Tag Archives: field research

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

Why Stripe Breasted Tits get their toenails painted

I did not know about this until I saw it. Young birds get their toenails painted by researchers. Strange indeed but there is a reason.

The other day coming back from visiting the mountain gorillas we saw one of our staff, Narsis, up a ladder. He was looking into one of the nest-boxes that are scattered around the forest here. He had plugged the opening to the box and was looking inside. We stopped to watch.

Here are a few pictures.

Stripe Breasted Tits Bwindi ITFC Douglas Sheil

Stripe Breasted Tits being removed from their nest box — the opening is blocked to stop the adults finding the young have gone

Stripe Breasted Tits being weighed and marked Bwindi ITFC Douglas Sheil

Each bird is weighed (watched here by UWA ranger Silver who was with us)

Stripe Breasted Tits Bwindi ITFC Douglas Sheil

Recording the data

Stripe Breasted Tits being weighed and marked Bwindi ITFC Douglas Sheil

Birds are marked to allow them to be individually identified

Stripe Breasted Tits being replaced to their nest box Bwindi ITFC Douglas Sheil

The chicks are carefully replaced to their nest box and the parent birds will find them unharmed

So what was happening?

The brood had been discovered just the day before. Phil Shaw who coordinates the Stripe Breasted Tit (Parus fasciiventer) work (by email from Scotland ) asked Narsis to weigh the chicks in order to estimate their age. Marking the claws with coloured polish helps tell the individuals apart in future assessments — when they are bigger they will be ringed instead.

Why do they plug the box? If the parent birds find the nest-box empty they may not come back again thinking their chicks are gone for good. By plugging the box until we are ready for them we can be sure the adult birds don’t see inside the box until they can find their chicks unharmed.

These birds are only found in Bwindi and a few other forests in the region.  If you are interested to know more about them you can find out more at our web site here.

All part of the research in Bwindi.

Best wishes


Recollections from a 16-months’ field experience with mountain gorillas

Hi Everyone!!! My name is Ed Wright and I am 29 years old and from the UK. I have just finished about 16 months of field work here at ITFC, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. I am a PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, which is a research institution based in Leipzig, Germany. I would dearly like to share with you some of my experiences, so sit back, relax and read on…

Doing an information sharing about my study at ITFC Sharing about my study at ITFC

I arrived in August 2010 after spending a short while in Germany preparing my project and making sure I knew what I was going to come here to do. Before I embarked on this project I was working with unhabituated (not used to human presence) gorillas and chimpanzees in Gabon. This time I was coming to study gorillas on the opposite side of tropical Africa in “the pearl of Africa”, Uganda. I was very excited to see how different it was and felt very lucky to once again be working with amazing animals in very beautiful parts of the world. Martha Robbins, my supervisor and project director told me that Uganda was really very different from Gabon. I remember her saying: “Do you like mountains and beans?” Luckily I like both and I came to realise that if you don’t, Bwindi is not the place for you! 🙂

The drive up from Kabale (which is about 10 hours from Kampala, the capital) reminds you that you are in an extremely populated part of the world. Every corner of land is used for agriculture even up to the park boundary. Yet once you go through the park gates you enter a magical world high up in the steep hills of this Impenetrable National Park, right in the South West of Uganda.

I was impressed straight away; the hills looked like the “real business”. I enjoy mountaineering and I saw immediately this was going to be good fun. Terrifically beautiful, with monkeys enjoying themselves in the trees and with duikers running around.

When I arrived at ITFC, which was going to be my home for the next 16 months, I was happy to see that it is a well established research station. Some field sites are pretty basic and very remote, ITFC was for sure a step up from what I was used to. I was warmly welcomed by the other researchers here at the institute and other members of staff. These people became my friends and with whom I shared many gorilla stories and also heard about their experiences in and out of the forest.

I was here to record detailed gorilla feeding behaviour and to see how the distribution and density of food affects their social relationships. To implement this, I worked with a gorilla group which is reserved for research, called Kyagurilo. The research group is habituated to our presence, which means that to them we are part of the scenery – just like another tree in the forest if you like. Obviously we do not interact with them as this would change their natural behaviour which is precisely what we are there to record. It is a lovely group of gorillas which at the moment is composed of a silverback called Rukina, 2 blackbacks, 8 females, two juveniles and 5 infants. During the last 16 months I have come to know these gorillas extremely well.

Almighty Rukina

Almighty Rukina!

I vividly remember my very first day with the gorillas as if it was just the other day! They were feeding in a small swamp eating thistle. It was a very special experience that first day, being surrounded by a group of gorillas, and it still is to this very day!



Recording detailed gorilla feeding behaviour is no easy job I can tell you. During my first few months collecting data I was finding it difficult to keep up with the gorilla I was observing. There is a lot of understory vegetation here at Bwindi, the gorilla would just disappear into it and I would struggle to keep up, especially as one needs to be really careful when walking amongst gorillas (the last thing you want to do is to bump into a large mammal weighing 200kg!). Also walking at angles of 65 degrees isn’t easy at all! But after a lot of patience and hard work things became easier with time. However, it is no use complaining, I work in a tropical high altitude rainforest after all, one has to expect lots of rain and lots of steep hills!

Data collection during the gorilla census in Bwindi

Data collection during the gorilla census in Bwindi

I have often been asked what is the most special gorilla behaviour I have experienced… this is a tricky question as I find practically all gorilla behaviour really interesting. But the following are a few. I was extremely lucky to witness a baby gorilla come into this world. Normally females will deliver when they are at their nests (when we are never with them), however this time it just popped out. I was touched to see such a rare and special event. Then, as soon as the infant was born, the mother started to chew on the umbilical cord and proceeded to eat the placenta (in nature nothing goes to waste!). I wouldn’t call that a ‘beautiful’ experience but it was definitely a very special one.

The Family with the newborn

The Family with the newborn

The other thing that happened which comes to my mind was when I was watching this female gorilla; it was a warm sunny morning and this gorilla was taking a nap. Just then this leaf fell out of the sky and landed on her stomach, which woke the gorilla up. She looked at the leaf and promptly eat it and went back to sleep! It made me smile for the rest of the day.



Sadly it is time for me to leave 🙁

Next I will analyze all the data I have collected and hopefully some of my findings will contribute to the protection of these wonderful creatures, so that future generations can enjoy them like I have done.

I will miss my furry forest friends!!

Thanks for tuning in,


Field day for the gorilla census training

Friday 9 September: the third and last training day for the 2011 Bwindi gorilla census: time for the participants to practise in the forest. I took the opportunity to go along and see what a gorilla census entails. A census team has 6 members, but you will see many more people in the pictures as 3 teams were combined for this field training .

Let me show you what I saw and learned.


Early morning briefing by Martha Robbins of MPI-EVAN. Everyone was ready by 8 am, eager to start!


Following a steeply climbing trail in Bwindi. During the census itself, teams do not even follow trails, but walk transect lines to cover the whole forest… a tough exercise!


Once a gorilla track is found, the census team follows in their footsteps till the site is found where the gorillas spent the night before (one or more beds of vegetation called “nests”). They search for all the nests in the vicinity (gorillas usually make individual nests for the night. Mothers will share with infants/juveniles)


Martha explains how to plot the nest site on a map and to complete the data sheet. A lot of information is derived from the dung found at the nests. It is measured and sampled for later analysis (genetics, parasites, pathogens, etc.)


Rangers are measuring… the diameter of a silverback’s faeces! That size and the odd silver hair in the nest give away the fact that this was the silverback’s night spot.


Dung collection is an essential part of the gorilla census


On the way back, the recording of other observations, like illegal activities, was practised. Locations for all these observations are obtained by GPS.

If you have any questions about the census feel free to ask and we can try to answer them! The complete census will take about 6 weeks.

Otherwise you can also have a look at http://www.igcp.org/counting-of-mountain-gorilla-nests-and-poo-begins/ for other recent news about the census activity.


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


Badru Mugerwa and Fredrick Ssali

ITFC sets up the first African GLORIA plots on Mount Rwenzori

Dear followers of ITFC’s blog

We have just come back from the footslopes of the Rwenzori mountains, on the border between Uganda and DR-Congo. We had a 1-day workshop there to introduce a new monitoring activity: ITFC will lead a new study that will set up high altitude plots (well above the treeline, around 4000 m.a.s.l.) to follow temperature and vegetation trends over decades to come. These are the first such plots in Africa!

Climate change is expected to hit hardest and fastest at high altitudes, where plants are adapted to cold and have little area to move to once it gets too warm. A perfect setting for research on the impact of climate change! We need data to know what is happening.


GLORIA trainer Stephan Halloy -of The Nature Conservancy- explains what impact climate change may have on species at high altitude.

For over a decade mountain researchers from around the world have developed and agreed a protocol for standardised data collection, called ‘GLORIA’ (Global Alpine Research Initiative in Alpine Environments). Plots have been set up in the Alps, and other parts of Europe, and more recently in the Andes, New Zealand and Asia. But until now not in Africa. The team ITFC put together is setting up the plots on the Rwenzori mountains right now. Included in the team are staff of the Uganda Wildlife Authority’s Research and Monitoring unit, WCS’s botanist Ben Kirunda who has some alpine experience, and ITFC staff Fredric Ssali, Robert Barigyira and Badru Mugerwa.

We had also invited local community members to the planning and training workshop. The mountain, and particularly its snow covered parts, are the abode of the ‘little gods’ of the Bakonjo who live on Rwenzori’s footslopes. They consider the mountain their cultural home and do not like to see their gods disturbed. Their elders shared the ‘cultural behavioral guidelines’ to be followed while on the mountain with the team and two members of their cultural organisation joined the expedition as guides. Rules include to avoid pointing at any of the peaks of the mountain and to referain from referrring to them by their sacred names.


Community representatives listen to the presentations and contributed their views on climate change and what the team should avoid doing on the mountain to stay on good terms with the “little gods”

After the workshop, we sorted out all the scientific, camping and personal equipment for the team; an impressive quantity! In the night, a thunderstorm broke loose and rain pounded the roofs for 4 hours… It made us think about how conditions for camping on the mountain would be, but according to the local people, this was Rwenzori’s welcome and a positive omen!


Over 40 porters assisted bringing up the required gear and food for the GLORIA team


RMNP’s Research & Monitoring ranger Alfred Masereka briefs the team before starting the ascent


Our GLORIA team just before entering Rwenzori Mountains National Park

The team started climbing in good spirits: it will take 3 days to get to the base camp from where they will select sites for the plots. We look forward to their stories ‘from above’!

Miriam and Douglas

Could Carapa seed studies aid forest conservation?

At the end of last month (June 2011), we hosted visiting researchers from the National Museum of Natural History Brunoy, France. Dr. Pierre-Michel FORGET (also past president of Tropical Biological Association in 2007-2009) was accompanied by research partners Dr. Irene Mendoza and Aisha Nyiramana (Ph D student, Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle and University of Butaré lecturer in Rwanda).

P.M. Forget and Aisha with Carapa grandiflora fruits in Bwindi. ©Irene Mendoza

They were here to evaluate the feasibility of field work on the ecology of Carapa grandiflora (aka Carapa or African crabwood ) in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. During the one week in Ruhija and Rushaga, they traversed the forest searching for Carapa grandiflora trees and fruits. They succeeded in finding good sites for their study and Aisha Nyiramana will be returning to Bwindi to conduct her doctoral studies during the peak season (of Carapa seed production) in October.

The party gave us presentations about their studies and afterwards a brief interview with Bwindi Researchers’ Ivan Wassaaka. Here are the excerpts from the interview.

Ivan: What brings you all the way to Bwindi?

P.M Forget: I have been studying the use of large-seeded Carapa tree species to protect and save biodiversity of tropical rainforests in Africa and America. So I came to Africa to study Carapa in different countries because there is larger diversity of Carapa on this continent. I have been in Cameroon, Mali, then also Nigeria, Rwanda, Nigeria and in 2006 in Rwanda (with Aisha who is doing her PhD). So I always looked forward to coming to Bwindi to do new studies in a new site.

Our main purpose of coming this time was to evaluate the field conditions and possibility of Aisha doing her PhD work in this park. She is doing a comparative study of Carapa seed distribution in Nyungwe Forest Reserve and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The reason she is doing this is because in Bwindi you have elephants which feed on the Carapa and therefore somehow act as agents in dispersing the seeds. However, this is not the case in Nyungwe.

Ivan: How hands-on is your study? What is the significance of this study?

P.M Forget: The relevance is that Carapa grandiflora is a vital Albertine rift endemic species. It is a dominant species in some areas. It forms a major part in the diet of some animals. In some places human beings feed on Carapa. There is serious competition for its fruits and because of the many species that enjoy it, there may be a threat to the plant’s survival. It is therefore important to have the necessary information about the plant, so that the right policy guidelines can be drawn since its existence affects many other organisms. It is almost pointless to conserve the animals (that feed in a tree) without conserving the tree that it feeds on. So in my studies, we are working on ways the conservation of Carapa grandiflora can give way to the conservation of tropical rainforests in general.

Broken Carapa fruits.

Ivan: But Pierre, why Carapa of all plant species?

P.M Forget: When I started my studies ten years ago, I started working on the seed dispersal by different animal species. Carapa was not my main area of study. It was just one of the many species I came across. However, the Carapa (genus) became more interesting to me because I frequently came across it in Africa and America. In my studies, it was very important to have a model species with different methods of seed dispersal. And for Carapa, there are different dispersal mechanisms but all falling in the same model, that’s dispersal by large mammals.

It is also very interesting to me working with a wide range of people from all over the world. We actually have a group of Carapa people working in Brazil, Senegal, Mali, and other tropical countries. We have also developed a website – Carapa.org where we list all the species that have been studies, Carapa uses, ecology, taxonomy, distribution, conservation, physiology, among other things.

Ivan (to Aisha): What brings you all the way to Bwindi?

Aisha: I have been doing an almost similar study in Nyugwe, about the dispersal on Carapa seedlings in the forest. But as it came out, Nyungwe does not have similar large animals like we have in Bwindi. And if you consider the characteristics of Carapa, the fruit is hard and mainly eaten by large mammals like elephants. Unlike Bwindi, there are no elephants in Nyungwe. These elephants (in Bwindi)  feed on the Carapa fruits and could be agents aiding in the seedlings dispersal. So as Forget has already said, my study will be a comparative study of the dispersal of Carapa grandiflora in Bwindi and Nyungwe. The recommendations coming out of my study will then be forwarded to the conservation managers for implementation where necessary.

Aisha Nyiramana in Bwindi. Note the Carapa seedling in the foreground

Aisha Nyiramana standing by a carapa seedling in Bwindi. ©Irene Mendoza

Lichens Part II – the saga continues

Part II of our interview with Andreas Frisch

In our last article we introduced and interviewed Andreas Frisch, a post-doc lichenologist about the  significance of lichens and his study with ITFC in Bwindi. Here are some more excerpts.

Bwindi Researchers: What are the economic benefits of lichens?

Andreas Frisch : For many years, over different parts of the world, Lichens have been a source of natural dyes for wool and fabric. These dyes were distinguished by the type of lichens used and the way the color was extracted. Lichen dyes are extracted by the boiling-water method or the fermentation method. Today, they are still used by local artisans as they demonstrate their crafts.

Today two species, Evernia prunastri and Pseudevernia furfuracea, are still collected in the Mediterranean for expensive perfumery. Lichens are also eaten by many different cultures across the world. Although some lichens are only eaten in times of famine, others are a staple food or even a delicacy. In many Nordic countries lichens are also economically very important as the principal winter food of caribou, reindeer and musk-oxen.

Lichens are further used as environmental indicators for pollution monitoring around cities and factories and to trace microclimatic site conditions.

This kind of exposure and dependence on air for survival places lichens at a high risk resulting from air pollution. (Photo taken from southern Bwindi)

Bwindi Researchers: How threatened is the existence of lichens, are there some endangered species?

Andreas Frisch: Much as they are very resilient, lichens are also very vulnerable. In Sweden, for example, 238 lichen species are red-listed, representing over 10% of the lichen species in this country. In other countries, the figure is even higher. Unfortunately, in many regions of the world the knowledge of lichens is quite poor and we just do not know which of them are threatened. This is particularly true to many tropical countries including those of Africa, where information on distribution and ecology of the species is sparse and often not reliable. I believe that many tropical lichens are critically endangered but sadly, we have not enough data to prove this — not yet anyway.

Bwindi Researchers: What are the threats to lichens?

Andreas Frisch: The most serious threat is habitat destruction, either through clearing for forestry or agriculture, or through inappropriate grazing and forest management. About 45% of red listed lichens are found in forests and another 40% on rocks and alvars. Activities such as the repeated use of fire to regenerate forest or maintain fauna habitat, may have only subtle visible effects on the vascular vegetation, but can have a dramatic and deleterious impact on the often unique habitat requirements of lichens.

Because lichens do not possess roots, their primary source of most elements is the air, and therefore elemental levels in lichens often reflect the accumulated composition of ambient air. The processes by which atmospheric deposition occurs include fog and dew, gaseous absorption, and dry deposition. The sensitivity of a lichen to air pollution is in part directly related to the energy needs of the fungal component. Upon exposure to air pollution, the photosynthetic partner may use metabolic energy for repair of cellular structures that would otherwise be used for maintenance of photosynthetic activity, therefore leaving less metabolic energy available for the fungal component. The alteration of the balance between the photosynthetic partner and fungal component can lead to the breakdown of the symbiotic association. Therefore, lichen decline may result not only from the accumulation of toxic substances, but also from altered nutrient supplies that favor one symbiont over the other.

Collecting lichens for use in dye is a destructive activity. Although at present on a small scale, the activities of wool dyers can cause depletion of lichen numbers because of the large volume of material required. Local populations can be destroyed, and elimination of rare species can occur as dyers collect indiscriminately rather than selecting particular species. In the Rhön mountains in central Germany, where I have been born, the effects of lichen collecting for dying are believed to be still recognisable by the rarity or almost absence of certain lichen species as Pertusaria corallina, which have been collected for the dying of silk during the late 19th century.

Collecting specimens for science may only be a threat when over-enthusiastic collection of selected species could place local populations or rare species at risk. The amount of material collected of any one species (particularly exsiccates sets) should to be curtailed to prevent destruction of such populations by scientific activities.

These threats are by no means unique to lichens, and also apply to other groups of organisms.

Another of those lichens in Bwindi which grow hanging out in the air


In conclusion

Perhaps we can agree that despite their ecological and economic significance, very little is really known about lichens in tropical countries, especially in Africa.  More research is needed, especially to establish which species are at the risk of extinction and clarify how we might protect them. Perhaps you — readers — have some knowledge contribution to make. Let us hear your views and comments.

Documented by Ivan

Lichens: Little known but very significant

Lichens may be found all over the world, from the Antarctic continent to the tropics, in habitats ranging from spray-washed rocks by the sea, to boulders at the edge of the snowline on mountains; from rain forests to fogy deserts. In harsh, inhospitable environments they may be the only vegetation, and they are amongst the first colonisers of newly exposed rock surfaces, although sometimes algae and bacteria do the same. The only places where lichens might be rare is in or near cities, as they are very sensitive to atmospheric pollution.

These remarkable organisms are not really one plant but two — an association between an alga, or a cyanobacterium, and a fungus; an association so successful that a new entity results, capable of surviving under conditions in which either partner alone would perish.

Lichens are slowly emerging from their obscurity. Considerable work has been done in the last fifty years on the taxonomy of tropical lichens, which opens up the field for ecological and physiological studies.

Last month (May 2011), ITFC had the privilege of hosting Andreas Frisch, a post-doc Lichenologist from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) in Uppsala. Andreas was in Bwindi to conduct an inventory of the ecology, distribution and diversity of lichens in the park, which is the first such study in Uganda. We managed to interview him about his work.

Here are excerpts from our discussion:

Andreas Frisch observing Lichens in Ruhija

Andreas Frisch observing Lichens in Ruhija, Bwindi INP.

Bwindi Researchers: What is your study about and what is it’s significant?

Andreas Frisch: I’m a lichen taxonomist and ecologist. Together with Lena Gustafsson and Göran Thor (from my department) we are investigating how lichens are distributed in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park along lines of altitude, disturbance and slope position – meaning whether the epiphytic lichen vegetation of hilltops differs from that of valleys and the slopes inbetween. In the long run we intend to establish lichens in Bwindi as indicator species for forest communities and disturbance levels. We are also working on an inventory of lichens in Bwindi and want to establish a reference collection of lichens at ITFC. We hope in this way we can encourage further research in this fascinating group of organisms.

We feel this study is important as lichens constitute an integral part of the epiphyte communities in Bwindi. These contribute significantly to the microclimate and nutrient supply of the forest and are used by many organisms as fodder, nesting material etc. Lichens are also useful as indicators for environmental conditions, but can only be used as such when the species in the park and their distribution and ecology are well known.

Bwindi Researchers: So far you have spent about 5 weeks traversing several sections of Bwindi. What is your view about the diversity and distribution of lichens in this park?

Andreas Frisch: Bwindi still harbors a high diversity of epiphytic lichens, which might be comparable to that of other African tropical forests of middle altitudes. However, it is difficult to give exact figures as we have just started with our study. During the five weeks in the park I have collected about 250 species along the transects I made and in their surroundings. In total, there might be up to 500 species in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. This is quite typical for a mid-altitude tropical rainforest in Africa. Low-altitude forests may have a richer diversity of lichens because they are mostly less moist and the epiphyte vegetation is less dominated by bryophytes. Lichens growing on living leaves of trees, shrubs and herbs are particularly common in the lowland rainforests and contribute significantly to the high species richness in these forests. Such foliicolous lichens are also found in Bwindi, but with lower species numbers.

On a single tree trunk, you can easily find 25 plus lichen species. (Photo taken from Bwindi).

On a single tree trunk, you can easily find 25 plus lichen species. (Photo taken from Bwindi).

Bwindi Researchers: What Is the Ecological Role of Lichens?

Andreas Frisch: Lichens are important partners in nature’s ecosystem. Together with bacteria and algae they are early colonizers that reestablish life on rock and barren disturbed sites. Lichens play an important role in soil formation over much of the earth. As lichens colonize rocks, they trap dust, silt, and water. Soil-crust lichens bind the topsoil and prevent erosion and so play an important role in the ecology of semi-arid and arid lands.

Because of their association with cyanobacteria, some lichens can provide themselves with nitrogen compounds. Lichens contribute to the nitrogen cycle by converting the nitrogen in the air into nitrates that contribute to their growth and development. Their ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen is beneficial to other plant life as well. When it rains, nitrogen is leached from both living and dead lichens and is available to plant life in the immediate areas. When lichens die, they contribute decayed organic matter to the area they inhabited, which enables mosses and seeds from vascular plants to begin developing among the pockets of new soil.

Animals utilize lichens in many inter-dependent ways. It is well documented that numerous animals use lichens for either food or shelter. Some 50 species of birds are known to regularly use lichens as their preferred nesting material. Small animals may use lichens to hide from natural predators through camouflage and direct cover. Mites feed on lichens and some gastropods include lichens in their diet.

In Bwindi, Lichens like in this photo (brownish/orange coloring) are quite resilent.

In Bwindi, Lichens are quite resilient even to the point of growing on rocks. This one is actually an not a true lichen but an Trentepohlia algae, a common symbiont in lichens, but also as here often free-living

To be continued in next update…

Raiding baboons and disease risks

I am doing my MSc research with support from ITFC.  My study considers whether any health risks are posed by the movement and behaviour of Baboons (Papio anubis) around Bwindi and what might be done about it.

Baboons are adaptable and can live in various habitats. Even when humans clear away the baboon’s forest habitats for cultivation, settlement and other developments, baboons can exploite the resulting gardens.

Such resilience to habitat changes and the sharing of food sources with humans has however exposed baboons to a risk of contracting or transmitting a number of diseases. These in turn threaten other primates within their range.

Many field and experimental studies show that baboons have highly analogous reactions to diseases such as Tuberculosis, Shigella, Salmonella; many viruses (with recently HIV-2) of anthropoid primates including humans and great apes. Baboons belong to the class of old world monkeys that has been implicated in emerging hemorrhagic viruses. So it is well established that baboons can carry quite a diverse array of pathogens and potentially transmit these to other primate species.

Baboons spend much time along roads where they can easily acquire pathogens from humans.

Around Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, baboons are known to frequently raid outside the forest, into human communities, more than any other wild species causing considerable damage especially to crops. This presents a significant threat – disease transmission – across the park boundary that creates danger to community public health in terms of disease. It also increases the chance that these animals may transmit human pathogens to forest primate species.

Such diseases pose a particular threat to the conservation of the mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) which is a critically endangered species (according to the IUCN) with almost half of its global population living in the Bwindi forests.  We know that gorillas are susceptible to many of the same diseases as humans.  Other primate species in Bwindi may also be threatened by such potential disease transmission include the blue monkey (Cercopithecus mitis), l’hoest’s monkey (Cercopithecus l’hoesti), red-tailed monkey (Cercopithecus ascanius), black-and-white colobus (Colobus guereza), chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) and
vervet monkey (Cercopithecus aethiops).

Collecting baboon fecal samples non-invasively for laboratory analysis

In this study, I examine the role of baboons as potential carriers of micro-organisms including pathogens across the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (or Bwindi) among forest fauna and the contiguous human community.

Each day, I ascend the hills of Bwindi to determine baboon spatial and temporal patterns and their epidemiological (disease cause, transmission, spread pattern) impact. I also collect baboon fecal samples for use in DNA based methods to detect microbial exchange between baboons and the community. This should also be vital in detecting zoonotic pathogens that have been found in other species around Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.

A bite can be really harmful and spread disease such as viral encephalitis

A bite can be really harmful and spread disease such as viral encephalitis

The results from this study shall go a long way in evaluating role of baboons as potential carriers of micro-organisms, including pathogens across the Bwindi park boundary. The recommendations shall not only be applicable to Bwindi but also other protected areas with baboons.

A baboon seems to wonder why locals keep chasing them. Crop raiding could be one of the most significant drivers of pathogens transmission.

Keep tuned up for the study results and recommendations and let me hear what you think.

Agaba Hillary Kumanya
MSc. Student, Makerere University Kampala.