Category Archives: Forest elephants

ITFC receives funds for compiling a lessons learnt report on Human Wildlife Conflicts in the Greater Virunga Landscape from GVTC

The Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation (ITFC) is happy to announce acquisition of a grant from the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration (GVTC) for compiling a report on lessons learnt on Human wildlife Conflicts (HWC) in the Greater Virunga Landscape (GVL).

HWCs occur when the needs and behavior of wildlife impact negatively on the goals of humans and vice versa, resulting into conflicts and animosity between wildlife and the local people. ITFC has previously done research on HWC mitigation measures around Bwindi and Mgahinga National parks including learning experiences elsewhere from Queen Elizabeth, Rwenzori and Semuliki National Parks under the USAID funded Wildwest Project.

A mountain gorilla in a banana plantation around Bwindi

Our previous blogs written on HWC around Bwindi and other protected areas in Uganda have included; who am I conserving for?, Raiding baboons and disease risks, Who pays the price? among others. It was from this experience that ITFC was contracted by the GVTC to compile a lessons learnt report on HWC in the GVL. ITFC is a member of the research, monitoring and Landscape committee of the GVTC and is happy to undertake such an important task.

The Greater Virunga Landscape (GVL) is Africa’s most biologically rich containing a variety of wildlife including elephants, hippos, lions, birds and the only population of the mountain gorillas. The high human population settlement in this region is a recipe for clear-cut conflicts between humans and wildlife. HWCs have been one of the biggest conservation challenges in the GVL for over two decades, posing a serious threat to wildlife, human livelihood and conservation.

Several mitigation methods against HWCs are being implemented in the GVL (see photos below). It is therefore important to document and recommend such mitigation measures to protected area managers. Along these lines, ITFC continues to be at a forefront of conducting research geared towards availing information needed to address this conservation challenge. Your thoughts on managing HWCs will be appreciated. We look forward to hearing from you.

The stonewall is used against Buffaloes in Mgahinga National Park (Uganda), Virunga National Park (Congo) and Volcanoes National Park (Rwanda)

Baboon traps have been used around Bwindi to control baboon raids on crop gardens

Our best regards,

Badru and Robert

Horrifying nights as I shared camp with Bwindi’s forest elephants

After being awarded an MSc research scholarship by ITFC, I immediately moved on to conduct my research on “Understanding the diversity, distribution and impact of canopy parasitic plants in Bwindi forest”. I therefore returned to ITFC in February 2011 to try out my research methods, before the actual research could start.

Phillemon (ITFC field assistant), myself and Silver (the UWA Rushamba outpost leader)

Phillemon (ITFC field assistant), myself and Silver (the UWA Rushamba outpost leader)

I must admit that at first I was afraid that the task ahead of me was very tough. It was going to require me to reach almost every part of this rugged and rough-terrained ‘Impenetrable’ park. But with the assistance of UWA and ITFC staff, I managed to visit my sample transect sites in the four major sectors of the park.

Terrifying  moments

One of the most exciting yet terrifying days of my life was in Rushaga (a sector of Bwindi) when I came face to face with Bwindi’s forest elephants in broad day-light! Then came the horrible night I spent with a mother elephant and her calf feeding just a few meters from my tent. Excitement and great fear for my life engulfed me. I was frozen in my tent. How was I to escape from this danger? Surely I was dead meat! Neither could I compose myself up to sleep nor could I seat up, or use my flashlight, or even make an alarm just for the sake of it. Remedy came only when I heard gunshots by UWA rangers outside my tent as they tried to scare them away. In a few moments I started hearing tree branches snapping away indicating that the elephants were leaving.

Another terrifying thing I wish to share with you are the stormy nights in the forest. Strong winds would blow across the forest canopy all through the night and I would hear branches falling near and on top of my tent. Remember that I was still struggling with traumas of elephants smelling my presence in the tent. I kept harboring thoughts of that moment when the elephant would sooner or later come, raze my tent down, lift me up in the air and then to tear me into pieces (with my tent).

One of our campsites in Bwindi

One of our campsites in Bwindi

My research assistants were equally worried. Their tent was only less than a foot away from mine. Trying to listen well they were so quiet that I began imagining they had decided to leave me there to die alone.
But thanks are to UWA guards who would spend the whole night scaring them away with gunshots in the air. What a fateful night I will never forget!

More often, parasitic plants were only to be located very high up in canopies such as this

More often, parasitic plants were only to be located very high up in canopies such as this

Climbing and walking through rugged and rough terrain while keeping their eyes up in the canopy for parasitic plants isn’t any easy task at all.  I therefore wish to thank the ITFC members (Tumwesigye Philemon and Zoreka Damazo the field assistants, Arineitwe Colonel and Nkwasibwe Chrispine the hired casual labours)  whom I worked with. With their knowledge and experience in tree identification, I managed to quickly and easily collect my data. They tirelessly worked with me to learn more about the parasitic plants. They are all my masters and examples as far as forest activities are concerned.

It's not unusual to find such tree fall roadblocks in this region

At this moment please allow me to register my sincere gratefulness to ITFC and the McArcthur Foundation for supporting me morally, financially and academically for this study. 

An improvised bridge

Such moments are some of what makes Bwindi an exciting place to research. I would say I had some of my best lifetime experiences in Bwindi. I can’t wait for my next trip their in a few weeks.

Have you had such experiences like I did? May be you want to share with us?

 Emilly Kamusiime

Could Carapa seed studies aid forest conservation?

At the end of last month (June 2011), we hosted visiting researchers from the National Museum of Natural History Brunoy, France. Dr. Pierre-Michel FORGET (also past president of Tropical Biological Association in 2007-2009) was accompanied by research partners Dr. Irene Mendoza and Aisha Nyiramana (Ph D student, Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle and University of Butaré lecturer in Rwanda).

P.M. Forget and Aisha with Carapa grandiflora fruits in Bwindi. ©Irene Mendoza

They were here to evaluate the feasibility of field work on the ecology of Carapa grandiflora (aka Carapa or African crabwood ) in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. During the one week in Ruhija and Rushaga, they traversed the forest searching for Carapa grandiflora trees and fruits. They succeeded in finding good sites for their study and Aisha Nyiramana will be returning to Bwindi to conduct her doctoral studies during the peak season (of Carapa seed production) in October.

The party gave us presentations about their studies and afterwards a brief interview with Bwindi Researchers’ Ivan Wassaaka. Here are the excerpts from the interview.

Ivan: What brings you all the way to Bwindi?

P.M Forget: I have been studying the use of large-seeded Carapa tree species to protect and save biodiversity of tropical rainforests in Africa and America. So I came to Africa to study Carapa in different countries because there is larger diversity of Carapa on this continent. I have been in Cameroon, Mali, then also Nigeria, Rwanda, Nigeria and in 2006 in Rwanda (with Aisha who is doing her PhD). So I always looked forward to coming to Bwindi to do new studies in a new site.

Our main purpose of coming this time was to evaluate the field conditions and possibility of Aisha doing her PhD work in this park. She is doing a comparative study of Carapa seed distribution in Nyungwe Forest Reserve and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The reason she is doing this is because in Bwindi you have elephants which feed on the Carapa and therefore somehow act as agents in dispersing the seeds. However, this is not the case in Nyungwe.

Ivan: How hands-on is your study? What is the significance of this study?

P.M Forget: The relevance is that Carapa grandiflora is a vital Albertine rift endemic species. It is a dominant species in some areas. It forms a major part in the diet of some animals. In some places human beings feed on Carapa. There is serious competition for its fruits and because of the many species that enjoy it, there may be a threat to the plant’s survival. It is therefore important to have the necessary information about the plant, so that the right policy guidelines can be drawn since its existence affects many other organisms. It is almost pointless to conserve the animals (that feed in a tree) without conserving the tree that it feeds on. So in my studies, we are working on ways the conservation of Carapa grandiflora can give way to the conservation of tropical rainforests in general.


Broken Carapa fruits.

Ivan: But Pierre, why Carapa of all plant species?

P.M Forget: When I started my studies ten years ago, I started working on the seed dispersal by different animal species. Carapa was not my main area of study. It was just one of the many species I came across. However, the Carapa (genus) became more interesting to me because I frequently came across it in Africa and America. In my studies, it was very important to have a model species with different methods of seed dispersal. And for Carapa, there are different dispersal mechanisms but all falling in the same model, that’s dispersal by large mammals.

It is also very interesting to me working with a wide range of people from all over the world. We actually have a group of Carapa people working in Brazil, Senegal, Mali, and other tropical countries. We have also developed a website – Carapa.org where we list all the species that have been studies, Carapa uses, ecology, taxonomy, distribution, conservation, physiology, among other things.

Ivan (to Aisha): What brings you all the way to Bwindi?

Aisha: I have been doing an almost similar study in Nyugwe, about the dispersal on Carapa seedlings in the forest. But as it came out, Nyungwe does not have similar large animals like we have in Bwindi. And if you consider the characteristics of Carapa, the fruit is hard and mainly eaten by large mammals like elephants. Unlike Bwindi, there are no elephants in Nyungwe. These elephants (in Bwindi)  feed on the Carapa fruits and could be agents aiding in the seedlings dispersal. So as Forget has already said, my study will be a comparative study of the dispersal of Carapa grandiflora in Bwindi and Nyungwe. The recommendations coming out of my study will then be forwarded to the conservation managers for implementation where necessary.

Aisha Nyiramana in Bwindi. Note the Carapa seedling in the foreground

Aisha Nyiramana standing by a carapa seedling in Bwindi. ©Irene Mendoza

Bwindi elephant — a camera trap exclusive

Last year we set out camera traps at sixty locations for a month each. That’s part of the TEAM project we told you about. We got over 15,000 pictures. While some were empty or unclear, most had animals.   A total of 15,912 images were recorded in 1800 camera days.  10,029 images were useful (images of wildlife).  The animals identified included 24 species of ground dwelling animals (including mammals and birds). These included most of the species you would expect in Bwindi: Mountain gorillas, chimpanzees, duikers, pigs, civets etc. as well as a few less expected animals such as the honey badger and jackal.  We did a whole series of blogs on them last year.  But one animal eluded us entirely … how can you miss over 30 elephants in a forest the size of Bwindi?

Well this year we have started the cameras again. The first set of 30 cameras has been set out and the earliest ones have already been collected. Its always exciting to see what we have — so I persuaded Badru to pass over the files to me (he’s out in the field collecting more cameras).

So … guess what? We have quite a few animals and YES we have an elephant! CLOSE and BIG. Let me share a few pictures. The camera was spotted — luckily it survived.  Enjoy.

Let us know what you think!

Best wishes

Douglas

Humans or Elephants – Who is wrecking the Forest?

Open ground due to trampling by elephants

Although human activity is blamed for causing significant loss of forest cover, few studies have documented the role of wild animals in altering, or indeed trashing, their own habitats.  Should we be concerned when animals do this?

While ranging in their forest habitat, elephants leave extensive damage wherever they go. Whether they carelessly or intentionally do this, we all agree that elephants open vegetation, trample, and even sometimes uproot plants thereby causing enormous damage. Even from a distance, you hear them snapping tree branches as they feed or move through the forest.


A patch of the forest opened by the elephant

Most of us know elephants to range in open savannah and can hardly imagine elephants moving around in an ‘impenetrable’ forest. Yet there is an estimated 35-50 elephants ranging in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. While moving within the forest, you won’t need great skills to tell where elephants have been as there are usually broken tree branches everywhere along their paths.

Fredrick Ssali has recently completed a MSc research project on “the Impact Of Elephants On Trees In Bwindi Impenetrable National Park”. Please see earlier blog introducing this study. His study has clarified this behaviour.

Fred’s study documented tree species, sizes and sites most affected by elephants in Bwindi. He recorded elephant impacts like bark stripping, tree toppling, breaking of branches and trampling over a series of 20 x 4m plots laid out along fresh elephant trails in four sites, varying in vegetation type. In each plot, all damaged and undamaged trees were identified, counted and their stem sizes measured. Of course this was done considering other environmental variables in the study area- the slope, aspect, altitude and tree cover.


ITFC staff assessing impact on trees broken by elephants

The study revealed that elephants are selective in how and where they feed; they target the large and usually less abundant trees for stripping off bark, and usually topple trees or break their branches, when small and abundant. Habitat change mediated by elephants may ead to increased habitat patchiness within the forest. The patches left behind by elephant destruction in Bwindi have usually not been regenerating to primary forest. Rather, frens and other quick growing plants tend to conquere and dominate the patches, thereby suppressing forest recovery. The consequences of this to the general ecology of the forest may be far-reaching but that may call for another study all together.

Some of the patches opened by elephants offer benefits. Other forest animals like the mountain gorillas prefer feeding from the herbaceous vegetation found in these more open areas.

It is a debate. If people were doing this we’d all agree they should be stopped. So, what about the elephants?  Are they wrecking the forest or contributing? As elephant numbers grow we may one day have to consider how many the forest can stand.

Ivan Wassaaka

(with input from Fred and Douglas)