Category Archives: Ruhija village

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

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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.

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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!

Miriam

Ruhija – a buzzing new centre for Mountain gorilla tourism and more

It is about 15 years ago that I first came to ITFC-Ruhija: there were 3 small houses lined up atop of a steep ridge. A dusty track to the tungsten/wolfram mine ran on the ridge, but a few people’s homes were down in the valley (nearer to water ), scattered on the steep slopes of the Kigezi landscape.

The people who first built houses on the ridge, worked for ITFC and wanted to be nearer to the station. A smart one started a ‘canteen’ for the necessary drink after a long day in the field and from one came another and another … My earlier self would hardly recognise it now : even in the 3 years we have been here, we have seen Ruhija growing and it has just become a “subcounty center” — that is a recognised town.

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Ruhija, village (now subcounty) atop the steep ridge next to ITFC

What got many local people excited, was the opening of the Bitukura Mountain Gorilla group for tourism, in August 2009. Tourism development in Bwindi had so far mostly benefited Buhoma, in the west of the park. Ruhija lies in the east and the altitude here is about 2350m, 1000m higher than Buhoma. That means a much cooler climate, and montane forest; even bamboo and heather can be found nearby. This area had received birders before, interested in the restricted range species of Bwindi that are mostly found in this, higher altitude section of Bwindi. ITFC used to run a small and basic guesthouse at the gate where they could stay.

We have closed our guest house service recently.  It needs some work and we’ll need to find funds for a new roof.  In any case people are not so dependent on us as there are now many new options in the village. So, if you are coming to Ruhija you have no need to worry: there are lots of places you can stay.  On http://www.itfc.org/Accommodation_Ruhija.htm you will find brief descriptions and recent contacts for all of them.

For reservations of Gorilla tracking – contact +256 414 355000 or email: [email protected] .

But there is more to do from Ruhija:

* a guided walk to the Mubwindi swamp (inside the park, requiring payment of entrance fee and a ranger guide)

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* birding walks with trained bird guides

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* community walks in the spectacular landscape surrounding Ruhija, incl a local waterfall, swamp

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View of edge of Ruhija community land, into the forest and with the Virunga volcanoes in the background

* visiting local artisans like the blacksmith, local healer, basket weavers, honey collectors etc

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* enjoying a performance by the dance and song group of local children

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Local people are excited about the new opportunities that tourism has brought them and are organising themselves to develop ideas. Ruhija is worth a visit!

Miriam

Trees and sticks for land stability and safety?

About a year ago Uganda suffered one of its worst natural disasters in recent decades. An entire village on the slopes of Mt Elgon dissapeared under a blanket of heavy mud: many lives were lost. Indeed an entire community was wiped away. People here tend to see these things as acts of god — that may be, but we mortals can influence these actions by more than prayers.

That area, Bududa, is a steep rugged region similar to the landscape around us in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Both areas have lost much of their forest cover to cultivation, have weak soils and geology, and are at risk of landslides. Here we have the additional risk of regular earthquakes — I’ve felt a couple of minor tremors the last week.

You may remember that last year we had a few smaller landslides here around the time of the Bududa tragedy (noone was hurt here as the falls were small and below the road). We became concerned. We had found some long gaping cracks in the ground around the station and decided for urgent action. We filled these fissures with earth as best we could, cut drainage ditches, and planted sticks. Then we hoped — it didn’t look very impressive. What can a few sticks do?

So what happened? Well many of the sticks have sprouted leaves and roots. So far we have not had more landslides. It might be working.

Planted sticks on the access road to ITFC. Most are figs and Erythrina trees. Some like this fig though less than a year old are already leafy.

At the same time as we at ITFC are trying to maintain tree cover to stop landslides, others are working, albeit unknowingly, in the opposite direction. Recently a program was started to improve the road through the national park. That sounds like a good thing, but without a proper impact assessment and good supervision there are reasons to be concerned.

In the last weeks we see a lot of tree cutting along the road, often on steep slopes. Some of this is needed as leaning trees can becaome obstructions. But sometimes trees are cut and split in a destructive and ugly fashion that will likely kill the trees (and thus their roots) even in locations where the tree is far from the passing traffic. On these steep slopes that doesn’t seem like a good idea.

The problem seems to be that a small team of local cutters is sent out unsupervised without really undestanding what is required. They are untrained and cut what they wish. Inside a World Heritage Site that would be a concern — in a steep and unstable landscape it becomes a major saftey risk too. We have notified the Uganda Wildlife Authority who shared our concerns and promptly followed up by contacting the roads authorities involved. Some of the less necessary and most damaging tree cutting should now be stopped. We hope too that the work will be better supervised.

Some of the road side tree cutting near Ruhija. Careful cutting is needed to reduce obstruction without killing the trees.

Cutting cover on steep slopes increases erosion and the likelihood of landslides. Evidence from across the tropics shows that human clearing of vegetation and restructuring of slopes greatly increases the frequency and likelihood of destructive landslides. Steep areas cleared of forest are especially vulnerable. Evidence also shows that landslides are typically more than ten times more frequent along roads than in similar, undisturbed rain forest terrain.

The geology around here is soft. Roads are cut like steps into the steep hillsides. The underlying material is not rock but compacted sediments that can often be crumbled between finger and thumb. This is a place for careful road-building and maintaining forests. We need the trees to keep us safe!

Let’s hope that we can avoid disasters like Bududa. Trees help, perhaps even sticks can make a difference.

Some of the cutting, like that high on this slope seems unnecessary and adds to land-instability in this steep region.

Best wishes

Douglas

Are medicinal plants collected around Ruhija?

Dear readers,

This is Christopher again. I have just finished fieldwork around Ruhija, near ITFC. We have plots in the forest that were set up for monitoring harvested plant resources. Remember, the Uganda Wildlife Authority made Multiple Use (MU) agreements with local communities to let them have access to the park for collecting important plants or keeping beehives in restricted areas. ITFC was given the task of monitoring the MU program, together with UWA, more than a decade ago (see interview with Robert Bitariho). Three plants that are in high demand were selected for close monitoring. ITFC samples those in permanent plots along transects that are marked with stones at the start and at the end and can thus be revisited every year.

I was with the team that normally carries out the monitoring of the MU program, all around the park. The team consisted of me, Savio, Damazo as field assistants, Joseph Mukasa the volunteer, and the casual workers Peter and Ben.

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From left to right: Peter, myself, Savio, Philemon, Ben and seated is Damazo

In Ruhija area, local people used to keep beehives in the forest before Bwindi was made a national park in 1991. That’s why their MU agreement is for bee keeping. This means, unfortunately, that basketry materials, medicinal herbs and useful vines may not be harvested legally around Ruhija. We still monitor two selected plants in this area, because we can then compare them with areas where plant harvest is allowed. So the plots set up in Ruhija are to act as controls (i.e. a reference for comparison).

During this field trip, we noticed that two of the monitored plants (Ocotea usambarensis and Rytigyinia kigeziensis; their bark treats worms and abdominal aches) were actually showed evidence of being heavily harvested. In some instances the plants were ring-barked (all bark around the stem removed) and this may kill them. The two medicinal plants are highly valued by the local people for their medicinal qualities and this is the reason they are harvested illegally.

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Heavy bark removal of Ocotea

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Damazo uses a gauge to measure the bark’s thickness

After the bark removal, the plants should be left to heal before more bark is harvested. If not, the trees might dry up completely since the bark is essential for tree.  So too much bark removal can harm and even kill the plants.

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And Ben shows the debarking of a Rytigyinia vine

ITFC and UWA could make more information from research available to local communities involved. Only with awareness and a good attitude of local people, the valuable resources will be conserved.

I normally enjoy my field trips in the forest with ITFC. Every day I come across new things and learn about the forest. I hope to see many more beautiful things in Bwindi and will blog about them to share it with you in future. Come to Bwindi and see it for yourself!

Christopher

Starlings starlings everywhere … and its noisy!

The Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is seldom quiet. We often hear the rumbling of Colobus Monkeys, the hoots of demonstrative chimpanzees, the barks of duikers, the cough of Blue Monkeys, the shrill chirps of various insects, the whistle of the oriole, the tweet of the Wood Hoopoes, the peep-peep cackle of the hornbills, the chuckle of the touracos, the cell-phone like call of frogs after rain … perhaps if you are lucky the grunt or chest beat of a Mountain Gorilla … the list could be much longer but I hope you’ve got the idea already. But the last couple of weeks I’ve experienced something new: large flocks of Starlings.  They are noisy.

The birds are easily scared so it is hard to get close.  But now I have a short video with sound that I’d like to share as an experiment (despite our slow internet I hope I can upload!).

This is Stuhlmann’s Starling Poeoptera stuhlmanni — a species of upland forests in the region.  Flocks seem to comprise several hundred birds at a time.  While the birds seem to be in motion much of the time the flocks move slowly, settling in one site for 4-5 minutes, before drifting on.

First a couple of picture. But the video gives you a better feel for the sound.  Hope it works.

Large flock of Stuhlmann’s Starling Poeoptera stuhlmanni in Bwindi at 2,300 m.

Stuhlmann’s Starling Poeoptera stuhlmanni. You cannot hear the sound in this still photograph.

Noisy starlings

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Video 1 and 2 of Stuhlmann’s Starling Poeoptera stuhlmanni in Bwindi at 2,300 m.

Best wishes

Douglas

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

Douglas

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.

Health and education in our Kigezi Highlands

I hope you are interested to hear more about our lives and challenges here.

I, Christopher, recently attended a 2-day workshop organized by the nongovernmental organization ‘African Medical Research Foundation’ (AMREF). Those of us living in the Kigezi highlands have various health problems which AMREF is raising our awareness about, especially among young people. Various local leaders as well as those working in health and education, attended the workshop. There were also representatives from each primary school in the region (17 sub-counties).

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Ruhija primary school; children are leaning against a rain water collection tank

As the chairperson of the Bitanwa primary school I was among the participants. Of course we knew already that sanitation in our schools is poor. But we learned that we can play a role ourselves in trying to improve that. The approach they taught us is called PHASE. What is it about? PHASE is defined as: Personal-Hygiene-And-Sanitation-Education. This touches on our body hygiene, food, water and waste disposal. We learned what we can do ourselves to prevent disease outbreak.

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The toilet block, for close to 100 children

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Pit latrine

In some schools there are no good houses for teaching staff, no latrines, no water tanks and water sources may be very far. The same problems are faced by many of the communities where these children come from. AMREF is trying to promote good sanitation practices such that our school going children can be in good health. AMREF will be building a water tank and an Ecosan toilet in the 17 schools in Kabale and our Ruhija school is included. A kind and generous offer, but we parents have to contribute too, by bringing construction materials (stones, bricks and sand). This is our responsibility and commitment to promoting better sanitation. AMREF’s goal is to have good personal hygiene in a friendly environment in order to produce and reach good education goals now and the future. We welcome their support.

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A full class room in Ruhija primary school

This workshop helped me in identifying my weakness and gave me a new vision regarding my responsibilities. Again to be in leadership is good, but there are challenges to be met and solutions have to be sought. We welcome any support or useful ideas.  We thank AMREF and also you for your interest.

Christopher

How wild are Bwindi’s bananas? The final showdown

Ok, please brace yourself for the conclusion of this gripping story. Today the truth will be revealed.

If you have followed the previous posts (here are the first and second) you will know that having blogged rather long-windedly about Bwindi’s supposed wild bananas I then discovered that there were no official records of these plants occurring in the National Park.  I then worried that I had been too hasty in my assessment. Maybe these plants were not wild at all, but were just like the millions of others planted around the park by local farmers. There is only one way to know for sure: clear evidence. Do the fruits have seeds or not? (Wild plants have seeds, while domestic bananas are seedless).

So … I planned a short outing to check. I needed a break and this was an excuse to escape the office for a couple of hours and to pursue cutting edge science (fun) at the same time.

We needed someone expert with a panga (jungle knife) to help us get through the think vegetation. (I have a deep scar and damaged nerves in my right hand as evidence that I am not an expert – I am happy to delegate). One of field assistants Marius agreed to come along and help. Our botanist, Robert Barigyira was interested to come along too, as were two of our student volunteers Emmanuel and Leah (good to get an outing now and again to avoid getting bored and stale at the station, Leah is helping Robert and me sort out the Bwindi plant lists). Quite an expedition.

Cutting through

We moved down the valley slopes. We approached the plants choosing our path carefully and only having to cut occasionally. It was a bright hot day.

We arrived close by the plants looking for fruit. After rejecting the first three plants (no fruit) we were in luck.

Robert proposes a plant to check. The shrub behind with yellow flowers is Crassocephalum mannii he tells me,

The massive flower stem looked promising (see the wild banana flower (Ensete) pictures here, below, and in an earlier post). Marius climbed up and threw down a few fruits.

Fruits and flowers on Ensete ventricosum, — the African wild banana Bwindi. (See fruits above left, the flowers are packed in rows around the central stem).

We waited as Robert sliced the fruits open revealing peachy coloured orange-pink flesh and ….

Awaiting the moment of truth

What did we find …

The tension builds,

And builds,

And builds,

… almost ready

Look!

The evidence.

Yes, yes! Dark hard pea-sized seeds. These plants are as wild as they come! It is confirmed.

We examined several.  All were clearly wild plants.

The top of each of the many fruiting plants we subsequently saw all seemed broken down, with the leaves bent back. It seemed that something, perhaps baboons or civets, had been climbing over them. (Perhaps when we get some automatic camera traps this could be another minor mystery we could solve in our quest to expand human knowledge).

I tasted the pink flesh of the open fruit: dry and astringent just like a very unripe banana can be. Best left for the animals. I guess the ripe fruits may taste better but do not stay long on the plants.

We were doing this for fun. But we still collected a specimen for the ITFC herbarium (its not an easy thing to preserve). Anyway, that’s another plant for the Bwindi list: a new official and verified record.

There is a serious point here too: if such an obvious plant has been missed even when about one hundred of them grow near to our research station how many other unlisted or even unknown species might be lurking out there in the rugged forests of the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park? How about the other forests in the region? There may be still LOTS of plants and animals out there to discover.

Trophies for the herbarium – a new record.

Now we still have the mystery of why these wild banana plants are so localised. Why are they so rarely seen? Indeed, yes, we have many many more pressing funding and conservation issues to think about, and I wont be mentioning it in our next grant proposals, but I’ll still be mulling it over.

Please let me know what you think.

Best wishes

Douglas