Category Archives: cats

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

A Date with Rare Guests – a Big Cat, Cobra, Chameleons, Baboons

Recently a number of visitors have unexpectedly been showing up at ITFC offices. Could this be due to the rainy season? Just the other day I had a date with a chameleon right in MY OFFICE! How it had gate-crashed into a closed room, no one could explain. In fact one of our staff secretly suggested that someone was trying to bewitch me.

Douglas leading away the chameleon back to the forest

Douglas leading the chameleon back to the forest

But just as Bwindi’s mist was clearing out for us to have a better understanding of this, another date was being scheduled. At about 9 PM on a dark and silent evening (typical of Bwindi), I heard someone knock. I was comfortably going on with my duties in the toilet when I started hearing disturbing noises from the forest. First, I thought it was a small crawling creature like a rat or lizard, then it sounded like something chewing on a bone, something bigger and stronger… “This is the end of you Ivan, fight or flee”, I heard my mind whisper. The noise was getting closer now. I adjusted my posture, literary for a fight this time, or at least to die fighting. As if totally ignoring me,  the creature was now aiming for the toilet. I immediately flashed my torchlight and he in turn flashed his eyes. We were now face to face, eye to eye. A very big cat, bigger than any I had ever seen! Bwindi’s Golden Cat (see earlier blog for photos). The (flashlight) tactic worked, I managed to scare him off. In a second he had launched off into the dark. Not even waiting for a photo session with his host.

As I was regretting the missed photo opportunity – I mean me posing with a Golden Cat- we had another quite stubborn visitor. The “celebrity of destruction” had made his way to the station with so many of his relatives and friends. On his account farmers have lost acres of food crops, he exhumes seeds before their germination, eats seedlings, mature fruits, stems, and just everything. He was once reported to have raided tourist cars for hamburgers. Someone here has even accused him of rape! You guessed right: he is Mr. Olive Baboon. Already our secretary had been scared off and failed to make it to the office. There were over 30 baboons all over the station, satisfying their desire for the tender Giant Lobelia plants. It was total destruction, as if the troupe had been sent to exterminate the plant from the station.

A baboon's job!

A baboon's job!

An olive baboon resting unbathored by my presence

Resting after work: An olive baboon not bothored by my presence a few meters away

Destructive and stubborn as they were, someone gentle and fast managed to escape the scene… I almost stepped on his (or her?) tail but he had not a minute for exchanging pleasantries: a diamond black house cobra (about 5 ft long) was crossing the road. Majestic! How relieved I was with his speed.

Impressed by my hospitality, the three-horned chameleon also passed-by, just to say hi. We interacted briefly before I gave him a lift back to his home – the forest.

A three horned in Bwindi (photo by Julie Larsen Maher)

A three horned chameleon in Bwindi (photo by Julie Larsen Maher)

Would you like a date with my guests, or has any of them visited you lately? Let us know  about your experience.

Cheers,

Ivan

A revealing second look at an African golden cat

We have collected the cameras from this year’s camera trapping. We are behind with processing the images due to all the other activities that are happening, but we look forward to seeing them.

Last year we had about 15,000 images to review so we expect something similar this year. It takes a lot of time. Some are obvious (like the elephant) and some are hard to judge for certain — what exactly are we seeing?

Here is an example I’ve been looking at again recently. It concerns three of the 695 African golden cat images we got last year. These three were taken just before dawn. The first is easily dismissed as too blurry, right? It is not clear what it is — take a look and see!

Now bear with me a moment … and I hope you’ll agree the result is worth the effort.

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Fast moving cat is a blur in the flash

Ok. then next we get this one …

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The cat has slowed

That’s better. That is clearly an African golden cat. Great. So next …

The cat is now moving back.

But look … what is that in its mouth? Can you see the two bright dots– what are those?

Look more closely. Here …

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Close – up: The eyes of an animal held in the cat’s mouth reflect the flash.

I think it is probably a rat of some type. Another possibility that crossed my mind is a kitten/cub — but the tail looks too thin and ratty. I went back to the first blurry image for another closer look. Here it is …

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Close up of the first image.  See the bright eye lower left. A rodent is facing us with its nose pointing to the left I think. See the cat (the cat is the blur filling the upper left of the image).

Do you see it? I am now confident the bright dot is an eye.  We are seeing a small bright-eyed rodent  just fractions of a second before it becomes prey to the fast moving cat.  That’s a drama I missed the first time I saw these images.  You? Now it looks obvious right?

As far as I know this may be the first ever image of a wild African golden cat successfully hunting. Exciting if true! Please let me know if I’m wrong!  In any case with 15,000 pictures worth a second look from last year and the same again this year we have enough to keep us busy.

Best wishes

Douglas

Our forest candid-camera network gets global attention

As regular readers know several of our activities here in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park are part of, and contribute to, larger research networks. The TEAM network supports our camera trapping, our tree monitoring plots and our automatic climate station. These TEAM activities are all still quite new at ITFC so we should celebrate when we can see our network getting recognition for its value to conservation and science.

A recent mult-author publication about the TEAM cameras has been getting a lot of media coverage. Rather than repeating it let me give you a few links so you can see the pictures and text for yourselves. There are some familiar images as well as many from other forests around the world. So here is a brief selection from several hundred sites that appear to be running the story: National Geographic, Wired Science and IBTimes.

Take a look and please feel free to share your views.

Best wishes

Douglas

Could poachers have hunted Bwindi’s Leopards to extinction?

Hunting poses a major threat to many large mammals.  It can also have a lasting impact. Just last month, a black-back mountain gorilla (in Bwindi) was brutally speared to death by suspected poachers for a reason that it had attacked their hunting dog. With only a few hundred animals it wouldn’t take much hunting to drive these gorillas to extinction — and they would be gone forever.  Even now in one of Africa’s best protected forests we see the shadow of hunting.  Some impacts though may be less obvious.

The solitary leopard is extremely difficult to spot in the wild. It is renowned for its sharp vision and keen sense of hearing, and for its ability to avoid detection. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the most prominent forests in Africa in terms of mammal diversity, supporting at least 120 known species. The park supports Elephants, Bush Pigs, Giant Forest Hog, Black-fronted Duiker, Yellow-backed Duiker, Clawless Otter, Side-stripped Jackal, Civet and numerous other species although it’s most prominent for the rare Mountain gorilla.

Although the park covers 321 km²  and a broad altitudinal range (1160 – 2600 m) several notable large mammal species are absent (buffalo and leopard) or only have a restricted range (elephant, giant forest hog and bushbuck). Recent photographs from our camera traps set in different zones of have only revealed the Golden cat to be the largest cat in the park.  So what about leopards?  Why don’t we have any?

The Golden Cat  (from our recent camera traps in Bwindi)

The Golden Cat (from our recent camera traps in Bwindi)

Northeast of Bwindi, just about 30 km away in Maramagambo forest (ranging between 900 – 1050 m ASL), the five species mentioned in the previous paragprahp are al still present — leopards included. Bwindi’s northern most forest part which is closest (30 km) to Maramagambo is at 1050 m ASL. These two forests therefore were probably once connected and it seems reasonable to suppose that leopards like the other four species in Maramagambo once occupied Bwindi.

A study by Pitman (1935) reported that leopards had been seen in Bwindi in 1933/1934. Another ecological survey of Bwindi (Thomas Butyski 1984) indicated that they had last been seen by local communities in the early 1950s ranging in the Northern sector of the park and that they had disappeared from the Southern sector in about 1972. This survey also indicated very low densities of leopard prey species such as duikers, bushbucks, wild pigs and giant forest hogs. This was largely due to heavy poaching of these species. These low prey densities may have indirectly exterminated the leopard though poaching could also have had a direct negative effect on leopards. (We acknowledge that some authorities, including Jonathon Kingdon, do not accept these past leopard records as well founded and do not believe there is any good evidence that these cats persisted/existed in Bwindi in recent decades or even centuries).

At the time of the 1972 survey  poaching was still common and widespread. About 45% of the people who entered the forest were conducting illegal acts there (mainly removal of wood, bamboo, livestock forage, minerals, honey and meat).

People should know that a leopard’s skin is more valuable on a living animal than it is on a wall. In their hunt for the beautiful skins, profit and food, poachers threaten more than the animals they are hunting for. They also threaten to destabilize entire ecosystems by removing a top predator which would have dramatic consequences for a host of species lower on the food chain. It is certainly because there are no leopards to keep populations of baboons in check, for instance, that we now have rampant crop raiding around some areas near Bwindi.

Ivan

Bwindi on candid camera 14 – Up close with golden cats

We are finally getting near the end of the selected pictures from the recent camera trap efforts in Bwindi. We’ve gone through over 15,000 but today it is finally time for my favourites.

These animals are amazing.  These are golden cats.

Some background information: The African golden cat Caracal aurata is Africa’s most poorly known cat species. We know almost nothing about their ecology and behaviour. The African golden cat has traditionally been included in the genus Felis or Profelis (full synonyms: Profelis aurata andFelis aurata) but various molecular data confirm it is most closely allied with the Caracal Caracal caracal. There are not many good pictures of these cats in the wild (but see our previous cat blogs). These pictures are special so we/I kept them until near the end.

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Caracal aurata, Bwindi, 2010.

Best wishes

Douglas and Badru

A rarely seen African golden cat

Thanks to Laila for questioning our African wild cat sighting (see the “wonderful wild cat” blog). Yes, it is indeed an African golden cat (Profelis aurata).  It is an important correction making the observations even more remarkable.

The African golden cat occurs in the equatorial African tropical forests and is considered shy and secretive. It is amongst the least known African cat species. It is a variable species in terms of size and colour (golden, reddish brown and/or grey).

Laila kindly sent our pictures to some experts for comment. You can see what they concluded in Laila’s comments on our blog. Here is what Jonathon Kingdon said to me when I requested his confirmation:

“Yes, its a golden cat alright, but judging from the staring coat and aberrant behaviour (they are normally super-attentive, very shy and wonderfully sleek- coated) likely a sick one. Golden cats are known to have colour morphs and are said to be able to moult between red and dark grey. Judging by the odd dark markings on the back, it seems possible that this individual was in the middle of a moult.”

So our observations and pictures are even more special than we had thought. Here are three more photographs from the set:

African golden cat on the road near Ruhija, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.

This all underlines the value of your comments. Please keep it coming. Thanks again to Laila for the sharp observation, comment and expert help.

Best wishes

Douglas

Wonderful wild cat – a rare sighting

Yesterday we (Miriam, Robert and myself) were returning to the institute after a few days away when we saw something remarkable. I was driving. It was about 5:40 in the evening and 8 km after the park gate.

It had rained and the road was slippery. The track has improved a lot the last year but we had still switched to four-wheel-drive to make the muddy patches easier.

The light was poor. After entering the park we were keeping an eye out for elephants.

We spotted an animal crouched on the road. I thought initially it might be a jackal – we have seen jackals a few times and often find their droppings along the road. But as we got closer it was clearly a smallish reddish golden cat with a rather mangey grey patch on its back. We fumbled around looking for a camera. Luckily Robert’s camera was to hand and we passed it around to get some pictures.

The cat was eating something, holding it between its front paws. Though it turned to look at us a couple of times, showing a classical cat face, it showed no fear even though we were only 20 m away.

The cat focused on its food – a long tailed mouse of some kind. We took several pictures before driving closer. Even at only 10 meters away it calmly ignored us.

Finally, after maybe five or six minutes it had eaten everything. Without any hurry it gave a glance our way, stood up and jaunted briskly along the road away from us for about 50 m before turning into the forest down a steep heavily vegetated slope where it was quickly lost from sight.

From the size and lack of spots or other distinctive markings this is likely a wild cat Felix sylvestris – the ancestor of the domestic animals. Widely distributed but seldom seen. Indeed Robert, who has worked more than ten years in Bwindi and spends a lot of time in the forest, confesses that this was the first time he has seen the wild cat.

Here are some pictures:

First sight

Not immediately obvious that this is a cat until you look closely

See the long white whiskers

It looked at us while I had the camera. A striking face. Otherwise we were ignored.

Off it goes

Seeing a cat on the road may not sound special … but it certainly can be.

Best wishes

Douglas