Category Archives: Virunga Volcanoes

Badru’s story nominated for a Film Festival Award!

I have been off for a while. I congratulate Andrew and Lucy for a job well done. They kept you updated with the on-going ITFC research and other activities through a continued flow of blogs.

Here is an update of what has happened during my absentia. Some of you must have already watched/heard about it. I am talking about the ‘Badru’s story’……….

Sometime last year, Benjamin Drummond and Sara Joy Steele visited Bwindi. Benj and Sara are a documentary team ( that specializes in multimedia stories about people, nature and climate. During their visit, they followed Badru and his team through the rugged terrain of park, capturing every detail of the camera trap setting, tree measurement and climate station maintenance procedures.  A product of their trip was a short movie documenting the TEAM Network’s activities in Bwindi.

The approximately six-minute movie titled ‘Badru’s story’ starring ITFC and TEAM Network’s very own Badru Mugerwa can be watched in HD for free on line This is the first in a three-part series that are yet to be produced. The movie also featured Dr. Douglas Sheil (ITFC, CIFOR and Southern Cross University), Raymond Kato and Job Nahabwe (Uganda Wildlife Authority) and ITFC field assistants (Lawrence Tumuhagirwe and Avetino Nkwasibwe).

The great news is that ‘Badru’s story’ was nominated for the 40th Telluride Film Festival Award. This is very exciting to Badru,, ITFC, UWA and the TEAM Network.  We hope the movie wins the award. Fingers crossed!!!

Below I present to you some of the highlights from the movie  ‘a pictorial movie trailer’. Please enjoy.

The ITFC/UWA/TEAM Network camera trapping team in Bwindi. From left to right: Avetino, Badru, Lawrence (ITFC) and Job (UWA). Standing at the back is Moses (local guide).

The ITFC/UWA/TEAM Network camera trapping team in Bwindi. From left to right: Avetino, Badru, Lawrence (ITFC) and Job (UWA). Standing at the back is Moses (local guide).

On all four:  Badru doing a 'walk test' in front of a camera trap during camera trap setting

On all four: Badru imitates a walking animal by doing a ‘walk test’ in front of a camera trap during camera trap setting.

Measuring a ‘problem tree’: Badru demonstrating how to take diameter measurements of a buttressed tree.

Measuring a ‘problem tree’: Badru demonstrating how to take diameter measurements of a buttressed tree.

Uuhm,  Bwindi’s  beautiful rugged landscape covered by the early morning mist

Bwindi’s beautiful rugged landscape covered by the early morning mist


How would we ever live without Bwindi? Ecosystem services along the boundary of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.

 Ecosystem services along the boundary of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.





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

Volunteering at ITFC

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

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

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

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

Marion being helped by a Mutwa man up the steep hill

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

Marion enjoying wild honey with the Batwa.

Marion at ITFC

Kind regards,


ITFC receives funds for compiling a lessons learnt report on Human Wildlife Conflicts in the Greater Virunga Landscape from GVTC

The Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation (ITFC) is happy to announce acquisition of a grant from the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration (GVTC) for compiling a report on lessons learnt on Human wildlife Conflicts (HWC) in the Greater Virunga Landscape (GVL).

HWCs occur when the needs and behavior of wildlife impact negatively on the goals of humans and vice versa, resulting into conflicts and animosity between wildlife and the local people. ITFC has previously done research on HWC mitigation measures around Bwindi and Mgahinga National parks including learning experiences elsewhere from Queen Elizabeth, Rwenzori and Semuliki National Parks under the USAID funded Wildwest Project.

A mountain gorilla in a banana plantation around Bwindi

Our previous blogs written on HWC around Bwindi and other protected areas in Uganda have included; who am I conserving for?, Raiding baboons and disease risks, Who pays the price? among others. It was from this experience that ITFC was contracted by the GVTC to compile a lessons learnt report on HWC in the GVL. ITFC is a member of the research, monitoring and Landscape committee of the GVTC and is happy to undertake such an important task.

The Greater Virunga Landscape (GVL) is Africa’s most biologically rich containing a variety of wildlife including elephants, hippos, lions, birds and the only population of the mountain gorillas. The high human population settlement in this region is a recipe for clear-cut conflicts between humans and wildlife. HWCs have been one of the biggest conservation challenges in the GVL for over two decades, posing a serious threat to wildlife, human livelihood and conservation.

Several mitigation methods against HWCs are being implemented in the GVL (see photos below). It is therefore important to document and recommend such mitigation measures to protected area managers. Along these lines, ITFC continues to be at a forefront of conducting research geared towards availing information needed to address this conservation challenge. Your thoughts on managing HWCs will be appreciated. We look forward to hearing from you.

The stonewall is used against Buffaloes in Mgahinga National Park (Uganda), Virunga National Park (Congo) and Volcanoes National Park (Rwanda)

Baboon traps have been used around Bwindi to control baboon raids on crop gardens

Our best regards,

Badru and Robert

Virunga’s Nyamulagira Volcano Erupts Again

The bright red skies as seen from ITFC in Ruhija (Bwindi) say it all.

On Wednesday, Africa’s most active volcano Nyamulagira, rumbled again spectacularly turning skies bright orange and red.

Nyamulagira volcano, Democratic Republic of Congo - image courtesy

Nyamulagira volcano, Democratic Republic of Congo - image courtesy

Nyamulagira is one of the volcanoes in Virunga mountains located on the Democratic Republic of Congo, 25 kms north of Lake Kivu. It last erupted on January 2, 2010 and has erupted over 40 times since 1885. With lava spewing up to 980 feet up in the air, this could as well be the biggest eruption in 100 years. (Virunga) Park wardens have named the latest Nyamulagira eruption “Kimanura,” after the name of the area along the volcano’s flank.

The fireworks were clearly visible from the Virunga Park headquarters. Park rangers have set up a camp from which visitors can view the eruption at night.

There neither seems to be threat to the neighboring mountain gorillas habitat (Virunga National Park) nor to people since the lava is slowly flowing north where no one lives. The 3,000 square-mile Virunga National Park is a World Heritage site containing seven of the eight volcanoes in the Virunga mountain range that sprawls across the borders of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. Only two are active – Nyamulagira and, closer to Goma, Mount Nyiragongo.

Nyiragongo erupted destructively in 2002, destroying most of Goma city including 14,000 homes and forcing 350,000 residents to flee.

Eruptions like this one can go on for days, weeks, or even months, so we’ll update you on the status.


Volcanic visions from windy Bwindi

With all our day-to-day concerns about Bwindi’s mountain gorillas, animals and plants we tend to focus our attention close by on the forest. Indeed, on the steep slopes, we spend a lot of time watching our feet. But sometimes its worth looking to the horizon.

The views from Bwindi can be impressive. The last few days they have been especially clear thanks to the wind. The air is clear and we can see far.

You need to find the right vantage point — trees are common obstacles in a forest — but sometimes to the North the peaks of the Rwenzori Mountains can be seen.  Unfortunately it is too far to definitively distinguish shrinking glaciers from wisps of cloud. Directly to the West we can see the stacked ridges and hills, receding with increasingly faded colours, across the forest and far into Congo.

But the real iconic image lies to the South: into Rwanda and the neighbouring portion of Congo. There, like fallen legendary characters of some ancient epic, lie the cones and crags of the the Virunga Volcanoes. Here, where the Earth is rupturing along the extent of the great Albertine Rift Valley, we see the scars where the Earth itself had bled molten rock and ashes.

The Virunga volcanoes date back to about 12 million years ago. The volcanoes in Uganda are all, as far as anyone knows, long extinct. Mt. Sabinyo likely dates to the early Pliocene (four or five million years) while Mt. Muhavura and Mt. Gahinga are younger at just a few hundred thousand years or so. I have not been able to find any definitive account when any of these mountains last erupted (any leads welcome!).

The Virunga Volcanoes as seen from the road below ITFC, Ruhija, Bwindi – April 2011. The mountains are (from left to right) Muhavura, Gahinga, Sabinyo, Visoke  (in clouds) and Karisimbe

Another view of the Virunga Volcanoes as seen from the road below ITFC, Ruhija, Bwindi – April 2011

Generally the mountains get younger, and less furrowed and rugged, as you move Westward (to the right in the photos). To find live volcanoes we need enter the Congo. Actually, we don’t need to go. We can see some hint of the drama from here.

During the darkest hours of the last few nights, when looking from our house here at ITFC a red-glowing smudge can be seen on the southern horizon (right of Karisimbe in the picture above). The fiery light is coming from the clouds over Congo’s most active volcano: Nyiragongo. A lava lake casts abundant heat onto the skies above. Unfortunately it is too dim to make a convincing photograph — but to night-adapted-eyes it is clear.

We’ve seen the glow occasionally over the last three years but never so regularly as the last week. It is incredible to contemplate the amounts of heat released from this mountain minute by minute, month by month, and year by year.

I was curious what it looks like from nearby and found some recent pictures. They are striking. I’ll let one image speak for itself and give you the link to more here.  Enjoy!


Lava lake – Nyiragongo (from National Geographic: see link above)

I wonder if the mountain gorillas ever turn their eyes and thoughts to the far horizon.  If so, I wonder what they make of it.  Any ideas anyone?

Best wishes


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