Tag Archives: forest animals

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

Stealthy Spiders have Stood the Test of Time

The sight of cobweb layers over one of our institute’s car windscreen drew me into memories of one old tale as told by my grandfather.

King Robert the Bruce I was born at Lochmaben Castle in 1274. He was Knight and Overlord of Annandale. In 1306 he was crowned King of Scotland and henceforth tried to free Scotland from the English enemy.  After being defeated at a battle, Bruce escaped and found a hideout in a cave. Hiding in a cave for three months, Bruce was at the lowest point in his life. He thought about leaving the country and never returning.

While waiting, he watched a spider building a web in the cave’s entrance. The spider repeatedly fell down yet finally it succeeded in building its web. So Bruce decided also to retry his fight and told his men: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again.”

Days later, while studying in our library, I came across a report by Charles E. Griswold on the distribution of afromontane spider families in Bwindi and then another small but fascinating book- Spiders and Their Kin by Herbert W. Levi. What I found out almost blew me away! Let me share with you some of the interesting facts from my findings.

Spiders are remarkable. They have been on our planet for 400 million years. The story of how 40,000 species of spiders inhabit our Earth is intriguing. Spiders are found almost everywhere – from the Arctic islands to dry deserts; from the tops of tropical mountains to the valley bottoms of temperate forests.

All spiders have the ability to produce silk (photo taken from Ruhija - Bwindi)

All spiders have the ability to produce silk (photo taken from Ruhija - Bwindi)

Uganda has four endemic spider species: ant-mimicking jumping spider Ugandinella formicula, another jumping spider Mikrus ugandensis, the pholcid spiders Quamtana kitahurira and Buitinga griswoldi. The blood-hungry spider, Evarcha culicivora, is found only around Lake Victoria in Kenya and Uganda. This species usually hunts insects on tree trunks and buildings by stalking its prey rather than trapping it in a web.

Some people are arachnophobic (loath spiders). Perhaps it’s because they are extremely hairy and reports of them being poisonous. Spiders use their hair as a defense mechanism by brushing off clouds of abdominal hair with their hind legs. Each hair is covered by hundreds of microscopic hooks that cause severe itching when they come into contact with skin.

The majority of spider bites are much less dangerous to humankind than poisonous stings of bees, wasps and hornets. Their poison is designed to paralyze prey – mainly insects. Defensive bites against large animals including humans, are only secondary. Out of the over 40,000 known species, only about 200 are known to have serious, potentially lethal bites to humans.

Some spiders can go up to 200 days without food. Most spiders are active during the night and depend upon touch and smell to assist them in finding a mate and recognizing prey and predators. Over 1,000 hairs on the front set of legs are very sensitive to chemical odors.

All spiders have the ability to produce silk. Spider silk is awesome. It is said to be stronger than bone, tendon or cellulose (wood). Only steel – smelted iron-ore is stronger. This is because the silk is made up of multiple proteins and water, which gives it incredible elasticity.

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Spider webs, stronger than bone?

Spiders are extraordinary engineers. In just a half-hour at night, with the sense of touch rather than sight, they are able to spin 20 meters of silk web.

Spiders are worthy of our admiration; they have stood the test of time on our blue planet.  Maybe conservation for spiders and other neglected animals (remember Douglas’s blog?)  is not such a crazy idea.

Will you think twice before swatting a spider in your home next time?!

Stay tuned, I have high hopes for spider silk prospects in the near future…

Ivan

Save the shaggy rat! The challenge of conserving neglected animals

Protected areas in SW Uganda include significant populations of several globally threatened animals. While mountain gorillas, elephants and chimpanzees have received a lot of attention, many smaller animals in the region remain poorly known and neglected.

The last few weeks we have been putting together a proposal to address conservation of neglected species with a particular focus on local wetlands. There are quite a number of these animals in the IUCN red list that identifies vulnerable and endangered species: 5 amphibians, 11 small mammals and 4 birds. The list would be longer if we included endangered reptiles, fish and invertebrates. We also excluded several other frogs, mammals and birds about which we know too little to say if they are endangered or not (e.g. Bwindi’s new Boubou bird discovered last year). So our 20 species, though neglected, are not the most neglected animals — we don’t even have names for most of the forest’s insects, spiders and other invertebrates.

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. Good mountain gorilla habitat, but also home to many less charismatic animals, also in need of conservation

The majority of these species specialise on wetland habitats for some or all of their lives. Their persistence depends on maintaining particular wetlands within the wider landscapes they inhabit. These restricted habitats are threatened by a range of factors – both within and outside of protected areas. To safeguard these key locations and their endangered species we need to identify them and ensure that they are managed against both immediate and long-term threats.  That is the focus of the proposal we were developing.  But neglected species are not easily promoted.

Bwindi mouse – hard to sell as a conservation concern?

An unnamed Bwindi frog — easier to like?

Bwindi spider — if this was an endangered species would anyone care enough to try and save it?

Why have these species been neglected? Well, they are hard to see and don’t have the obvious charisma of the gorillas, chimps and elephants. I suspect that their names are also a problem — how many people are willing to visit the forest to see an animal called a “rat” even if it is the “Montane shaggy rat”, the ” Medium tailed Brush-furred Rat” or “Kemp’s Thicket Rat”? It’d be even harder with snakes and spiders. Not sure how we can change that. At least the birds and frogs are pretty.

Here is our list of the smaller species of immediate conservation concern, scientific name, common name and they the  IUCN red list category — limited here to only Vulnerable (VU) and Endangered (EN). All these species have been reported in the region (Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, Echuya Forest Reserve and perhaps in some of the surrounding wetlands).  It’d be nice to have pictures for you but (aside from the birds) we dont have any …

Amphibians

1.        Afrixalus orophilus , Western Rift leaf-folding frog , VU

2.        Hyperolius castaneus, Ahl’s reed frog , VU

3.        Hyperolius discodactylus [= H. alticola], none, VU

4.        Hyperolius frontalis , none, VU

5.        Phrynobatrachus versicolor, none, VU

Mammals

1.        Delanymys brooksi, Delany’s swamp mouse, VU

2.        Lophuromys rahmi, Rahm’s brush-furred rat, EN

3.        Lophuromys medicaudatus , Medium tailed brush-furred rat, VU

4.        Praomys degraaffi , De Graaff’s praomys, VU

5.        Thamnomys kempi [=T. major] , Kemp’s thicket rat, VU

6.        Crocidura stenocephala, Kahuzi swamp shrew, Narrow-headed shrew, EN

7.        Crocidura tarella, Tarella or Uganda shrew, EN

8.        Dasymys montanus, Montane shaggy rat, EN

9.        Myosorex blarina , Montane mouse shrew, EN

10.     Ruwenzorisorex suncoides, Ruwenzori shrew, VU

11.     Sylvisorex lunaris, Moon shrew, VU

Birds

1.        Bradypterus graueri, Grauer’s swamp/Rush warbler , EN

2.        Cryptospiza shelleyi, Shelley’s crimson-wing, VU

3.        Muscicapa lendu [=M. Itombwensis], Chapin’s flycatcher, VU

4.        Pseudocalyptomena graueri, African green broadbill/Grauer’s broadbill, VU

So what do you think? Should we care about the rats and shrews and the spiders too? Let us know if you have any ideas how the plight of these animals might be better marketed to the World!

Best wishes

Douglas

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.

Humans or Elephants – Who is wrecking the Forest?

Open ground due to trampling by elephants

Although human activity is blamed for causing significant loss of forest cover, few studies have documented the role of wild animals in altering, or indeed trashing, their own habitats.  Should we be concerned when animals do this?

While ranging in their forest habitat, elephants leave extensive damage wherever they go. Whether they carelessly or intentionally do this, we all agree that elephants open vegetation, trample, and even sometimes uproot plants thereby causing enormous damage. Even from a distance, you hear them snapping tree branches as they feed or move through the forest.


A patch of the forest opened by the elephant

Most of us know elephants to range in open savannah and can hardly imagine elephants moving around in an ‘impenetrable’ forest. Yet there is an estimated 35-50 elephants ranging in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. While moving within the forest, you won’t need great skills to tell where elephants have been as there are usually broken tree branches everywhere along their paths.

Fredrick Ssali has recently completed a MSc research project on “the Impact Of Elephants On Trees In Bwindi Impenetrable National Park”. Please see earlier blog introducing this study. His study has clarified this behaviour.

Fred’s study documented tree species, sizes and sites most affected by elephants in Bwindi. He recorded elephant impacts like bark stripping, tree toppling, breaking of branches and trampling over a series of 20 x 4m plots laid out along fresh elephant trails in four sites, varying in vegetation type. In each plot, all damaged and undamaged trees were identified, counted and their stem sizes measured. Of course this was done considering other environmental variables in the study area- the slope, aspect, altitude and tree cover.


ITFC staff assessing impact on trees broken by elephants

The study revealed that elephants are selective in how and where they feed; they target the large and usually less abundant trees for stripping off bark, and usually topple trees or break their branches, when small and abundant. Habitat change mediated by elephants may ead to increased habitat patchiness within the forest. The patches left behind by elephant destruction in Bwindi have usually not been regenerating to primary forest. Rather, frens and other quick growing plants tend to conquere and dominate the patches, thereby suppressing forest recovery. The consequences of this to the general ecology of the forest may be far-reaching but that may call for another study all together.

Some of the patches opened by elephants offer benefits. Other forest animals like the mountain gorillas prefer feeding from the herbaceous vegetation found in these more open areas.

It is a debate. If people were doing this we’d all agree they should be stopped. So, what about the elephants?  Are they wrecking the forest or contributing? As elephant numbers grow we may one day have to consider how many the forest can stand.

Ivan Wassaaka

(with input from Fred and Douglas)

Bwindi on candid camera 9 – surprise guest

We have lots of great pictures from the recent camera trap efforts in Bwindi. We are trying to share some of the 15,000 pictures in a series of pictorial blogs. But we need to be quite selective.

Today we focus on an odd one that we did not expect. We did not know we had these here …

It’s a Honey badger or Ratel (Mellivora capensis)

Don’t know much about these.  We don’t normally associate these with forests.  That’s the great thing about research like this … you can see something new and unexpected.

Hope you are enjoying these images  — a few more still to go.

Best wishes

Douglas and Badru

Bwindi on candid camera 8 – Mountain gorillas

We have lots of great pictures from the recent camera trap efforts in Bwindi. We shall share some in a series of pictorial blogs.

Today, at last, we do the Mountain gorillas. There are some good ones here. We’ll let the images speak for themselves

Mountain gorillas, Bwindi 2010.

Mountain gorillas, Bwindi 2010. Someone has spotted the camera

Mountain gorillas, Bwindi 2010.

Mountain gorillas, Bwindi 2010.

Mountain gorillas, Bwindi 2010. Moving in for a closer look

What do you think they might be thinking?

Douglas and Badru

Bwindi on candid camera 7 – a rodent review (more than rats)

We have lots of great pictures from the recent camera trap efforts in Bwindi. We shall share some in a series of pictorial blogs.

Today it’s rodents … we have lots so we try to be a bit selective!

Not sure we can name all of these …

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Squirrel …

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Giant pouched rat (Cricetomys  emini)

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Rodent or shrew?

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Squirrel … but which? We think perhaps Boehm’s Squirrel (Paraxerus boehmi)

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Seems to be a Brush-tailed porcupine (Atherurus africanus)

Tarzan the African dormice (Graphiurus spp), Bwindi — we are impressed, we didnt know they were such tree (here liana) climbers!

Best wishes

Douglas and Badru

Bwindi on candid camera 6 – small and furry

We have lots of great pictures from the recent camera trap efforts in Bwindi. We are sharing some in a series of pictorial blogs.

Today it’s … what is that …?

We think it may be Demidoff’s galago (Galagoides  demidoff)

Possible Demidoff’s galago (Galagoides  demidoff)

It’s a galago (some people call them “bush-babies”). It may be Demidoff’s (Galagoides  demidoff) … but we cannot be sure.  Feel free to correct us!

Best wishes

Douglas and Badru

Bwindi on candid camera 5 – pigs!

We have lots of great pictures from the recent camera trap efforts in Bwindi. We are sharing some in a series of pictorial blogs.  Today it’s the best pigs …  I like these guys.

Common Bush pig (Potamochoerus  larvatus), Bwindi

Family of Common Bush pigs (Potamochoerus  larvatus), Bwindi

Phew, there are still heaps of pictures to go.

Best wishes

Douglas and Badru