Category Archives: Uganda

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

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

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

ITFC olympics and au revoir











Well, the olympics have begun … you may be surprised to learn that ITFC was involved. Last Saturday we had, what we hope might become the first of many, ITFC “olympic fun days”.


Field staff, students, staff and volunteers participated in the volley ball


Fredrick Ssali, head organiser of the ITFC Olympics, being very active in the games himself

The day started with jogging (at 7.30am!) and football, then volley-ball, table-tennis and frisbee and then, due to the rain, events switched to indoor entertainments (videos). Then in the evening there was a small party that included ITFC staff, and the Uganda Wildlife Authority rangers and warden from the local Ruhija post, and various local friends. IMG_1642.JPG

Lots of fun and dancing till midnight.

Part of the reason for the festivities is that Miriam and I plan to take a break from ITFC. We have been here for four years.  I’ll take a one year sabbatical at Southern Cross University (Lismore NSW) Australia where we shall be based from September 2012. Miriam and I shall continue to provide support and guidance from afar. ITFC’s day-to-day operations will not be affected as Robert Bitariho will be Acting Director. We’ll stay in touch and plan to get back.  We hope there’ll be a few new ITFC bloggers in the next months …


From left to right: Raymond Kato (Bwindi’sWarden for Research and Monitoring), Robert Bitariho and Douglas Sheil

Best wishes,

Douglas and Miriam

97 new species for Bwindi, 33 for Uganda and 4 for science … and counting

You may remember we hosted a study of our lichens here in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park earlier this year. Recently I asked Andreas for an update. He sent an interim report developed with his colleagues in Sweden: Lena and Thor.

Let me share a short summary.

The collections have turned out to be richer, and indeed more exciting, than we had anticipated. To summarise progress : of 240 distinct species 99 have been identified and confirmed so far. Each record has to be carefully checked and confirmed. This process is continuing.

Of the 99 species identified, four are new to science. 33 additional species are reported for the first time in Uganda and one appears to be new for Africa. All but two of these 99 species (i.e. 97) are reported for the first time from Bwindi.

Andreas gives a training on lichens in ITFC Bwindi earlier in 2011

Still many new species out there? Bwindi near Ruhija

The species thought new to Africa is Coenogonium leprieurii. Andreas and co. say the four new species will be formally described within the next few months (provisional names: Acanthotrema nuda, Arthonia physcidiicola, Chiodecton sorediatum and Crypthonia coccifera). I shall be lobbying for an “ITFCensis” or two in there.

In the longer run when we have the species sorted the fuller ecological characterisation will be done (what species like what kind of environments etc) … We’ll keep you informed. That study will clarify the relationship of these species with climate and other factors.

It may be a while until lichen tourism competes with gorilla tourism — but who knows? Don’t underestimate Bwindi’s lichens.

Best wishes


Where are the Endemic Bird Areas (EBAs) in Uganda?

Endemic bird areas (EBAs), defined by BirdLife International, are geographical areas home to at least two endemic bird species whose ranges (i.e with a world distribution of less than 50,000 km²) are restricted to a relatively small area. More than 70% of such species are also globally threatened with extinction. For this reason, EBAs should be high on our list of habitats to protect. Though the focus is on birds, however, the idea has great significance for the conservation of other species, and of biodiversity in general.

In 1998, the book Endemic Bird Areas of the World cemented the connection between endemic birds and biodiversity, and argued that it’s critically important to protect these areas: “At the ecosystem level, biodiversity underpins the ecological processes that are vital to human life, for example in influencing global climate patterns, in mediating the carbon cycle, in safeguarding watersheds, and in stabilizing soils to prevent desertification” (p. 13).

Birdlife International now recognizes 218 EBAs and lobbies for their conservation.

Uganda has parts of three EBAs.: the Albertine Rift Mountains (EBA 106), Eastern Zaire lowlands (EBA 107) and Kenya Mountains (EBA 109). There are 31 restricted-range species in Uganda, five of which categorized as Vulnerable: namely African Green Broadbill, Karamoja Apalis, Grauer’s Rush Wabler, Shelley’s Crimsonwing and Chapin’s Flycatcher.

The Shelleys Crimsonwing

The Shelley's Crimsonwing

The Albertine Rift mountains (classified Priority Urgent) has 36 restricted range species, 10 of which are threatened. It includes the Rwenzori Mountains (5010m ASL) and several other highlands in Southwestern Uganda (ranging between 2000 and 3500 m ASL) with wildlife protected areas namely: Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Echuya Forest Reserve, and the national parks of the Virungas. The restricted range species include the monotypic endemic genera Pseudocalyptomena, Graueria and Hemitesia. They mostly range in montane forest, bamboo zone, highland swamps and Afro-alpine moorland.

Nectarinia stuhimanni is only known to range in the Rwenzori ranges.

Nectarinia stuhimanni is only known to range in the Rwenzori ranges.

The Ugandan portion of Eastern Zaire lowlands EBA (classified Priority High) lies in the northwestern sector of Semliki Forest (Semliki National Park) touching DRC’s great Ituri Forest. Semliki Forest is outstandingly rich in wildlife and internationally recognized: it contains half as many bird species as the entire DRC and nearly two thirds as many as the 181,000 km² of the Upper Guinea Forests. Globally threatened species (Near-threatened) here include the Great Snipe, White-naped Pigeon, Sassi’s Greenbul, Papyrus Gonolek and Forest Ground Thrush.

A section of the Rwenzori ranges habitat. The park contains 17 Albertine endemics.

A section of the Rwenzori ranges habitat. The park contains 17 Albertine endemics.

Uganda’s fraction of Kenyan Mountains EBA lies on the country’s portion of Mount Elgon extending for about 80 km north/south and 50 km east/west. On its slopes is a 900 km² forest extending across the Uganda-Kenya frontier, gazetted as Mount Elgon National Park on either side. The bird diversity totals 300 species (three confined to this EBA, and one near threatened species – Taita Falcon). The restricted range species include Francolinus jacksoni, Macronyx sharpie and Cisticola hunter.

Over 25% of all bird species (2561 species) have restricted ranges being confined to areas less than 5000 km². Of these 816 are threatened species, yet most (80%) of the 62 species that have gone extinct in the last 200 years had restricted ranges. 77% of EBAs are located in the tropics and subtropics.

From a global perspective, the most essential feature of EBAs is that they include important numbers of the globally threatened species in somewhat small regions, as well as vast numbers of other organisms. They deliver a chance for maximum conservation with minimum effort.

Further Reading/ Sources:

Endemic Bird Locations. BirdLife International.

Endemic Bird Regions of the Planet: Priorities for Biodiversity Conservation. Stattersfield, A. J., M. J. Crosby, A. J. Long et al. (BirdLife Conservation Series No. 7.) BirdLife International. 1998.


An interview with Douglas Sheil

Dear readers,

remember we presented our staff Robert, Badru, Emmanuel and Peter in this blog some time ago? We had a few more interviews in the pipeline, but too much other stuff was happening so we delayed! We now introduce Douglas Sheil, the current director of the Institute (ITFC).

“I am a forest ecologist. I have worked with ITFC as the director for over two and a half years. The job is a real mixture of tasks. I often deal with correspondence regarding new research ideas and funds for the institute. I also have a lot of communication with people interested in doing research with ITFC. I sometimes get to work closely with students and researchers and get involved with solving the various challenges of their research – that can be fun.

Before working here at ITFC, I spent ten years in an international organisation in Indonesia. It was a great place to do research but I left as I felt that life had become a bit too comfortable. I needed a new challenge. I had been saying that I would welcome the chance to work for an African university for a while, or to work somewhere a bit wild; so naturally, when I saw the job of director advertised for ITFC in Bwindi, I applied! Miriam (van Heist) and I agreed to share the job between us (half time each). We already knew ITFC and Bwindi (a beautiful place!) so we were excited about this opportunity.


“I love being surrounded by the Bwindi Impenetrable forest!”

One aspect of the work that I enjoy is the variety. Bwindi is such a remarkable place too, I still see new things nearly every day. It can be a lot of fun to work with enthusiastic students, staff and visiting researchers. Of course I also enjoy the research itself – though I generally spend more time in the office than I would wish!

There are various trip opportunities. For example, for one project we have visited many of the protected areas of Uganda, and discussed with the managers the challenges that they’re facing. The goal of much of our research is to assist with those problems.

Our main challenge at ITFC is funding – nothing is guaranteed in the long term. We always seem to need additional funds to fix something or address a new challenge. That part of the work is seldom fun – it can be frustrating – but it is important.

ITFC’s role in conservation is important. We must ensure people with the knowledge and skills to deal with the various challenges within the region not only now but in the future. Education is vital.”

This blog was written by Alex Pinsker, based on an interview with Douglas

Is it getting too hot for Mountain Gorillas?

Last week Robert, Badru, Douglas and I went to our local town, Kabale, to participate in the closing workshop of the ‘Gorilla Conservation and Climate Change’ project run by AWF-IGCP and EcoAdapt. This project has been collecting and synthesising data and expert views concerning the consequences of climate change for the endangered Mountain Gorillas. The aim is to develop an action plan for climate adaptation. The project had financial support from the MacArthur Foundation — also a major donor to ITFC.

A broad group of participants attended:  protected area managers, research stations, conservation NGOs, and local governments from Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. We were there to share and review the outcomes of the project and to prioritise and clarify adaptation strategies based on the results of previous workshops.


Isabella Masinde (AWF-Nairobi) presents the outcome of the project to the stakeholders (photo by Anna Behm Masozera, Communications Officer IGCP – Kigali

The main threat of climate change for mountain gorillas appears to be that it comes on top of so many other existing pressures (population growth and increasing pressure on protected areas, diseases, poaching and other illegal activities). Therefore the workshop highlighted the importance of strong communication, support, and coordination among stakeholders focused on gorilla conservation and those focused on human well-being.

Participants still expressed diverse views on the reality and cause of climate change. But at the same time, no-one doubted the benefits to conservation and human welfare of most of the many proposed strategies for ‘climate change adaptation’. Workgroups on different themes prioritised these strategies for action.


Too hot for you in the sun?

Little is known about the impact of climate change on the gorillas … and many unanswered questions came up. There’ll be plenty of research to keep ITFC and our partners busy for a while.


and eh… Douglas asked me to mention that in the evening ITFC won the pool competition with Karisoke research station (Felix anyway)!

Great Blue Touraco

Unlike some I do not get up early in the morning and run about happily with binoculars looking at small birds or other feathered fauna. Not before I’ve had my coffee anyway. But Bwindi’s remarkable birds are not wholly wasted on me.

My favourite is not one of the local specialities (we have several highly restricted species). Indeed it can be found in suitable forest habitat right across the wetter regions of tropical Africa (including in the suburbs of Kampala). They may not be super rare but I always smile to see them.

If you gave a child a packet of coloured pencils and asked them to draw a tropical forest bird the chances are that they would come up with something bright and slightly ungainly. Perhaps something like the Great Blue Touraco.

We often come across these birds in the forest during the day, or around the station in the evening. They often move in noisy groups. They are not small birds, but seem vaguely unaware of this: in the late evening when looking for a place to roost, they often sit on thin twigs which bend or indeed break under their not inconsiderable weight apparently unaware how over-sized they appear.

Three Great Blue Touraco, Bwindi.

Great Blue Touraco. A large blue bird, with a plume on its head and a bright yellow beak with a red tip.

Great Blue Touraco — a wonderful animal

They are relatively timid animals. It is hard to get close …. so the above are the best pictures I’ve managed.

According to online information the Great Blue is the largest of the Touraco family and can weigh more than a kilogram (2.2 pounds). It feeds mainly on fruits. It is not considered especially endangered but it is not safe either.  It is subject to habitat loss and is listed also on CITES (a species regulated under international trade under the “Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species”). The Great Blue is wonderful.

Best wishes


If you suffered from crop-raiding animals you’d help implement the solutions wouldn’t you?

Hello – It’s Emmanuel again. I have recently taken on a new responsibility at ITFC Where I coordinate the “Wild West” project. WILD West stands for Wild Life Landscapes and Development for Conservation in the western part of Uganda, this project is funded by USAID and WCS. In this project one of ITFC’s activities is to review the uptake of different measures that have been used around the Bwindi Mgahinga Conservation Area to reduce the problem caused by animals destroying crops.

About a month ago I joined a trip to Queen Elizabeth Conservation Area (QECA), Kibale National Park and Rwenzori National Park (all in Western Uganda). This was our bid to learn from the experiences of the local communities there on dealing with problem animals. Douglas told you a bit about it already. Certain important issues there came to mind, if the uptake of some these control measures are to be successful in reduction of crop raids:

· Community ownership and participation in both the introduction and maintenance of these approaches are a necessity.

· Trust between communities and the local authorities, communities and park management and between communities themselves.

Let’s look at each of these more critically and see how they may influence the success or deter the success of different approaches.


Chatting with farmers whose crops had been raided by elephants in QECA

Community ownership is very important as people appreciate something more when they believe that it belongs to them. They are also more willing to care for it more. Consider for example when the ditches were being introduced in QECA: the local communities were facilitated to dig the ditches and were also supported with initial maintenance, these were ditches meant to protect these same communities and their gardens from the elephants. All seems well. The ditches work. The problem arises when the funding stops – these communities have been looking at ditch maintenance as an income generating activity other than a means to reduce on crop raid by elephants. The end result is that people now neglect maintenance. The ditches break, crop raiding becomes a problem again and the intervention has failed. Even though it worked, there was not enough ownership for it to be sustained.

Trust is a tricky one and too easily lost when promises are not fulfilled. For example people who lose crops to park animals – the park management may promise them help and support to develop approaches against the animals with money generated from tourism. When the park management sends the money to the local authorities the money is not used for what it was meant for (this is remarkably common) and the front line communities do not get the promised help. The authorities may opt for something like construction of a school or medical centre all in good faith. Helpful yes, a real gain to many, but it does not address the animal problem. Then a cycle of mistrust and blame begins: communities condemn the park management for not achieving what was promised (or at least expected). Park management blames local authorities for not using the money for what it was meant for. Soon it is hard to agree and coordinate anything let alone a means to reduce the crop raiding animals that requires broad agreement and investments from many people.


Unmaintained ditch in QECA where animals can cross easily from the park


Ruth a ranger in Rwenzori National Park shows us a Mauritius thorn hedge well maintained by communities with support from Park Management.

It’s not all negative of course. There are positive stories too, and we can learn from them. For instance in Rwenzori National Park.The communities, UWA and the local government have come to an agreement. That money from tourism should be used to help front line communities as the first priority. Secondly communities fully participate in the maintenance of the Mauritius thorn hedge without any reservation with support from UWA. This is a clear indication that it can be done if communities have enough faith in an approach.

These are just my initial reflection based on discussions with communities and UWA staff. I believe this problem is more complicated than many like to believe. What is needed could be the clear understanding of what input from the start is required by each stake holder. From the researcher, community, UWA, donor and local government. In order to have a successful approach at the end of the day. Like I said before these are just my first thoughts, please share with me what you think, I will be more than willing to share your views with the communities and all stake holders I work with.

Many thanks go USAID and WCS for funding this project.

Best wishes, Emmanuel

This study is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and Wildlife Conservation Society. The contents are the responsibility of the Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID, the United States Government or the Wildlife Conservation Society.