Category Archives: forest ecology

Badru’s story nominated for a Film Festival Award!

I have been off for a while. I congratulate Andrew and Lucy for a job well done. They kept you updated with the on-going ITFC research and other activities through a continued flow of blogs.

Here is an update of what has happened during my absentia. Some of you must have already watched/heard about it. I am talking about the ‘Badru’s story’……….

Sometime last year, Benjamin Drummond and Sara Joy Steele visited Bwindi. Benj and Sara are a documentary team (bdsjs.com) that specializes in multimedia stories about people, nature and climate. During their visit, they followed Badru and his team through the rugged terrain of park, capturing every detail of the camera trap setting, tree measurement and climate station maintenance procedures.  A product of their trip was a short movie documenting the TEAM Network’s activities in Bwindi.

The approximately six-minute movie titled ‘Badru’s story’ starring ITFC and TEAM Network’s very own Badru Mugerwa can be watched in HD for free on line http://bdsjs.com/client/ci/. This is the first in a three-part series that are yet to be produced. The movie also featured Dr. Douglas Sheil (ITFC, CIFOR and Southern Cross University), Raymond Kato and Job Nahabwe (Uganda Wildlife Authority) and ITFC field assistants (Lawrence Tumuhagirwe and Avetino Nkwasibwe).

The great news is that ‘Badru’s story’ was nominated for the 40th Telluride Film Festival Award. This is very exciting to Badru, bdsjs.com, ITFC, UWA and the TEAM Network.  We hope the movie wins the award. Fingers crossed!!!

Below I present to you some of the highlights from the movie  ‘a pictorial movie trailer’. Please enjoy.

The ITFC/UWA/TEAM Network camera trapping team in Bwindi. From left to right: Avetino, Badru, Lawrence (ITFC) and Job (UWA). Standing at the back is Moses (local guide).

The ITFC/UWA/TEAM Network camera trapping team in Bwindi. From left to right: Avetino, Badru, Lawrence (ITFC) and Job (UWA). Standing at the back is Moses (local guide).

On all four:  Badru doing a 'walk test' in front of a camera trap during camera trap setting

On all four: Badru imitates a walking animal by doing a ‘walk test’ in front of a camera trap during camera trap setting.

Measuring a ‘problem tree’: Badru demonstrating how to take diameter measurements of a buttressed tree.

Measuring a ‘problem tree’: Badru demonstrating how to take diameter measurements of a buttressed tree.

Uuhm,  Bwindi’s  beautiful rugged landscape covered by the early morning mist

Bwindi’s beautiful rugged landscape covered by the early morning mist

 

How would we ever live without Bwindi? Ecosystem services along the boundary of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.

 Ecosystem services along the boundary of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.

Sincerely,

Badru

 

 

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

Frederick’s Fake Seedlings

As an extension form last week’s blog, we are going to introduce another of Frederick’s ongoing projects: the fake seedling project, a pilot project set up to begin studying what is causing damage to seedlings in the park.

Despite it being 20 years since Bwindi was gazetted as a national park, there are still many gaps in the forest. This programme aims to elucidate the reasons behind the persistence of these gaps, by using fake ‘seedlings’. These ‘seedlings’ are made from plastic drinking straws, which are anchored in the ground in a number of plots. These seedlings are checked for physical damage, and if damage has occurred, the area is examined for evidence (such as animal tracks) to attempt to establish the damage agent. This data is collected in conjunction with the phenology data as the plots overlap.

Example of a fake seedling (photo by Andrew Kirkby)

 

So far, the initial results suggest that the damage is mostly caused by herbivores trampling the seedlings (non-trophic damage), as well as by falling debris. Frederick hopes that this low-cost pilot study will attract funding, leading to a full, long-term project, studying real seedlings!

 

Andrew & Lucy

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 http://news.mongabay.com/2013/0214-hance-camera-trap-million.html). 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’! http://bdsjs.com/client/ci/.

 

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

Herbarium

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

Publish or perish

Science is incomplete if the findings are not communicated. Collecting biological data from the forest is one part, and communicating the science is the other.  My career as a scientist can be made or broken according to how much I publish, this is supported by the “publish or perish” catchphrase.

A 2012 publication by ITFC and UWA staff

I therefore take publishing of my research findings  very seriously. More recently, my colleagues at the Institute for Tropical Forest Conservation (ITFC) and I published a scientific paper in the African Journal of Ecology.  This paper reported the first large scale, systematic camera trap based evaluation of Bwindi’s  ground dwelling animal’s distribution with relation to distance to park edge and elevation.  The implications of these results on habitat protection and animal conservation in Bwindi were also discussed.

Badru setting a camera trap

We placed automatic cameras (camera traps) at sixty locations for a month each. Locations where each species was and was not detected were compared to determine the influence of distance to park edge and changes in elevation.

The 15,912 images recorded had a lot to tell. Twenty mammal and four bird species were identified. The Black-fronted duiker (a forest antelope) was captured the most times. The images also included over 600 images of the elusive, rare and poorly known African golden cat from fifteen different locations. More surprising images included the Sitatunga (an antelope common in swamps), which was recorded in Bwindi for the first time. The Yellow-backed duiker (a forest antelope) and Handsome Francolin (a bird) were more common in the forest interior. On the other hand, the L’hoesti monkey was more common at the park edge. Images of illegal hunters (poachers) were also captured.

The Black fronted duiker was captured most times

The world’s second and Africa’s most poorly known cat – the African golden cat in Bwindi

These results highlight the significance of the TEAM Network activities in Bwindi. These activities not only inform management decisions, but also highlight conservation challenges . For instance, the L’hoesti monkey  (categorized as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature) is associated with community land close to the park edge where it damages food crops. This is a recipe for conflicts between humans and wildlife. At the same time, species that avoid the edge of the forest may already be indicating their vulnerability to human activities. Furthermore, interior species, like Handsome Francolin is typically restricted to high-altitude undisturbed forest, which is declining elsewhere in Uganda.

Handsome Francolin is restricted to high elevations in Bwindi, where it is threatened by hunting for food and cultural values. High altitude forest is declining else where in Uganda.

The camera trapping started by ITFC/Uganda Wildlife Authority with the support of the TEAM Network of Conservation International (CI) and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) offers significant progress in monitoring terrestrial vertebrates in Bwindi. We anticipate more fascinating scientific discoveries from this activity.

Till then, I will let you know when we publish our next paper.

With best regards,

Badru Mugerwa

A missing ID

Our TEAM camera traps continue to deluge us with information. Our 2010 camera trap survey recorded the first records in Bwindi of the sitatunga, the melanistic color morph of the African golden cat, poachers  and many more. Earlier this year, a mystery duiker and more evidence of poaching were recorded. This time around, I have images of  pigs whose species I am having trouble to confirm. May I please seek for  your expert advice?

Side view

Front view

Front view

I look forward to  your thoughts.

With wishes,
Badru

The impenetrable challenge of an overwhelming understorey

The following is a text I wrote for tthe British Ecological Society Bulletin — that was published last month (June 2012). I wrote it to attract interest to a challenge that requires more attention from ecologists and others.  I hope you find it of interest.

___

Science journals favour tidy theory and rigorous results, but ecological science can also be advanced through highlighting unfamiliar unknowns and quirky questions. For many of us such unknowns are what makes research fun. I want to share a problem (don’t worry, it is about ecology). Maybe you can help.

Our understanding of tropical forest dynamics has advanced considerably over recent decades. We now have vast data-sets tracking hundreds of thousands of tree stems over areas of 50 hectares or more. Numerous processes have been quantified in detail. Remaining unknowns may appear to be minor gaps that will soon be filled. But, for some locations, these impressions are misleading.

For the last few years I have been based in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park – a World Heritage Site in Southwest Uganda. We can see Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo from here. The site is known for supporting half the World’s remaining mountain gorillas; a major “see them before you die”-tourist-draw that brings in significant revenues to support conservation and the region’s economy. I help run a research station that focuses on the needs of local conservation practitioners (see ITFC.org). We have various day-to-day challenges ourselves – of which I may share more another time – but here I want to focus on our inadequate grasp of forest dynamics.

Living in a salad bowl: fewer than 800 mountain gorillas remain (Photograph Douglas Sheil)

What’s in a name

First, consider the name Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. That “Impenetrable” often leads to raised eyebrows, disbelieving laughter and accusations of ill-judged humour. But it is not a joke: “Impenetrable” is there in the official name. Ask why and you reveal you have not yet been here. Bwindi is rugged, steep and divided by cliffs but the key feature is the thick understorey. It is near impossible to walk through. The main element of this understorey challenge, superseding even the impressively rich flora of noxious nettles, barbed briars and spiny Acanthus, is its remarkable density. Understanding this forest by looking at the trees alone is probably harder than walking through it without tripping over the understorey.

Impenetrable forest – where are the seedlings? (Photograph Douglas Sheil)

Let me sketch out a few local features. The climate here is cool with altitudes up to 2,600m (we huddle at the fire at night). Being one degree south of the equator, seasonal variation is limited but we have two wetter and two drier seasons. Much of the forest canopy is open and there are extensive clearings – this likely reflects slow or stalled recovery from past disturbance (human activities, fires, landslides and elephants are all blamed). Small trees are scarce over large areas – suggesting limited regeneration. Many clearings are filled with persistent bracken fern Pteridium aquilinum (L.) Kuhn.reminiscent of the forests near where I grew up in Ireland. Other understorey species dominate other areas both with and without tree cover. Many of the common understorey species are synchronously monocarpic, living for a decade or more before flowering, seeding and dying en masse. . Examples include the African mountain bamboo (Yushania alpina (K. Schum.) Lin. Poaceae). Like many gregarious bamboo species elsewhere, it forms extensive stands and flowers only every few decades. Other monocarpic understorey plants include various Acanthaceae including several Mimulopsis spp.. One thicket forming species is Mimulopsis arborescens C.B. Clarke. It grows to 4 meters tall and bears multiple soft-woody stems with interlocking stilt-roots that are near impossible to walk through – this plant covers large areas of the forest. Along with another common monocarpic Mimulopsis species (M. solmsii Schweinf.) this is among the mountain gorillas’ most plentiful food plants. Both these Mimulopsis species flowered, seeded and died over the last two years.

ITFC researchers work among the woody remains and seedling carpets of the monocarpic liana Sericostachys scandens (Amaranthaceae): note the bamboo in the background (Photograph Douglas Sheil)

A liana that was abundant in Bwindi just three years ago is also monocarpic. Sericostachys scandens Gilg. & Lopr. (Amaranthaceae) used to cover almost every tree over large areas of forest. Then 3 years ago it flowered and for months its fluffy seeds were everywhere. It is now hard to spot a plant aside from seedlings. Large dead crumbling stems lie in heaps in parts of the forest.

So to recap: large areas of the forest are dominated by a dense understorey. Many of these plants are monocarpic and achieve high densities in cycles that must impact the recruitment opportunities of other plants. Trees are locally patchy and seedlings are often rare. The behaviour of the non-tree vegetation appears key in understanding the dynamics of these forests and, by implication, the animal species such as the mountain gorillas that they sustain.

These issues are not simply a matter of curiosity: major concerns have been raised about the long term management of the forest. These are practical questions. What, for example, should be done about the forest’s vulnerability to fire and to alien species (such as Lantana camara L. now spreading in the northern lower part of the forest)? Specific questions have been raised about maintaining conservation values. Recently the park authorities suggested it may be necessary to artificially maintain gorilla food species by cutting trees. We don’t have anything close to the understanding needed to address these concerns with confidence.

Fun fun fun

How can we get a handle on the key relationships within this complex patchy mountain forest vegetation? How can we, in only a few years of affordable research, grasp how outcomes are determined? If we can’t do that can we at least begin to clarify, gather and store the information that future researchers will need to better address these impenetrable problems? We have some plots with a few thousand tagged trees already. We also acknowledge valuable research elsewhere on seedling-understorey interactions, bracken control, and many other key issues. But we’ll need more, including the sustained funding to achieve it. So can we address this in easy bite-sized pieces? Ideally we would support local students and build capacity as we did it. I am hoping you may have suggestions. If you do please let me know, better still drop by and see just how impenetrable the forest here really is.

Left: Bwindi before, and right:, after last year’s understorey die-back (Photographs by Miriam van Heist)

Hope to hear your thoughts.

Douglas