Category Archives: vegetation

ITFC’s website gets a new look

Friends of Bwindi researchers , we are delighted and excited to share with you some of the milestones from our rather long silence. We have been updating our (ITFC) website. We are going live today with this revamped look. It’s dynamic, glossy and updated.

Please kindly check it out here www.itfc.org or www.must.itfc.ac.ug

Yours sincerely,

Badru

Responding to Human Wildlife Conflict: The Planning progression of Nkuringo Buffer zone Management Plan (NBZMP) on board again!

The raison d’être why Gorillas are spilling over to community land are not yet known despite the rich diversity of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (Bwindi). In rejoinder to human wildlife conflict between the communities of Nkuringo and the Mountain Gorillas and other fauna in Bwindi, Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) together with its partners including the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP), ITFC, Nkuringo Community Conservation Development Fund (NCCDF), Kisoro District Local Government (KLG) came together to generate yet another strategic management plan for the next five years (2014-2018).

ITFC’s very own Medard Twinamatsiko who is a member of the planning committee fully participated in a week closed door planning session in Kisoro. The UWA’s Senior Planning Officer –Richard Kapere and the Senior Warden Southern Sector John Justice Tibesigwa facilitated the sessions. Other members included; Stephen Asuma- Country Representative IGCP, Olivia Biira (Community Conservation Warden-UWA),Raymond Kato-Ecological Monitoring Warden- UWA, Richard Munezero (KDLG), Innocent and Auleria from NCCDF.

The seven days interface was not an easy one but greatly successful. It involved desk reviews and evaluations as well reconnaissance visits to the Nkuringo Buffer zone. The two days of field work were too enjoyable in the beginning but hectic and kawa in the afternoon epoch. It rained cats and dogs with most of the planning team members caught unaware of the somber dropdowns in the hills of Nkuringo. There was hardly any sanctuary for the planning squad and therefore had to succumb to the nature vagaries. Medard and Richard had no choice but to succumb to the heavy down pours since they had not carried water proof jackets. This was a good lesson for the next field day.

Many events were observed by the planning team. These included; the regeneration of the inner zone, the emergency of exotic plant species and poor maintenance of the Mauritius hedge fence by the local communities. Interesting to note was that tea planting has taken a serious route in the outer zone with almost ¾ of the land planted. This activity is being undertaken by National Agriculture Advisory Services through its sub contract- Kigezi Tea Company- a local company. Many local community members have tested on the syrupy dime being offered to plant tea. It was also witnessed that a road is being constructed by the local people to connect to the tea area. Such developments are highly welcomed by the local residents of Nkuringo and are optimistic of future prospects! IGCP is acknowledged for facilitating the planning process with the required logistics. Keep watch on this space!

Reconnaissance field discussions in the outer buffer zone

Reconnaissance field discussions in the outer buffer zone

 

Raining cats and dogs on the planning team in the outer cleared bufferzone

Raining cats and dogs on the planning team in the outer cleared buffer zone

A tired but  not retired team in the newly constructed road down to the buffer zone in Nteko

A tired but not retired team in the newly constructed road down to the buffer zone in Nteko

My warm regards,

Medard

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

Frederick’s Fake Seedlings

As an extension form last week’s blog, we are going to introduce another of Frederick’s ongoing projects: the fake seedling project, a pilot project set up to begin studying what is causing damage to seedlings in the park.

Despite it being 20 years since Bwindi was gazetted as a national park, there are still many gaps in the forest. This programme aims to elucidate the reasons behind the persistence of these gaps, by using fake ‘seedlings’. These ‘seedlings’ are made from plastic drinking straws, which are anchored in the ground in a number of plots. These seedlings are checked for physical damage, and if damage has occurred, the area is examined for evidence (such as animal tracks) to attempt to establish the damage agent. This data is collected in conjunction with the phenology data as the plots overlap.

Example of a fake seedling (photo by Andrew Kirkby)

 

So far, the initial results suggest that the damage is mostly caused by herbivores trampling the seedlings (non-trophic damage), as well as by falling debris. Frederick hopes that this low-cost pilot study will attract funding, leading to a full, long-term project, studying real seedlings!

 

Andrew & Lucy

Phenology week at ITFC

This week we joined Frederick Ssali (ITFC’s research officer) and other ITFC research assistants conducting their long-term phenology monitoring project. This programme was borne from a long-term phenology project started in 2004, focusing on gorilla food trees, which itself began after a PhD student conducted phenology studies linked to gorillas in 2000. The data from gorilla-focused studies was limited, so this more general project was started in 2011, thanks to a grant from WCS for Climate Change Studies in Bwindi.

photo by Andrew Kirkby

Photo by Andrew Kirkby

Every month, a team of highly trained field assistants collect data on 52 species of selected trees from plots on three transects. The team’s skilled eyes examine fruit, flowers and leaves using binoculars. Information is collected for both the canopy and the ground, on the number of ripe, unripe and rotten fruit, as well as the number of flower buds and open flowers and the number of new, old, dead and damaged leaves. The observational ability of the field assistants is amazing!

ITFC researcher observing a tree for phenology.

Photo by Andrew Kirkby

This project aims to link plant cues for flowering, fruit and leafing to climate change and plants’ responses to climate change. It is also relevant for agriculture as it can help inform farmers about pollination issues and timing of when to plant crops. Such general forest ecology knowledge is highly important for understanding the forest ecosystem and contributes greatly to other studies in Bwindi. It can, for example, inform about when certain food items as available for particular animals.

fruits and leaves of Olinia rochetiana (photo by Andrew Kirkby)

Fowers of Allophylus abyssinica (both photos by Andrew Kirkby)

 

The first analysis of the data is ongoing and Frederick aims to publish the results this year. Although the funding is coming to an end, the hope is that the value of this project will be recognised so that ITFC receives funding to continue this on a long-term basis.

Photo by Andrew Kirkby

Photo by Andrew Kirkby

Lucy and Andrew

TEAM back from the field

Last week Badru Mugerwa, the Bwindi-TEAM site manager at ITFC, and a group of research assistants, came back from a stint of data collection for TEAM (Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring Network). If you have followed our blogs, you will already know about this as an international network of monitoring; operating in 17 tropical forests around the world.

Badru and team heading to the field site

TEAM has been running for four years in Bwindi and along with the climate stations and camera traps, there are six tree-monitoring plots around the park, containing a staggering 3281 trees at the last count. The recent data collection involved tree monitoring at three of these plots. While recruitment was noted, a number of losses were also apparent – a surprising number of unexplained dead stems were noted in one of the high-altitude plots, thought to be due to a fierce storm. Field work is never without interesting or unexpected events; during the tree monitoring  near Ruhija in December, the team was accompanied by a lone silverback for a day, feeding a mere 20 metres away.

Marking trees for measurements

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the global TEAM network, which was celebrated with the news that they had captured their 1 millionth camera trap image (of a jaguar in Manu National Park, Peru http://news.mongabay.com/2013/0214-hance-camera-trap-million.html). The TEAM network continues to provide high quality, standardised, long term data from tropical forest sites all around the world that is freely available to all. The data from Bwindi has so far been used in two university theses and published in 2 peer-reviewed journals (with a third article currently in review).

Recently TEAM produced a short movie about TEAM in Bwindi, check-out ‘Badru’s staory’! http://bdsjs.com/client/ci/.

 

Lucy & Andrew

Herbarium

ITFC is home to an on-site herbarium with it’s own resident botanical expert, Robert Barigyira. To learn about the herbarium we conducted a short interview with Robert, who has been working here since 1995! Robert’s love for plants developed when he was working for CARE as a Forest Technician, assisting with field collections as well as developing and maintaining indigenous tree nurseries and attending trainings with the herbarium staff at Makerere University.

Robert showing us a specimen of a wild banana, Ensete ventricosum

Robert showing us a specimen of a wild banana, Ensete ventricosum

Being the resident botanical expert, Robert’s role involves all maintenance of the herbarium and it’s specimens, obtaining more specimens to develop the herbarium, maintaining an ethnobtanical garden and providing all botanical services to ITFC as well as to visiting researchers. The herbarium, which houses over 3600 specimens from 160 different plant families, has specimens from various locations around Uganda. Although the vast majority are of plants found in Bwindi, they also have specimens collected from Mgahinga National Park, Echuya Forest Reserve, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Rwenzori National Park and Mt. Elgon National Park.

ITFC's organised herbarium

ITFC’s organised herbarium

Part of the ethno-botany garden

Part of the ethno-botany garden

The ethno-botanical garden at ITFC (see above) was developed in the early 1990’s, after the national park was gazetted. Acting as a demonstration garden to show communities that they can cultivate forest plants, it houses medicinal and edible species as well as those used for building and weaving.

While Robert’s interest extends to all plants, the Asteracea and Rubiacea families, which are the most common families in this region, are his favourite. Even with his vast botanical knowledge, he still says that ferns and grasses are the most difficult groups to identify.

He is a wealth of knowledge and is quick to assist with the identification of plants for resident and visiting researchers. For example, he often helps to identify species eaten by the gorillas and was happy to show us some unusual specimens (see picture below). Those who are in need of a plant specialist, ITFC has the man for you!

Epiphyte - Drynaria volkensii

Robert showing us the epiphyte – Drynaria volkensii

Lucy & Andrew

The impenetrable challenge of an overwhelming understorey

The following is a text I wrote for tthe British Ecological Society Bulletin — that was published last month (June 2012). I wrote it to attract interest to a challenge that requires more attention from ecologists and others.  I hope you find it of interest.

___

Science journals favour tidy theory and rigorous results, but ecological science can also be advanced through highlighting unfamiliar unknowns and quirky questions. For many of us such unknowns are what makes research fun. I want to share a problem (don’t worry, it is about ecology). Maybe you can help.

Our understanding of tropical forest dynamics has advanced considerably over recent decades. We now have vast data-sets tracking hundreds of thousands of tree stems over areas of 50 hectares or more. Numerous processes have been quantified in detail. Remaining unknowns may appear to be minor gaps that will soon be filled. But, for some locations, these impressions are misleading.

For the last few years I have been based in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park – a World Heritage Site in Southwest Uganda. We can see Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo from here. The site is known for supporting half the World’s remaining mountain gorillas; a major “see them before you die”-tourist-draw that brings in significant revenues to support conservation and the region’s economy. I help run a research station that focuses on the needs of local conservation practitioners (see ITFC.org). We have various day-to-day challenges ourselves – of which I may share more another time – but here I want to focus on our inadequate grasp of forest dynamics.

Living in a salad bowl: fewer than 800 mountain gorillas remain (Photograph Douglas Sheil)

What’s in a name

First, consider the name Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. That “Impenetrable” often leads to raised eyebrows, disbelieving laughter and accusations of ill-judged humour. But it is not a joke: “Impenetrable” is there in the official name. Ask why and you reveal you have not yet been here. Bwindi is rugged, steep and divided by cliffs but the key feature is the thick understorey. It is near impossible to walk through. The main element of this understorey challenge, superseding even the impressively rich flora of noxious nettles, barbed briars and spiny Acanthus, is its remarkable density. Understanding this forest by looking at the trees alone is probably harder than walking through it without tripping over the understorey.

Impenetrable forest – where are the seedlings? (Photograph Douglas Sheil)

Let me sketch out a few local features. The climate here is cool with altitudes up to 2,600m (we huddle at the fire at night). Being one degree south of the equator, seasonal variation is limited but we have two wetter and two drier seasons. Much of the forest canopy is open and there are extensive clearings – this likely reflects slow or stalled recovery from past disturbance (human activities, fires, landslides and elephants are all blamed). Small trees are scarce over large areas – suggesting limited regeneration. Many clearings are filled with persistent bracken fern Pteridium aquilinum (L.) Kuhn.reminiscent of the forests near where I grew up in Ireland. Other understorey species dominate other areas both with and without tree cover. Many of the common understorey species are synchronously monocarpic, living for a decade or more before flowering, seeding and dying en masse. . Examples include the African mountain bamboo (Yushania alpina (K. Schum.) Lin. Poaceae). Like many gregarious bamboo species elsewhere, it forms extensive stands and flowers only every few decades. Other monocarpic understorey plants include various Acanthaceae including several Mimulopsis spp.. One thicket forming species is Mimulopsis arborescens C.B. Clarke. It grows to 4 meters tall and bears multiple soft-woody stems with interlocking stilt-roots that are near impossible to walk through – this plant covers large areas of the forest. Along with another common monocarpic Mimulopsis species (M. solmsii Schweinf.) this is among the mountain gorillas’ most plentiful food plants. Both these Mimulopsis species flowered, seeded and died over the last two years.

ITFC researchers work among the woody remains and seedling carpets of the monocarpic liana Sericostachys scandens (Amaranthaceae): note the bamboo in the background (Photograph Douglas Sheil)

A liana that was abundant in Bwindi just three years ago is also monocarpic. Sericostachys scandens Gilg. & Lopr. (Amaranthaceae) used to cover almost every tree over large areas of forest. Then 3 years ago it flowered and for months its fluffy seeds were everywhere. It is now hard to spot a plant aside from seedlings. Large dead crumbling stems lie in heaps in parts of the forest.

So to recap: large areas of the forest are dominated by a dense understorey. Many of these plants are monocarpic and achieve high densities in cycles that must impact the recruitment opportunities of other plants. Trees are locally patchy and seedlings are often rare. The behaviour of the non-tree vegetation appears key in understanding the dynamics of these forests and, by implication, the animal species such as the mountain gorillas that they sustain.

These issues are not simply a matter of curiosity: major concerns have been raised about the long term management of the forest. These are practical questions. What, for example, should be done about the forest’s vulnerability to fire and to alien species (such as Lantana camara L. now spreading in the northern lower part of the forest)? Specific questions have been raised about maintaining conservation values. Recently the park authorities suggested it may be necessary to artificially maintain gorilla food species by cutting trees. We don’t have anything close to the understanding needed to address these concerns with confidence.

Fun fun fun

How can we get a handle on the key relationships within this complex patchy mountain forest vegetation? How can we, in only a few years of affordable research, grasp how outcomes are determined? If we can’t do that can we at least begin to clarify, gather and store the information that future researchers will need to better address these impenetrable problems? We have some plots with a few thousand tagged trees already. We also acknowledge valuable research elsewhere on seedling-understorey interactions, bracken control, and many other key issues. But we’ll need more, including the sustained funding to achieve it. So can we address this in easy bite-sized pieces? Ideally we would support local students and build capacity as we did it. I am hoping you may have suggestions. If you do please let me know, better still drop by and see just how impenetrable the forest here really is.

Left: Bwindi before, and right:, after last year’s understorey die-back (Photographs by Miriam van Heist)

Hope to hear your thoughts.

Douglas

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

Douglas

Africa’s first GLORIA sites established on the Mountains of the Moon

Dear esteemed reader,

We are glad to be back from establishing the first GLORIA (Global Observation Research Initiative in Alpine Environments) sites in Africa – on the Rwenzori (popularly known as the Mountains of the Moon) and Elgon mountains.  You will have seen some of the earlier pictures from Rwenzori.

Frost, snow, hailstones,freezing temperatures, strong winds, heavy rains and mist – all combined, formed some of the hardships we endured on these intriguing mountains, we could not avoid but wallow in deep bogs, endure bouts of high altitude sickness as well as labour to catch some sleep!!! If it was not for the encouragement of our experienced guides, we may as well have given up before reaching our camps. Nonetheless, the expedition was so exciting that we will live to remember the mind-blowing sight of the spectacular snow-capped peaks, the extensive and gentle calderas and the days we huddled around the charcoal stove just to get some warmth.

GLORIA targets high mountain regions because of their similar climatic conditions across the globe. This makes it possible to compare climate-induced changes worldwide. In addition, mountains host high diversity of plants and animals, many of which can only survive at such high altitudes characterized by low temperatures. Low-temperature limits of plant life on high mountains are considered to be particularly sensitive to climate change. Therefore, potential biodiversity losses caused by climate change may be more pronounced for mountain ecosystems compared to ecosystems of lower altitudes. More still, high mountain environments comprise real wilderness habitats with ecosystems undisturbed by direct anthropogenic influence. Our study will contribute to the global data base which will allow for comparisons of climate change impacts across continents.

This long term monitoring initiative is being implemented in areas where these changes are expected to occur fastest. One hundred twenty eight 1m2 permanent sampling quadrants were established at eight mountain tops (GLORIA Summits) on both sites. Within the quadrants, plant species composition and abundance were assessed. The quadrants were also photographed to provide an overview of plant cover. The summits were geo-referenced using the Global Positioning System (GPS). These high altitude plots were established from 4000 meters ASL. Thirty two data loggers (four at each summit) were installed in the ground to record soil temperature. By comparing plant species composition and soil temperature records, we will get a better understanding of the influence of global warming on plant migrations to higher elevations. All these summits will be re-measured after five years.

The good news is that in Rwenzori some peaks still have glaciers. However, these glaciers are receding fast. One of our experienced guides, John Muhindo told us that there were glaciers even at Elena Hut (about 4500m ASL) in the 1970s. During our fieldwork from the same point, the glaciers appeared to have receded some 300 meters high-up the mountain. We think this could largely be attributed to climate change.

We are proud to pioneer this type of research in Africa. Our team of enthusiastic scientists included ITFC’s Badru Mugerwa, Robert Barigyira and Fredrick Ssali; WCS botanist Ben Kirunda; UWA rangers Abel Basikania, Erick Mulewa, Alfred Masereka, Joseph Wasike, James Matanda, Patrick Muzaale, Alex Salim, Francis Musobo and Mike Mazune. Special thanks go to our trainers Anton Seimon, Stephan Halloy and Mariana Musicante for demonstrating to us the GLORIA methods.

Below are pictures to highlight our GLORIA fieldwork in Rwenzori and Elgon;

Heading for GLORIA field work above 4000 m ASL: the Rwenzori GLORIA team leaves Guy Yeoman hut for the base camp at Kitandara camping ground

Plot established: This GLORIA summit was established near Elena hut at about 4500m ASL in Rwenzori

Another plot established: this GLORIA summit was established at about 4200m ASL in Rwenzori

Men at work: Salim B. Alex (with a pointing stick), Joseph Wasike (middle) and James Matanda identifying plants in the sampling grid of a high altitude GLORIA summit in Elgon

At work: Mulewa Erick (left holding tape on string), Badru Mugerwa (right with black jacket holding clipboard) and Robert Barigyira (in green walking along the tape) record plants in a GLORIA summit of Elgon

One of the GLORIA summits in Elgon with string delimiting the sampling sections: the field team shelters data sheets from a drizzle in misty weather

All smiles… Badru and I after establishing GLORIA plots in Rwenzori

Cheers,

Badru Mugerwa and Fredrick Ssali