Category Archives: education

My Bwindi experiance

Today marks my 16th day in Ruhija, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (famously known as ‘Bwindi’). This is the land of the mountain gorillas that am yet to see and cross off my bucket list of 100 things I want to do in life. Just when I thought I had had enough of the Seattle rains and the cold weather, Bwindi sits at an elevation of almost close to 3000 feet, way colder than I had imagined, and feels to me like winter…only this time there’s no snow present. Apparently am told this is the hot/dry weather season…I can only imagine what is in store for the cold season! The dry season I know of in Kenya actually  means drought…the hot sun shining through the open grassland savannas and the strong winds blowing through virtually any vegetation cover spared by the scorching sun. I look around and the place is lush green and full of life with no indication of dry visible…maybe except for the white dust on the roads.

As I write I have actually lost track of dates and days. Everyday feels the same since you cannot tell the difference between a week day and a weekend.  Everyone seems to get the hang of it except me. At least I know it’s Friday today because it’s ‘movie’ night, a tradition that has been practiced at ITFC for God knows how long. Am amazed at the excitement all around, and Badru, the well re-known master DJ is busy setting up all the gear in place.

Well, one thing is for sure…this is a tea drinking zone. With temperatures as cold as this, I have succumbed to taking refuge in the Ugandan tea and the very famous ground nuts to keep me sane. I love the foods here, Valentino Sigirenda; one of the camp-keepers has ensured that I add an extra kilogram because his meals are way too irresistible. He makes the best chapatis and I have fallen victim to his delicious meals, especially the peanut sauce.

The kind of hospitality I have received here is one that I will always appreciate for sure. I have made new sets of friends and have received so much love and support and I trust the next two months will be no different. Am all settled in and ready to start working on a project that I will be assisting with. A simple monitoring tool for local community use in Bwindi’s Multiple use zones. I am excited about the project and hopefully I’ll get to learn a bit of the local language somewhere along the way as I interact with the local community members.

Veryl and friends from a walk

Exploring Bwindi thanks to the new friends.

If they make me love the place, I will hopefully return to pursue my Msc research and hopefully  make new friends with the gorillas 🙂


Conservation Throught Poverty Alleviation Interim Workshop

This week we are updating you on the Darwin Initiative and DFID (Department for International Development, UK) – funded Conservation Through Poverty Alleviation (CTPA) project. Last Tuesday (12th March), ITFC hosted various partners of the CTPA project and Integrated Conservation and Development (ICD) practitioners for the Interim Research Workshop, which aimed to update them all on the project’s progression, as well as debut the new database tool, one of the legacies of this project.

Dr. Michelle Wieland introducing the research users database (Photo by Andrew Kirkby)

Dr. Michelle Wieland introducing the research users database (photo by Andrew Kirkby)

ITFC welcomed Dr Julia Baker all the way from the UK, as well as other partners and ICD stakeholder organisations, including key organisations such as Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), the Bwindi-Mgahinga Conservation Trust (BMCT), IGCP (International Gorilla Conservation Programme) and ACODE (Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment). The packed schedule for this interactive workshop kicked-off bright and early, starting with a series of short presentations on the key findings so far. The day also included cohort discussions, question and answer sessions and group-work based on the main topics from the presentations. There was also a demonstration of the new database tool on ‘Wellbeing and Livelihood Needs of Resource Users around Bwindi’, which was developed through this project in order to help inform ICD practitioners about the ‘who & why’ of resource use – to understand the people behind the numbers, and uncover peoples’ motivations behind unauthorised resource use and bush meat hunting.

Group work session

Group work session (photo by Andrew Kirkby)

Stephen Asuma telling us about the forgotten stakeholders around Bwindi

Stephen Asuma telling us about the forgotten stakeholders around Bwindi (photo by Andrew Kirkby)


All in all, it was a great day; the workshop ran smoothly and everyone had a great time, getting thoroughly involved, contributing to discussions and voicing their opinions. Group-work sessions were particularly fruitful, producing diverse and abundant outputs to the focus questions, and fulfilling the aim of encouraging dialogue and collaboration between ICD stakeholder organisations. There was even a great media output (in the form of a radio broadcast and a newspaper article), thanks to Arans Tabaruka, a journalist for KBS radio & the Daily Monitor. The other aims, including debuting the database and updating everyone on the research were also fulfilled, and everyone was complimentary of the project. UWA’s Chief Warden for Bwindi & Mgahinga was particularly pleased with the day and grateful for the research, particularly the database tool that promises to help improve future ICD schemes around the park, helping improve community livelihoods and wellbeing, park – community relations and conservation success!


Dr. Robert Bitariho leading the discussion on the future of the resource user database

Dr. Robert Bitariho leading the discussion on the future of the resource user database (photo by Andrew Kirkby)

We’ll be back soon with more news from ITFC.


Lucy & Andrew

Uncovering the Mysteries of ArcGIS with Andrew

Starting on Friday the 8th March, Andrew (Kirkby) started a highly anticipated series of GIS training sessions for ITFC staff. Running over the weekend and into this week, Andrew helped people get to grips with ArcGIS (9.3 version), a crucial yet complicated tool for conservation and research.

Everyone listening attentively!

Everyone listening attentively! (Photo by Lucy Sangster)

After taking a GIS course during his undergraduate degree, Andrew worked hard to get to grips with GIS, improving his skills with the programme, which he has since used for multiple research projects and working for conservation organisations.

Many of the staff at ITFC need to do mapping for their respective projects and they mostly use ArcGIS, however many have not had any formal training for the programme, or found their trainings were lacking components. Some level of training is essential for this highly complex, yet valuable, programme in order to be able to accurately develop maps and use the programme to its full potential.

Andrew demonstrating aspects of the programme

Andrew demonstrating aspects of the programme (photo by Lucy Sangster)

Sitting comfortably in the ITFC common area with laptops and notebooks at the ready, Frederick (Research officer), Robert Bithario (Ag. Director), Badru (TEAM coordinator), Medard (Social research project leader), Kato Raymond (UWA warden of research in Bwindi), and myself, opened our ears. Starting with a lecture, Andrew gave a run-down of the background, basic skills and use of GIS and then on Saturday we started on a series of practicals using ArcGIS 9.3. The practicals covered the basics of importing information (GPS points, for example), building your map, as well as various other essential skills covering a number of specific areas that staff had queries about, such as geo-referencing images, troubleshooting with coordinate system problems, building quarries, creating formal maps, then to more difficult aspects such as special statistics . Despite a lack of computers with the GIS programme, Andrew got the practicals going, with people taking turns executing different tasks, with the computer projected onto a screen. Everyone enjoyed the course and came away feeling much more comfortable with ArcGIS, with a much better understanding. With the intricacies of ArcGIS uncovered, mapping is now a much less scary prospect!


Practical session

Practical session (Photo by Lucy Sangster)

Keep an eye out for next weeks blog about the CTPA workshop.


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!

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

What were medical students doing at ITFC?

These last 5 weeks, ITFC had some special residents: 6 students of Mbarara University’s Department of Community Health were based at the Institute for their ‘Community Placement’ and worked with Ruhija’s Health Centre III. Yesterday they gave their final presentation at ITFC and said goodbye. We have enjoyed their company, enthusiasm and curiosity!

The team of six came from different medical education programs taught at MUST: Hashaka Alex and Anyindo Benson are 4th year students of Medical Laboratory Sciences, Odongokara George is a 4th year Bachelor’s student of Nursing Science Completion and Ariaka Herbert, Takusewanya Moureen and Nimanya Alice Stellah are 5th year Bachelor’s students of Medicine and Surgery.

Here they are: (f.l.t.r.) George, Benson, Stellah, Alex, Moureen and Herbert


The students’ stay in Ruhija is called a ‘Leadership Development Project’, meant to expose medical students to the reality of community health work in a remote rural location, working as a team and taking up a challenge together. They started with assessing the status of health care in Ruhija, by spending time in the Health Centre and going around the community talking to people and looking at the availability of latrines and handwashing facilities. After about 2 weeks they listed what they saw as the main challenges and came up with a little project for improvement.

The Ruhija HC-III mostly receives patients with respiratory tract infections and allergies, as well as those for AnteNatal Care (ANC). The team observed that few couples come for HIV testing, that many households had no hand washing facilities near latrines, that people stock drugs (fearing shortage when they need it) and thus deplete supplies and waste a lot, that the uptake of family planning is low and that only 20% of women attending ANC come to the Health Centre for delivery.


The students presenting the findings of their project to ITFC staff. Unfortunately the staff of the Health Centre and the Subcounty were missing.

The team took up that latest problem as their challenge: how to increase the percentage of women delivering in the Health Centre rather than at home.They organised sensitisation of ANC patients, subcounty staff and church goers to convince people of the importance of delivering in a safe environment.

All six said they had really enjoyed their stay in Ruhija, at ITFC particularly: “We were told we were placed at ITFC in a place ‘Buhija’ (sic) no-one had never heard of and arrived trembling what conditions we would find. We think we were so lucky, because staying at ITFC was very comfortable and we were made to feel at home from the first day”. June was quite cold, though, and the students were often seen all covered up in woolen hats and thick coats. “But then again, walking those steep slopes around here made us feel very warm”, said Herbert.

We look forward to receiving more such medical student teams from MUST! We found them very interested in our work too, with many questions asked about gorillas and working with communities in particular. For our staff, the students were a welcome enrichment of their social life!


The Press or the science journal? Where should a scientist look first?

As long ago as 2005, a Norwegian scientist published research findings in a science journal stating that the lives of people living on certain slopes of Mt. Elgon were in danger because of looming landslides. However, neither community members nor local authorities got this information early enough to migrate from danger. On the 1st March 2010, the settlement suffered from landslides that left 92 people dead, 300 people missing and 300,000 displaced.

“Just being able to conduct your research, write a thesis and publish a paper in a peer reviewed scientific journal isn’t enough. Most scientists are funded by the public, not by journals. Why then spend millions of public funds on a study, only to publish findings in a scientific journal and not in the relevant local press?” Martin Robbins of The Guardian (UK) mused.

Such is the tone of proceedings at the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP) science communication workshop, that took place in Nairobi last week. With about 25 science journalists and 7 communication officers (of research institutes) from various African countries, the main theme of the training was to equip journalists with a better understanding of science methods and skills to effectively report science. At the same time, it trained communication officers in ways to get research findings published in the mass media. INASP and their Nairobi partners – Information Africa Organization -facilitated the training. Media houses represented included Uganda’s Nation Group, New Vision and Observer, Namibia’s New Era, Nigeria’s Observer and Guardian and many others from Ethiopia, Malawi, Zambia, Somalia and Kenya.

Science communicators from 9 African countries

Science communicators from 9 African countries

In one of the sessions, communication officers and journalists were asked to air their opinions about each other. Interesting  issues were raised:

  • Scientists and their communication officers only consider publishing in peer reviewed journals worthwhile and seldom consider contacting the local press about their study’s findings.
  • While writing press releases, there is a tendency for research communication officers to emphasize their institution’s image rather than the actual issue of the release.
  • Researchers are often uncooperative with the press. They only want to bring in journalists after publishing in a peer reviewed journal. Journalists on the other hand, feel they need to be informed from an early stage in the study.
  • When researchers contact the press, they often provide expert information that is hard to be interpreted by a common journalist.
  • Research institutes should outline duties and responsibilities for their communication officers that include attending to the public, through the media. Time and finances ought to be budgeted for this.

For over 6 hours, Owuor Otula (a veteran journalist and publisher of Science Africa) took us through drills of how to write publishable press statements, ways of managing excellent media relations, ways of regularly developing stories from research institutes to the mass media, and how to interest the mass media with the institutes’ researchers and studies. It was exciting!

The training closed with participants being awarded certificates and also being enrolled into a one-year mentoring program still aimed at enhancing the quality of science communication in Africa. This program is coordinated by INASP and the African Federation of science Journalists (AFSJ).

Certificates' award by AFSJ President

Certificates' award by AFSJ President

Going by the daily evaluations, our understanding and perceptions of science communication changed significantly during the training. Learning to communicate research better and to the right audience may be the basis for preventing fatalities such as the Mt. Elgon case mentioned above.

from a cool Nairobi?

Greetings from a cool (and confused?) Nairobi.


MUST and ITFC hold Collaboration and Research Opportunities Workshop

On Wednesday Feb. 8th, ITFC held a workshop at our mother institute Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST).

Over 35 participants from medicine, psychology, physics, biology, computer science and many other disciplines convened at Acacia Hotel in Mbarara to take part in the collaborative workshop hosted by the Faculty of Science and ITFC. The morning opened with a welcome from Dr. Julius Lejju, the Associate Dean, Faculty of Science.
Dr. Julius expressed his appreciation that ITFC had taken the initiative to reach-out to fellow university units, presenting its work and various collaboration opportunities. He then invited the ITFC Director, Dr. Douglas Sheil to present an overview about ITFC and its programs.

Douglas giving an overview of ITFC

Douglas giving an overview of ITFC

The workshop was also graced with the presence of the Deputy Vice Chancellor, Dr. Pamela Mbabazi. In her remarks, she emphasized the need to take up the goldmine of opportunities availed by ITFC for the university, more especially because of its strategic location. She went on encouraging each department to devise a way of developing a synergy for collaboration with ITFC. “I would like to see a real action plan for this purpose. For some reason we seem to accept ITFC as a part of MUST but we seem so far apart. Let’s take on this opportunity now” She urged.

The D.Vice Chancellor and ITFC Director having a chat during the coffee break

The D.Vice Chancellor and some of the ITFC staff having a chat during the coffee break

Three other ITFC researches gave presentations before we broke out into discussion groups. Each group was tasked to find practical solutions to the question: “ How can collaboration between ITFC and our department be strengthened?”

Group discussions (1)

Group discussions (1)

Group discussions (2)

Group discussions (2)

Group discussions (3)
                                            Group Discussions (3)

What came out from the discussions were numerous approaches for strengthening the relationship and how each department can seize the opportunities at ITFC; by for example writing joint grant proposals, having regular field visits by MUST staff and students to ITFC, including field courses in the curriculum of university programs so that students have a hands-on field experience. Already the Faculty of Medicine is planning to send a number of students to be based at ITFC for their community practice later this year. On February 15th, the Faculty of Development studies is sending a delegation to ITFC, and a two weeks after a group from the Institute of Computer Science shall visit ITFC.

Dr. Nkurunungi JB presenting his group's deliberations

Dr. Nkurunungi J.B. presenting his group's deliberations

Perhaps most importantly, it was clear that all participants really want to get this going.

A group photo of the participants

A group photo of the participants

Special appreciation to all the MUST staff and participants who saw to it that the workshop was a success.


Field day for the gorilla census training

Friday 9 September: the third and last training day for the 2011 Bwindi gorilla census: time for the participants to practise in the forest. I took the opportunity to go along and see what a gorilla census entails. A census team has 6 members, but you will see many more people in the pictures as 3 teams were combined for this field training .

Let me show you what I saw and learned.


Early morning briefing by Martha Robbins of MPI-EVAN. Everyone was ready by 8 am, eager to start!


Following a steeply climbing trail in Bwindi. During the census itself, teams do not even follow trails, but walk transect lines to cover the whole forest… a tough exercise!


Once a gorilla track is found, the census team follows in their footsteps till the site is found where the gorillas spent the night before (one or more beds of vegetation called “nests”). They search for all the nests in the vicinity (gorillas usually make individual nests for the night. Mothers will share with infants/juveniles)


Martha explains how to plot the nest site on a map and to complete the data sheet. A lot of information is derived from the dung found at the nests. It is measured and sampled for later analysis (genetics, parasites, pathogens, etc.)


Rangers are measuring… the diameter of a silverback’s faeces! That size and the odd silver hair in the nest give away the fact that this was the silverback’s night spot.


Dung collection is an essential part of the gorilla census


On the way back, the recording of other observations, like illegal activities, was practised. Locations for all these observations are obtained by GPS.

If you have any questions about the census feel free to ask and we can try to answer them! The complete census will take about 6 weeks.

Otherwise you can also have a look at for other recent news about the census activity.


An unusual proposal – part II – CoFCCLoT exposed

If you were intrigued by CoFCCLoT‘s proposal to re-introduce lions to Greece in a recent post you might be interested in a fuller explanation. You might find it amusing too.

The Same Boat, Different Views. (c)

Please see the Mongabay summary here and the full article here (it is free for 3 months thanks to the publishers).  Feedback is welcome.

Best wishes