Tag Archives: Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

Horrifying nights as I shared camp with Bwindi’s forest elephants

After being awarded an MSc research scholarship by ITFC, I immediately moved on to conduct my research on “Understanding the diversity, distribution and impact of canopy parasitic plants in Bwindi forest”. I therefore returned to ITFC in February 2011 to try out my research methods, before the actual research could start.

Phillemon (ITFC field assistant), myself and Silver (the UWA Rushamba outpost leader)

Phillemon (ITFC field assistant), myself and Silver (the UWA Rushamba outpost leader)

I must admit that at first I was afraid that the task ahead of me was very tough. It was going to require me to reach almost every part of this rugged and rough-terrained ‘Impenetrable’ park. But with the assistance of UWA and ITFC staff, I managed to visit my sample transect sites in the four major sectors of the park.

Terrifying  moments

One of the most exciting yet terrifying days of my life was in Rushaga (a sector of Bwindi) when I came face to face with Bwindi’s forest elephants in broad day-light! Then came the horrible night I spent with a mother elephant and her calf feeding just a few meters from my tent. Excitement and great fear for my life engulfed me. I was frozen in my tent. How was I to escape from this danger? Surely I was dead meat! Neither could I compose myself up to sleep nor could I seat up, or use my flashlight, or even make an alarm just for the sake of it. Remedy came only when I heard gunshots by UWA rangers outside my tent as they tried to scare them away. In a few moments I started hearing tree branches snapping away indicating that the elephants were leaving.

Another terrifying thing I wish to share with you are the stormy nights in the forest. Strong winds would blow across the forest canopy all through the night and I would hear branches falling near and on top of my tent. Remember that I was still struggling with traumas of elephants smelling my presence in the tent. I kept harboring thoughts of that moment when the elephant would sooner or later come, raze my tent down, lift me up in the air and then to tear me into pieces (with my tent).

One of our campsites in Bwindi

One of our campsites in Bwindi

My research assistants were equally worried. Their tent was only less than a foot away from mine. Trying to listen well they were so quiet that I began imagining they had decided to leave me there to die alone.
But thanks are to UWA guards who would spend the whole night scaring them away with gunshots in the air. What a fateful night I will never forget!

More often, parasitic plants were only to be located very high up in canopies such as this

More often, parasitic plants were only to be located very high up in canopies such as this

Climbing and walking through rugged and rough terrain while keeping their eyes up in the canopy for parasitic plants isn’t any easy task at all.  I therefore wish to thank the ITFC members (Tumwesigye Philemon and Zoreka Damazo the field assistants, Arineitwe Colonel and Nkwasibwe Chrispine the hired casual labours)  whom I worked with. With their knowledge and experience in tree identification, I managed to quickly and easily collect my data. They tirelessly worked with me to learn more about the parasitic plants. They are all my masters and examples as far as forest activities are concerned.

It's not unusual to find such tree fall roadblocks in this region

At this moment please allow me to register my sincere gratefulness to ITFC and the McArcthur Foundation for supporting me morally, financially and academically for this study. 

An improvised bridge

Such moments are some of what makes Bwindi an exciting place to research. I would say I had some of my best lifetime experiences in Bwindi. I can’t wait for my next trip their in a few weeks.

Have you had such experiences like I did? May be you want to share with us?

 Emilly Kamusiime

New Website on Africa’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites Launched

A new website about Africa’s World Heritage sites has just been launched.

This website contains information about some of the most spectacular natural places on Earth, as well as our most precious cultural heritage. From the pyramids of Egypt to the snows of Kilimanjaro, this website takes you to the heart of the continent, with the help of an unrivaled collection of some 4,000 stunning photographs, together with maps and information on each of Africa’s world heritage sites.
Our very own, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is included in the prime pages(http://www.africanworldheritagesites.org/african-natural-world-heritage-sites/Great-Rift/bwindi-impenetrable-national-park-uganda.html).

Publications and brochures related to the various  sites may also be downloaded rom the website.

With such a wealth of information provided, awareness about the conservation of these properties is hopefully enhanced.

Have you had the opportunity to visit a World Heritage Site? How do you view their conservation status?
Let us hear your thoughts.



New 10-year General Management Plan for Bwindi Mgahinga Conservation Area in making

Dear readers,

This week we welcome back our very own Robert Bitariho from a hectic week. He represented ITFC in a first stage of a General Management Plan (GMP) development for the Bwindi and Mgahinga Conservation Area (BMCA). Together with 14 other planning team members, he had a reconnaissance trip of  conditions, facilities and management issues in the two parks making up the BMCA.

The GMP preparation by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) is a participatory process, offering stakeholders the chance to have an input in the management and development of the parks in the next 10 years. Issues to be addressed include resource protection, use and management (natural, cultural and scenic resources), boundary issues, community involvement in conservation, benefit sharing, tourism development,  access and infrastructure, interpretation and education, research and monitoring.

UWA’s members of the planning team include officials from the HQ Planning unit and Research and monitoring, as well as BMCA Wardens of conservation, research and monitoring, tourism, and law enforcement. Local government is represented at the district level, by Environmental and Agricultural Production officers.

This first reconnaissance stage took about two weeks, in which the team visited various areas. As Robert explains, “during the first stage, we are looking at the current developments in relation to the 2001-2011 plan, and also the other issues arising”. In Bwindi, for example, the team looked at poor and uncontrolled tourism infrastructure, park boundary management, poaching, UWA staff housing, and local community perceptions about conservation (e.g. how they perceive the current revenue sharing scheme, and human-wildlife conflicts).

ITFC is glad to be part of the process, as the research and monitoring stakeholder. We hope that recommendations from our past years’ studies will be considered for  the management plan, with Robert being part of the planning team.

In June 2012, a draft of the new plan will be presented to UWA’s top management, then to the different stakeholders in July and after to UWA Board of Trustees in August. The GMP is an important document, that provides guidance on how the two parks will be run for the next ten years. Many stakeholders in Bwindi and Mgahinga will be consulted to provide inputs to the new plan and these will also include national and international stakeholders. Do you have suggestions to be included in the planning? You can contact the Bwindi Mgahinga Conservation Area Manager at  [email protected] or let us know through this blog.


A Date with Rare Guests – a Big Cat, Cobra, Chameleons, Baboons

Recently a number of visitors have unexpectedly been showing up at ITFC offices. Could this be due to the rainy season? Just the other day I had a date with a chameleon right in MY OFFICE! How it had gate-crashed into a closed room, no one could explain. In fact one of our staff secretly suggested that someone was trying to bewitch me.

Douglas leading away the chameleon back to the forest

Douglas leading the chameleon back to the forest

But just as Bwindi’s mist was clearing out for us to have a better understanding of this, another date was being scheduled. At about 9 PM on a dark and silent evening (typical of Bwindi), I heard someone knock. I was comfortably going on with my duties in the toilet when I started hearing disturbing noises from the forest. First, I thought it was a small crawling creature like a rat or lizard, then it sounded like something chewing on a bone, something bigger and stronger… “This is the end of you Ivan, fight or flee”, I heard my mind whisper. The noise was getting closer now. I adjusted my posture, literary for a fight this time, or at least to die fighting. As if totally ignoring me,  the creature was now aiming for the toilet. I immediately flashed my torchlight and he in turn flashed his eyes. We were now face to face, eye to eye. A very big cat, bigger than any I had ever seen! Bwindi’s Golden Cat (see earlier blog for photos). The (flashlight) tactic worked, I managed to scare him off. In a second he had launched off into the dark. Not even waiting for a photo session with his host.

As I was regretting the missed photo opportunity – I mean me posing with a Golden Cat- we had another quite stubborn visitor. The “celebrity of destruction” had made his way to the station with so many of his relatives and friends. On his account farmers have lost acres of food crops, he exhumes seeds before their germination, eats seedlings, mature fruits, stems, and just everything. He was once reported to have raided tourist cars for hamburgers. Someone here has even accused him of rape! You guessed right: he is Mr. Olive Baboon. Already our secretary had been scared off and failed to make it to the office. There were over 30 baboons all over the station, satisfying their desire for the tender Giant Lobelia plants. It was total destruction, as if the troupe had been sent to exterminate the plant from the station.

A baboon's job!

A baboon's job!

An olive baboon resting unbathored by my presence

Resting after work: An olive baboon not bothored by my presence a few meters away

Destructive and stubborn as they were, someone gentle and fast managed to escape the scene… I almost stepped on his (or her?) tail but he had not a minute for exchanging pleasantries: a diamond black house cobra (about 5 ft long) was crossing the road. Majestic! How relieved I was with his speed.

Impressed by my hospitality, the three-horned chameleon also passed-by, just to say hi. We interacted briefly before I gave him a lift back to his home – the forest.

A three horned in Bwindi (photo by Julie Larsen Maher)

A three horned chameleon in Bwindi (photo by Julie Larsen Maher)

Would you like a date with my guests, or has any of them visited you lately? Let us know  about your experience.



Wandering into Congo

From here in Bwindi Forest it’s easy to wander into the nearby Democratic Republic of the Congo. Mountain gorillas do it. Just recently we did too.

If your preconceptions are like mine, you’ll likely agree that a family of large globally endangered species (or indeed a foreign researcher) leaving a safe cosy National Park for an insecure war-scarred region is inviting trouble. Clearly it’s a bad idea, right?

Mountain gorillas often range outside the sharp edge of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park looking for food. They seldom go far.

Been anywhere interesting recently? One of Bwindi’s mountain gorillas

Last year one gorilla group wandered into the Congo. The group is called Rushegura and it had been habituated for tourism over a decade previously. If you’ve visited Bwindi you may have seen it (the ‘R group’).

From our base in Bwindi the vast scale of the ongoing Congo tragedy, its proximity and its invisibility has been disturbing. That is an understatement. We see the Congo from ITFC. Many days we have heard the ugly stories that have come from this visually stunning landscape that seems to be simply part of our own.

Sunset over Congo, seen across Bwindi, June 2009.

So, when the Ugandan Mountain gorillas crossed over to Congo it seemed a foregone conclusion that they would soon be hunted and killed in the violent and lawless land. They would become just one-more sad loss in a vast sea of tragedy.

Thankfully things have calmed down in recent months. On our visit to the Congo Border at Nteko, nothing even indicated an international border: same fields, same crops and even the same people. They share their local languages. They responded to the same greetings and appeared friendly. They were, I thought, a little more timid and worn looking – they did not smile easily.

The path to Congo from Nteko.

The international border was created by Belgian and British colonial governments. No-one asked the local people where it should go. The line cuts through lush farmland. Local people are able to ignore it to some degree. Apparently the farmers here cross easily from one side to the other, attending whichever local markets they wish on either side. For them at least official papers are not needed.

Anyway, we did not go far into the Congo or linger. When it was clear we were across we quickly turned back to Uganda. (We were looking to meet the Ugandan military who patrol this region.  We wished to  introduce ourselves. We wanted to ensure they knew who we were and what ITFC was. Just a courtesy and safeguard as ITFC staff and students work in or around the National Park).

On the Uganda-Congo border

We’d been surprised some weeks earlier when the mountain gorillas too had returned alive and healthy back in Uganda. You can imagine how relieved people were. Then a second surprise: after a few weeks the gorillas went back.  That’s right they went back to the Congo.

Now, from unpromising starting materials, the ingredients of a positive story are falling into place. Collaboration between the Uganda and Congo conservation authorities has been exemplary and effective. They have agreed on and implemented joint oversight to ensure the gorillas are monitored and protected. The area in Congo where the animals have chosen to roam is an approximately 900 ha protected area called Sarambwe. And, remarkably given the recent local and national context, it is being protected. So far it looks like a happy-ending … a bright new beginning as we look out into the red sunset over the Congo.

Bwindi may contain half the world’s Mountain gorillas, but it remains one of Uganda’s smallest national parks. We ecologists argue that bigger conservation areas are always preferable to smaller ones – especially for large globally endangered animals. (Smaller areas hold smaller populations and are inevitably more vulnerable to threats.) At first sight there is little we can do about this here: human populations in the surrounding landscape excludes easy expansion of suitable Mountain gorilla habitat within Uganda (we can examine such possibilities further in later blogs). But according to the gorillas some good habitat exists just across the border and the gorillas are keen and happy to use it.

Harvesting bananas, near Nteko. On the Uganda-Congo border.

The tragedies that have occurred in this region of the planet are certainly as bad as they are portrayed by the international media, possibly worse. I would not diminish the significance of that suffering in any way. But I want to highlight the small successes achieved by people working in difficult conditions. Remarkably, due to these efforts, wandering into the Congo need not turn out badly.

Best wishes