very own Ag Director, Dr. Robert Bitariho, who recently completed his PhD on the “Socio-economic and ecological implications of local peoples use of Bwindi Forest in South Western Uganda”!

Dr. Robert Bitariho after his graduation in his academic doctorate gown

Dr. Robert Bitariho after his graduation in his academic doctorate gown

The party took place on an unusually warm (for Rhuija) and sunny day. The smell of good food was wafting into the forest as the ITFC common room filled up with staff and guests.

Special guests included: Aureliano Katabazi (Parish chief for Ruhija) representing the L.C. 3 Chairperson for Ruhija; Andrew Ainebyoona (In-charge for Ruhija Health Center III), David Nyesigire (In-charge for Ruhija Health Center II), Felix Turyamureba (L.C. I Chairman for Katoma village), Aggrey Good (Health Assistant from Ruhija sub-county), Kenneth Kiconco (UWA Accounts Clerk for Ruhija out-post) and UWA rangers; Edward Friday, Manfred Kabarangira, Jimmy Byaruhanga, Job Nahabwe and Josephat Baryahebwa.

MC Fredric starting the party off with introductions

MC Fredric Ssali starting the party off with introductions

The party started off with introductions by MC Frederic Ssali (see above) , followed by an amazing meal prepared by a collection of ITFC’s best chefs. Even with plates piled high, there was still plenty left for seconds! Speeches commenced, and all were full of gratitude, positivity and humour. Those who gave speeches included: Aggrey Good who spoke on behalf of the sub-county chief of Ruhija, Kenneth Kiconco who spoke on behalf of the warden for Research and Monitoring, Narsensius Owoyesigire gave a speech on behalf of all the ITFC junior staff, Desi Tibamanya (Officer of finance and administration at ITFC) who introduced and spoke highly of Robert Bitariho, congratulating him on his PhD achievement. Finally, Robert himself gave an upbeat speech on the hard work that took place at ITFC in 2013 and thanked all who came.

Party feast

Party feast

Robert then presented gifts to the best performers among ITFC junior staff in reward for their excellent work in 2012. Those who received awards included, Valentine Sigirenda (best camp-keeper), Beda Turyananuka (best field assistant), Christopher Byaruhanga and Dennis Musinguzi (both runners up for best field assistant), Richard Ntegyerize (best driver) and Justus Sunday (best night guard).

Robert presenting one of the gifts to

Robert presenting one of the gifts to Christopher Byaruhanga

Then, to lighten the mood even more, guests were openly invited to give speeches, most of which were hilarious ‘just so stories’ including ‘why hunger is inside the belly and a beard covers the mouth’ and ‘how the rat convinced the man to share his home with him’.

Drinks were then topped-up, DJ Badu Mugerwa got the music flowing and Dr. Robert led the way onto the dance floor. For some, the dancing continued into the early hours. Everyone left with smiles on their faces and a good feeling in their hearts. Happy late new year to ITFC and may 2013 be even better!


ITFC is home to an on-site herbarium with it’s own resident botanical expert, Robert Barigyira. To learn about the herbarium we conducted a short interview with Robert, who has been working here since 1995! Robert’s love for plants developed when he was working for CARE as a Forest Technician, assisting with field collections as well as developing and maintaining indigenous tree nurseries and attending trainings with the herbarium staff at Makerere University.

Robert showing us a specimen of a wild banana, Ensete ventricosum

Robert showing us a specimen of a wild banana, Ensete ventricosum

Being the resident botanical expert, Robert’s role involves all maintenance of the herbarium and it’s specimens, obtaining more specimens to develop the herbarium, maintaining an ethnobtanical garden and providing all botanical services to ITFC as well as to visiting researchers. The herbarium, which houses over 3600 specimens from 160 different plant families, has specimens from various locations around Uganda. Although the vast majority are of plants found in Bwindi, they also have specimens collected from Mgahinga National Park, Echuya Forest Reserve, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Rwenzori National Park and Mt. Elgon National Park.

ITFC's organised herbarium

ITFC’s organised herbarium

Part of the ethno-botany garden

Part of the ethno-botany garden

The ethno-botanical garden at ITFC (see above) was developed in the early 1990’s, after the national park was gazetted. Acting as a demonstration garden to show communities that they can cultivate forest plants, it houses medicinal and edible species as well as those used for building and weaving.

While Robert’s interest extends to all plants, the Asteracea and Rubiacea families, which are the most common families in this region, are his favourite. Even with his vast botanical knowledge, he still says that ferns and grasses are the most difficult groups to identify.

He is a wealth of knowledge and is quick to assist with the identification of plants for resident and visiting researchers. For example, he often helps to identify species eaten by the gorillas and was happy to show us some unusual specimens (see picture below). Those who are in need of a plant specialist, ITFC has the man for you!

Epiphyte - Drynaria volkensii

Robert showing us the epiphyte – Drynaria volkensii

Lucy & Andrew

Conservation Through Poverty Alleviation (CTPA)

This week we are introducing the Conservation Through Poverty Alleviation (CTPA) project, run by Medard Twinamatsiko (ITFC’s Social Research Leader). This three-year integrated conservation and development (ICD) project, funded by The Darwin Initiative, is run jointly by The Jane Goodall Institute (JGI), Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE), Institute for Tropical Forest Conservation (ITFC) and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), with support from Imperial College London and Cambridge University.

ICD schemes in the form of allocation of resource use in multiple-use zones are already in place in Bwindi; the CTPA project intends to build on this and support Uganda’s capacity to link biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation through research to better understand the drivers of unsustainable resource use in protected areas that are critical to the survival of endangered species (e.g. the Mountain Gorilla, Gorilla beringei beringei, in Bwindi). This understanding will then be used to shape policies and practices so that conservation is achieved while simultaneously supporting local livelihoods. The project ultimately aims to improve ICD policy in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and replicate the programme in other protected areas within Uganda in the future .

To gain some firsthand insights into the research phase, Andrew and I joined Medard on Monday to attend a meeting with CPI (Community Protected Area Institution) parish representatives. CPIs were developed to provide a link between communities, local governments and protected areas, and this meeting was to discuss the effectiveness of the scheme before the project was halted two years ago by UWA (Uganda Wildlife Authority).

We made our way down from Ruhija to Ikumba to meet with Gerina, Alex and Mary, three CPI representatives. After the introductions took place, the discussion slipped into Rukiga, with Medard keeping us up to speed. The CPI representatives saw the scheme as highly important for integrating communities in conservation. They shared their personal experiences as CPI representatives, how the scheme could be improved, as well as any other ideas or recommendations they had.


Medard meeting with CPIs

Medard meeting with CPIs

Later in the day we joined-up with field researchers for CPTA, who were conducting household surveys of authorised and unauthorised resource users and their neighbours to elucidate the effectiveness of multiple-use zones, and how poverty might drive illegal activity. Arrests and details of unauthorised forest users are also documented, and through GIS mapping (thanks to Andrew’s GIS skills) maps are being generated to help illustrate these activities and reveal trends in the data.

CTPA researchers off to survey households

CTPA researchers off to survey households

ITFC field researchers collecting data for CTPA project

ITFC field researchers collecting data for CTPA project


‘Anybody addressing the fate of tropical forests must confront peoples’ needs and perceptions if they are to achieve equitable and acceptable conservation and land use outcome…’(excerpt from Ghazoul and Sheil, 2011. Tropical Rainforest Ecology, Diversity and Conservation). Watch this space for updates on this exceptional project as well as more news from ITFC.


Lucy & Andrew

Lucy and Andrew’s first blog

Here it goes, our first blog of many at ITFC! Firstly we will introduce ourselves, Andrew Kirkby and Lucy Sangster, both recent graduates from the University of Sussex, majoring in Ecology and Conservation and Biology, respectively. Andrew (British/American), born in Kenya, but has been calling Uganda home since 1996, is here gaining some extra experience before attending an MSc course in Conservation Science at Imperial College London in October. Lucy, of British/Swiss origin and constantly travelling between the two, is interested in wildlife health and conservation, and is also planning to do an MSc later this year. Amongst other things, we will be picking up the ITFC blogs for the next four months and hope to keep you all updated on the recent work going on in and around Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

Although we have already been here a week and settled in, we will travel back to our journey here and our first impressions…

Lucy starting off the blog outside ITFC accomidation

Lucy starting off the blog outside ITFC accommodation

After meeting up with Badru and his family in the early morning, we left hectic, hazy Kampala for greener horizons, with a few stops along the way. Last time Andrew was in Bwindi was visiting Buhoma in 2003 and we expected a tiny, degraded, winding road from Kabale that would last for at least 5 hours. Although we reached Ruhija in darkness, it only took us about 2 hours and we were surprised by the ease of the journey, half of it through the beautiful forest. We were warned by Clemencia (administrator of ITFC) that ‘cold was serious business at Ruhija’ and to prepare for it, so were not shocked by the brisk fresh air. Expecting a cold bucket shower in cold air and to sleep in our sleeping bags, we were extremely happy to find a jerry can of heated water for showers and nice blankets prepared for us!

We were warmly welcomed the next day by all the staff and given a tour. The research station is situated in-amongst trees, just inside the boundary of the national park. The central offices are clustered together at the top of a hill with the residential buildings hidden around the hillside, with views of the forest. No field research station is without a few troupes of mischievous primates and we were soon visited by a group of L’Hoest’s monkeys raiding the compost bin. We were extremely happy to meet our camp keeper, Valentino, a very friendly guy, who would assist us with boiling water, cooking and washing, which makde us feel extremely privileged!

ITFC offices

Some of the ITFC offices

L'Hoest's Monkey after visiting us

L’Hoest’s monkey after visiting us


During the week we decided to explore the surrounding countryside. We started by peeking heads into the nice looking lodges, then proceeded to get lost, looking for a recommended hill-top view-point that we had forgotten the name of. Luckily we bumped into a few local residents and asked for directions to the ‘hill’. They pointed us in the right direction and decided to join us. Although we never made it to the intended destination, we enjoyed many hills, extraordinary views and 3 species of monkey along the forest boundary.

View from the top of Barora Hill

View from the top of Barora Hill

Overall, ITFC seems to be a friendly, fresh, peaceful place to live and work and we look forward to the adventures to come! Watch this space for tales of what research and activities are going on at ITFC!

Bwindi Mountain gorillas at 400

The results for the fourth Bwindi Mountain gorilla census were announced yesterday by the Uganda Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife, and Antiquities and the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA). It is now official that Bwindi is a home to 400 gorillas, close to half of the world’s population that is estimated at 880 individuals. This result has taken a staggering twenty months of intensive gorilla search, counting and genetic analysis. Pictures generously provided by Theresa Laverty, MPI-EVA research assistant.

Rukina from the Kyagurilo research group, Bwindi-Ruhija

Conducted by the Uganda Wildlife Authority, the 2011 Bwindi Mountain gorilla census was an effort of a big collaboration involving many organizations that work in Mountain gorilla conservation including; l’Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN), the Rwanda Development Board, International Gorilla Conservation Programme, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI-EVA), the Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation, Conservation Through Public Health, the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. WWF-Sweden funded the census with more support from Berggorilla & Regenwald Direkthilfe e.V., the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

Earlier today, I had a privilege to chat with the director of the Bwindi Mountain gorilla project, Dr. Martha Robbins. Ladies and gentlemen, lets hear from the horse’s mouth (the lead scientist) for the 2011 Bwindi Mountain gorilla census. Please find the details of our Q&A chat in BM and MR below:

BM: Thanks a lot Martha for allowing talking to me after a very short notice.

MR: Sure


BM: May you please tell our readers what Mountain gorillas are? What makes them different from other primates, and great apes in general?

MR: The Mountain gorillas are one of the two and four gorilla species and sub-species respectively. They have many differences compared to chimpanzees and Bonobos. Their bodies are much bigger…actually they are the biggest apes.


BM: Bwindi is a home to 400 Mountain gorillas, close to half of the World’s population. This is the highest number of gorillas ever recorded in Bwindi. Why the big difference in numbers compared to the previous census?

MR: We count gorillas using the sweep method, where teams intensively walk through the forest in a dense network of trails searching for gorillas. Analyzing for the genetic make-up (genetic analysis) of feces allows us to differentiate if the gorilla groups encountered during the sweeps are the same or different. Genetic analysis creates a genetic identification for every gorilla that we find feces from, and this helps us not to over or under count the gorillas.

One limitation of the single sweep means that we can only count or do genetic analysis on the gorillas we find. The assumption that we find all the gorillas in a single sweep is not necessarily accurate. This time around we did two sweeps, meaning that there are some groups we found only during the 1st sweep and some groups only during the 2nd sweep. Genetic analysis was later done for both sweeps. This is the only way that we can know for sure that the groups from both sweeps are the same or different.


BM: What does this result mean to the conservation world, and mountain gorilla conservation in particular.

MR: This result means several things. First of all, the Mountain gorillas are the only sub-species of the great ape where we see the population actually increasing, and that provides some hope for conservation not only for the Mountain gorillas but of other endangered great apes and other primates. The increase and the hope that this population is sustainable depends only on the continuation of extremely intensive conservation efforts both inside the park and also with the neighboring communities living outside the park, Uganda as a country and in terms of international support at all levels.


BM: Any additional remarks for our readers?

MR: Lastly I want to say that the end result from a census is one number so it may seem easy to determine, but the censuses are only possible through a very big collaboration among many organizations, involving many individuals. Some where between 80-100 people were involved in last census.  These censuses are a way to really bring together all organizations that work in Mountain gorilla conservation, and this one has resulted in some very good news about how all the efforts of all these organizations are paying off. I thank all the organizations mentioned above for their efforts that made this census a great success.

Kanywani and Twijykye of the Kyagurilo group, Bwindi-Ruhija

Best regards,

Badru Mugerwa

Special visitors to ITFC: cyclists from Johannesburg!

Last weekend, two young South African guys arrived in Ruhija … on bicycles! Alex and Murray have cycled some 6000km now on a tour from Johannesburg to Nairobi that started in early February, an amazing feat! I took the photo below when they left Ruhija again, after two days of walking in the forest, birding along the road and having a good rest. They gave a talk at ITFC too, telling an astonished audience about their epic journey: slides of bicycles on a canoe crossing a small river, or being pushed on a very muddy track alternated those of people they met along the way. They were not just clocking up the kilometers: they hope to raise awareness (and funds!) for water needs along their route and visited many projects that bring water closer to communities. Sponsors pay them by the kilometer or when they reached the equator and already some 5000 U$ was raised.
Alex and Murray, posing in their RFCG T-shirts and about to set off in the direction of Queen Elizabeth National Park
And what were some of the lessons they learned about water provision in Africa?
“Providing water for people’s livelihoods is only partly an issue of infrastructure and availability, and culture and education are at least as important factors to take into account for successful water projects”, says Murray. “In Zimbabwe we actually saw some of the most successful examples: systems set up and managed by government, with locally produced pumps and taps that can be repaired in-country, a good management structure. They both feel that here in the SW of Uganda, there is a lot of potential for intelligent capture of rain compared to the much drier areas they passed through.
Alex, who is keen on birdwatching, said it had been a childhood dream to come to Bwindi and the Albertine Rift at large, knowing how rich in bird and other species the area is. His contacts with people of the Rare Finch Conservation Group (RFCG, see blog on the search for Shelley’s Crimson Wing, that ITFC hosted last year) resulted in them supporting the cycle tour. The RFCG suggested the team would pay us a visit to see what ITFC is and meet with Benson -who had led the Crimsonwing search. That all worked out!
Having seen so many different places and landscapes along their route, I asked them what was special for them about coming to Bwindi and both of them said without hesitation that it was the first place on the tour where they had felt to be in ‘Disney land version of tropical Africa’. Cycling the 13 km through the park, from Ndego gate to Ruhija they already saw l’Hoest monkeys, a black fronted duiker, Great blue turacoes and even a jackal along the road!
We wish Alex and Murray good luck and safe travels on the remainder of their journey, which will come to an end in Nairobi, in August.
If you want to follow these guys, have a look at the blog/website that they update regularly

Greetings, Miriam