Category Archives: Monkeys

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

Bwindi on candid camera 4 – Monkeys and baboons

We have lots of great pictures from the recent camera trap efforts in Bwindi.

We shall share some in a series of pictorial blogs.  Today it’s monkeys.  Actually most of the monkeys stay up in the trees most of the time, so there are not so many great pictures.  Baboons and L’hoests are happy on the ground though.  Take a look …


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The main monkey we see in the photos is the L’hoest’s monkey (Cercopithecus l’hoesti)




Olive Baboons (Papio anubis) are common near the forest edge

Best wishes

Douglas and Badru

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


Exciting moments in the life of a tree-researcher!


My name is David Kissa Ocama, MSc student at the Institute of Environment & Natural Resources, Makerere University. I would like to share with you some of the field experiences of my research work in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park which is funded by the Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation.

My research is on the abundance and spatial distribution of Myrianthus holstii, a tree that is important for animals and people alike. I selected three sites with different altitudinal range but similar levels of disturbance e.g. by herbivores (Elephants & Gorillas). I applied two different methods to estimate abundance and density; conventional plots along a belt transect as well as the so-called distance sampling method, using twenty four transects each 2km long.

No joke Bwindi is unique in all aspects and is very challenging when it comes to research right from plot design and field work. I can assure you during our transect cutting, some areas made me think that we were now Americans crawling in Afghan tunnels searching for terrorists! However, this was just the thick undergrowth of vines and shrubs as you can see in the pictures.

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a) David b) Ben and c) Christopher & Alex in the tunnels of Bwindi

One Sunday morning I went to a transect site near the ITFC Ruhija station where four Myrianthus trees were all bearing fruit. I climbed one to observe the fruits up close and I encountered tree flying squirrels eating them! They made a noise but ran away. Moments later, Guerezas (‘black and white’ colobus) arrived to have their breakfast. They managed to pick at least four ripe fruits before another scuffle started. This time, a troop of baboons arrived jubilating “whao…”. This time I and the “Guerezas” all jumped down onto our heels and scattered. With the other baboons looking on, two giant baboons decided to chase the coward taking off (= me!) for about 50 meters. See what risks we researchers take; if it had been wild Gorilla or Elephant looking for the sweet fruit, I might have perished.

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a) Raw fruit eaten by a squirrel (b) Myrianthus seedling debarked by Gorilla and Trampled by an Elephant

In Uganda, the distribution of Myrianthus holstii is restricted to the south-west, where human population very high. This research into the distribution of the species in the park is timely and the findings should guide management of the resource both in terms of its conservation and utilization. Local people are not allowed to harvest the fruits from the park, and have planted the trees near to their houses. So far, its fruits are just consumed at village level. Now people are asking park management for legal access.

It may not be just the sweetness of the fruits that people get from Myrianthus holstii; research on its roots showed they contain a 9284Da lectin myrianthin (MHL) that exhibits potent anti-HIV activity.


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David measuring browsed Myrianthus tree, debarked & what is my fate.

Just count the tails

Yesterday afternoon I took a short walk to clear my head. I watched our local black and white colobus monkeys for a while. These animals cheered me up and I thought you might enjoy them too. The pictures are below.

Colobus eat little more than leaves and small amount of other plant materials — they have special leaf processing stomachs (rather like cattle) which cannot cope with too much fruit or other foods.

Our local black and white animals are Guereza colobus, scientific name: Colobus guereza = (old name) Colobus abyssinicus. They are preyed upon by crowned eagles and by larger cat species and remain quite timid.

The newborn animals are white. They develop their dark markings as they get older. Sometimes it is hard to work out how many animals are in a group unless you count the tails.

Best wishes


Guereza ‘black and white’ colobus, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park The young one is old enough to have black fur.

2. Guereza ‘black and white’ colobus, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.

3. Guereza ‘black and white’ colobus, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park The one in the middle is holding a white newborn. See the tails!

4. Guereza ‘black and white’ colobus, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Five in a Polycias tree.

The face of a master criminal

We note the increasing sophistication of our local L’Hoest’s monkeys. They press their faces against the windows of our house on a near daily basis trying to spot something worth eating. They then wait around looking innocent, but when the opportunity arises they will then dash in through any open door or window and grab bananas or whatever and rush out before we have time to move.

L’Hoest’s monkey — do not be decieved by the innocent appearence

The face of a master criminal

But the quick dash is just one of their increasingly sophisticated strategies. Our cooking outhouse, has open brick work and the adult monkeys have found that they can push the tinier young ones in through the holes so that they can then pass out carrots or whatever else they can find.

We are not the only ones targetted.  Sitting in the office, it is not unusual to see a triumphant band of monkeys running by with a loaf of bread, someone’s dinner or even (on one occassion) a tourist’s fruit cake held by the leader. They have recently learned to run off with the office sugar bowl and tip it out where they can lick up the sweetness.

We suspect that in a year or two they may have worked out how to pick locks and use a tin opener. We’ll keep you posted.


We are being watched

As researchers we are used to observing. Sometimes though the tables are turned: the watchers become the watched.

The L’Hoest monkeys in particular have a habit of coming and checking us out in the house. They don’t just watch, based on what they see they seem well able to assess, calculate and plan. They will sit at the windows looking to see if we have any fruit,carrots or bread around. If someone leaves a door or window open they are in and out with an armful of food. They’re becoming good at these raids.

Here are some pictures:

Searching out lunch.

Anything edible?

What are you typing?

Who is the observer now?

I wonder what they are thinking.  Suggestions are welcome.

Best wishes


Mabira – seeing hope in a forest

Recently we visited Mabira Forest near Uganda’s capital city Kampala. We are collaborating with a group of researchers in Germany and Kenya to develop a research proposal to address the management of this forest and its ability to serve conservation and the local communities. We hope that ITFC can play a role by supporting local research students.

Mabira is a major forest (about 300 square kilometres). It is located on the main road from Kampala to the Kenya coast: probably the busiest highway in the country. Unlike Bwindi (here where ITFC is based) Mabira is not a national park but a forest reserve managed by the National Forest Authority.

I had not been for several years and was relatively pessimistic about what we might see. There had been a big media story some years ago about how the forest was to be converted to sugar cane (in fact only a degraded part – much of the media made it sound like the whole area) . Due to an international outcry that followed the plan was never put into effect.

We discussed with a a number of people about the state of the forest, the varios threats and management responses. While there are certainly problems there are also positive signs. The fact that the forest is here at all is a cause for celebration among those of us who have been anticipating its demise for some time. It still has lots of animals and big trees. There are innovative things going on. If our proposal is accepted we can tell you more in the future.

We saw school children coming to see their forest and learning what it provides. There is hope.

Here are some pictures.

The road through Mabira is a major highway.

Two red tailed monkeys grooming.

Intrepid visitors. Large fig trees are characteristic of this forest.

Buck at Mabira. I was impressed to see this animal.

Children wait to be shown around the forest.

Best wishes


Blogging from Bwindi- introduction


We declare the Bwindi blog open and we look forward to reaching you! At this website, ITFC staff, researchers and others will tell you about their work, lives, interests and worries. Ever since the WildlifeDirect team came to visit us, two of our local field staff, Dennis and Christopher, have been keen to get started. Neither of them have had much experience with computers before, and this is a real learning opportunity for them. We hope you can help us to encourage them!

First some introductions …

The Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation (ITFC) is located just inside Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (“Bwindi” for short), a World Heritage Site in South-West Uganda, and a forest famous for containing almost half the World’s mountain gorillas (just over 300). From the path below the station, when the clouds are not too low, we can see the imposing Virunga Volcanoes (think “Gorillas in the mist”) of Rwanda and Congo (DRC) where the other mountain gorillas occur.

Virunga Volcanoes from Ruhija, Bwindi

Virunga Volcanoes from Ruhija, Bwindi

It takes a couple of hours by car to reach us from Kabale, the nearest large town, as long as there are no landslides, fallen trees or elephants on the road. We have a staff of about 30, and regularly accommodate local students and foreign researchers, as well as other interested visitors. We have good facilities, with internet, solar power supply and rain water collection from most roofs. ITFC , a field station under Mbarara University of Science and Technology, has been involved in a wide range of research activities since 1995 and has trained a lot of Uganda’s current conservation leaders and academics. However, the station has been strapped for cash the last few years and we are keen to explore new opportunities for sustainable funding.

Though strikingly beautiful, Bwindi is not the easiest place to move around in; it is steep, very rugged and full of dense thickets – the word “impenetrable” did not get into the name by accident. Most tourists come to Bwindi for the gorillas. But the forest contains many other remarkable animals. These include chimpanzees (currently hooting loudly on the slopes below the station as we write this) and the deceptively innocent looking L’Hoests monkeys (another restricted range species) that often hang around our buildings peering in the windows – they have recently begun stealing food if we forget to close doors behind us (we’ll have to wait for market day to get more bananas). Tourists also come to see Bwindi’s many rare and restricted bird species.

l'Hoest's monkeys; not as innocent as they look!

l’Hoests monkey with baby; not as innocent as they look!

People in the surrounding areas are poor and work hard to make a living on the steep slopes. Many of them, especially the Batwa “pygmies”, used to use the forest for all kinds of purposes before they were evicted to make way for the National Park in the early 1990s. ITFC’s field staff is largely drawn from the local population.

ITFC staff currently works with three gorilla groups on a daily basis (two tourist groups and one research group) – this research is led by the Max Planck Institute in Germany. In these groups each animal is known as a distinct individual, with their own personality. Keeping track of the gorilla rivalries, relationships and comings and goings makes keeping track of these groups our own Bwindi soap-opera.

ITFC also works regularly with surrounding communities and the National Park Authorities to monitor and manage access to the protected area for the gathering of culturally important plants used in medicine and crafts. There are various other ongoing studies that we can tell you more about soon. A whole set of new projects proposed by Ugandan university students should soon be selected for ITFC support (via a grant from the MacArthur foundation) – and should start before the end of the year.

One planned activity that should begin in a few months is to set up cameras in the forest that – when triggered by animals moving past – will take pictures automatically. We can scarcely wait to see what we are going to find in those pictures. We’ll keep you informed.

Over the next months we hope that Dennis, Christopher and others will give some flavour of what it is like to live and work here and in the surrounding villages. We are worried about the capacity of our satellite based internet link- so please don’t give up on us if we disappear for a few weeks. We often have storms, and lightning is a recurring danger (the station is perched on a hill top); last year one strike destroyed our modem and gave a severe shock to one of our staff (now fully recovered).

Fields beside Ruhija, Bwindi

The steep farm land below Ruhija village, next to ITFC, with Bwindi in the background 

Our blog will focus on the day to day work by ITFC’s staff and should give you some flavour of what we are doing here. We can also keep you updated on developments in the neighbouring village as eco-tourism (mainly gorilla trekking) takes off. Over time you should get some ideas of our challenges and the ups and downs of life in Uganda’s forests. We look forward to it and invite you to join us.

Who are we? We are Douglas Sheil and Miriam van Heist, two foreign researchers responsible for running the institute since about a year ago. For a lot of that time we have been trying to raise funds to maintain the station and support student activities. We are hoping WildlifeDirect will put us in touch with people who can help. Please let us know what we can do to make this blog more interesting for you!

Two new bloggers in the forest, ITFC, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

Miriam and Douglas