Category Archives: Mgahinga Gorilla National Park

Volunteering at ITFC

I have always believed that volunteerism is an act of Heroism. The four months spell as a volunteer at ITFC has had a great impact in my life. As a social worker, this is an opportunity for creating social cohesion and capital that are important for my career development.

It has always been my dream to work with local communities. My volunteer ship at ITFC has made this dream a reality. I have recently been assisting on the Batwa cultural values project as a research assistant. Through this project, I have been privileged to interact with Batwa communities.

Marion conducting interviews at one of the Batwa cultural sites in Mgahinga Mountain National Park

My fieldwork involves camping in  forest and with in Batwa villages. Fieldwork was initially challenging as it involves walking long distances in a rugged terrain and climbing steep hills.  Over time, I have found fieldwork very interesting and enjoyable. Interacting and socializing with local communities is very exciting. The Batwa men have always been so caring that they always give me a hand during the long and tough mountain climbs.

Marion being helped by a Mutwa man up the steep hill

Fieldwork comes with its benefits such as enjoying wild honey and berries during field trips. On the other hand, encountering a buffalo  during a  recent field execution in Mgahinga Mountain National park was very scary. I can’t forget the day we came back from the community interviews and we found our tents blown away by  wind. Frederick and the camp keeper rescued some of the tents. One tent was completely destroyed beyond repair. Tarpaulins were also torn into pieces. I have never seen such strong wind in my life. I was awake the whole night scared to be carried away in the middle of the night by strong blowing winds. Luckily, no tent was blown, and we shifted our camp to the next community. Till then, I will bring you more exciting stories from  Bwindi. Great to be part of ITFC community.

Marion enjoying wild honey with the Batwa.

Marion at ITFC

Kind regards,

Marion

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

Experiencing the Batwa trail in Mgahinga National Park

I am just back from a week in Kisoro, a town on the foot of the volcanoes that straddle the border between Uganda and Rwanda. This trip -with colleagues Medard Twinamatsiko and Fredrick Ssali- was a second one in the context of our new ‘Batwa Cultural Values project’ I wrote about in the last blog. ITFC is tasked to work with Batwa communities around Bwindi, Mgahinga and Semliki to understand their forest based culture better and to identify the most important cultural aspects for which access could be negotiated with UWA.

An important activity of this week was to study the 3D models of Bwindi and Mgahinga parks that groups of Batwa created and populated with a wealth of knowledge about the locations of resources and special, important sites to them (see earlier blog). We were particularly interested in finding the locations of sacred sites, hot springs and caves on the models and discussed the meaning of the different categories with people who had been involved in the mapping process. This will be of great help in planning ahead for field visits.

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F.l.t.r.: John, intern UOBDU, Fredrick, Charlotte, Winfred and Medard next to the 3D model of Mgahinga.

To experience a ‘culture based activity’ and hear from Batwa themselves about their lives in the forest, we signed up for the ‘Batwa trail’ which was developed by UWA, IGCP, UOBDU and USAID in the last few years. A UOBDU staff joint us. Let me share the wonderful experience we had in photographs:

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F.l.t.r.: Fredrick, Justus (intern UOBDU), Medard, Mutwa guide, Charlotte (UOBDU), Batwa guides Gad and Steven

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The guides dressed in (goat skin) hides and ranger Benjamin -translator for Rufumbira to Rukiga or English, talking to Fredrick.

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We were shown how a traditional Batwa home (‘Emiririmbo’) in the forest used to look like, inside and out. High up in the tree, children were kept safe from marauding buffaloes.

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Behind a Batwa home, there is always a shrine (Ndaro), where a morning prayer is made to bless the hunting and gathering of the day

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The walk on the lower slopes of the vulcanoes is a treat in itself and gave us a lot of time to talk with the guides

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The famous fire making with sticks that the Batwa are capable of

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With the smoke bees are chased from their hide-out and the honey combs are then collected.

In the Garama cave, the very important former meeting place of the Batwa, we were treated to a welcome dance.

…and there was more in store at the end of the trail!

We highly recommend any visitors to SW Uganda to come and see the forest through the eyes of the Batwa and not only come for gorilla tracking! The website of the Batwa trail describes how to organise this.

Miriam

A day in the Mgahinga bamboo forest

Following the field training by Douglas and Miriam, Joseph and I (Fredrick) spent 2 weeks in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park leading two data collecting teams. The data will be used to answer the question “How does harvesting of bamboo stems impact its regeneration?” We are just back and wanted to give you an idea how a day in the field looked like.

Field work started as early as 8:00 am, when it is still pretty chilly at the altitude of Ntebeko (about 2500m). We assembled at the park’s main gate with the 4 rangers selected to carry out this survey. Led by one of the rangers, we headed straight up the volcanic slopes, into the forest via a trail along a high stone wall which prevents buffaloes and other large mammals from raiding neighbouring fields. On arrival, we always split into two teams of three; a Team leader, Secretary and Recorder. We used GPS and compass to locate sampling plots in a systematic grid of starting points along a line with predetermined coordinates. The transects were 25 m apart, which allowed the two teams to keep in touch and to discuss challenges encountered in the field.

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Halera George, one of the UWA rangers, recording bamboo stem characteristics

In a strip of 1 meter wide along the transect, we enumerated and recorded 20 bamboo stems in different categories, namely shoots, young and green stems, mature stems, cut, broken and dead bamboo stems. We also recorded young bamboo shoots eaten by animals which include Golden monkeys and buffaloes.

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Remnants of bamboo shoots eaten by animals in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park

In some areas of Mgahinga, bamboo is dominant and almost the only plant you encounter. But, in other areas, the bamboo is mixed with trees, making its distribution clumped. The former seemed to have thicker greener bamboo stems while the latter had thinner greyish stems. However, we did not observe striking differences between harvested and non-harvested areas except for the fact that we could easily see the cut stems in harvested areas. We recorded young shoots in both the harvested and non-harvested areas. These data will be subjected to statistical analysis so that we can better understand the effect of harvesting bamboo.

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It is common to find dense and pure bamboo stands like this in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. Ranger Adrama Francis in the foreground.

Just like in many other tropical forests, afternoon rains are common in Mgahinga. Therefore, we often had our day’s field work crowned with a heavy downpour. In spite of this, we managed to keep our field work going thanks to a hardworking and cooperative team. The trick was as simple as keeping everyone happy by sharing nice stories, jokes and some biscuits! Trust me, it worked perfectly well. At the end of the day, we all came out of the forest with a smile on our face, knowing that we had the ‘bamboo hard facts’ in our bags. Not a bad job at all, don’t you think so?

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Coming back from field work; Standing Left to right: Barebwa Ismael, Ssali Fredrick, Mukasa Joseph and Halera George. Squatting is Allen Uwihoreye.

We now await the results of the analysis which will follow soon. We hope that this study will contribute to the sustainable utilisation of bamboo in Mgahinga.

Fredrick and Joseph

What to do with the old bamboo?

We have just started a new study in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. This is Uganda’s smallest National Park: an area on the slopes of the Virunga Volcanoes that borders Rwanda and Congo (DRC). It is a fun study.  It is about bamboo.

The African Mountain Bamboo is a key food for several animals. The young shoots provide a valued food to Mountain Gorillas and to the rare African Golden Monkeys (a species found only in the Virungas). According to UNEP “Mountain Gorillas depend on bamboos for up to 90% of their diet in some seasons. The survival in the wild of the Mountain Bongo [a forest antelope] depends on conservation of the bamboo thickets to which it migrates during the dry season”.

Bamboo are also a valued commodity for people in the surrounding communities who use the larger stems for building, old stems for fire-wood and bean stakes, and use young stems for weaving durable baskets. (In Eastern Uganda bamboo shoots are also eaten smoked … but that is not the case around the Virungas).

Botanists have argued a lot about what to call bamboos. The problem is that botanists like to have flowers to base plant names on … and bamboo doesn’t flower often which makes it hard for them to classify. The African Mountain Bamboo has at least three names to confuse everyone: Arundinaria alpina or Sinarundinaria alpina or Yushania alpina. It is all one species.

Pontious – Sr Warden in Charge of Mgahinga Gorilla National Park explains the challenge of the bamboo.

The Virunga mountains are a scenic place to work

The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) has been concerned that the Mgahinga Mountain Gorillas are spending less time in Uganda  than in the neighbouring countries. That means that tourists who visit are sometimes disappointed. One suggested reason why the gorillas do not stay longer is that the bamboo was old and dry and not producing the young shoots that would (twice a year) attract the animals to feed. It is also a concern regarding the Golden Monkeys.

Much of the park’s income from tourism depends on the gorillas and the monkeys. At the same time, MGNP management is under pressure from local communities who are eager to access bamboo. UWA asked us at ITFC to help them with a study: if they allowed local people to cut the dry stems would it encourage the bamboo to produce more young shoots?

UWA had already gone ahead selecting an area where local people were allowed to cut and collect dry stems for building and fuel.  That was completed a year ago.

So we though we could try and help. We visited Mgahinga in mid September to see the site with UWA staff. We then designed our study. Then in the early days of October,  two ITFC volunteers together with MGNP rangers and ourselves spent a few days in training and started the actual data collection. We had two small teams and spent a lot of time counting, measuring and assessing bamboo stems. Our teams included UWA Head Ranger Research and Monitoring: Barebwa Ismael, three UWA Rangers: Uwihoreye Allen, Adrama Francis and Halera George and two ITFC volunteers: Ssali Frederick and Mukasa Joseph. The photographs should give you some feel for these forests.  It is high up (about 2,500 meters plus) and cool.

We never saw any wild buffalo, though their tracks were everywhere (the rangers need to carry a rifle just in case — the buffalo are often agressive). We did not see the Golden Monkeys but we heard them close on a few occasions. There was an odd popping sound that carried through the forest as the monkeys snapped off the young nutritious bamboo shoots.

Training at Mgahinga — training is an important part of the research process.

Training at Mgahinga — counting bamboo is not so simple!

Training at Mgahinga — counting bamboo needs care and attention.

Joseph and George reading the calipers – Mgahinga.

Bamboo forest – Mgahinga

Bamboo forest – Mgahinga

In an ideal world UWA could allow local people controlled access to bamboo without it having any negative impacts … it may even increase the food available for Mountain Gorillas and Golden Monkeys.  Perhaps that is true, we don’t know yet. We’ll wait and see the data.  That’s applied research.

Best wishes

Douglas