Tag Archives: forest

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

Who am I conserving for?

This is Emmanuel — I haven’t been able to do much blogging recently due to field work away from the station. But I wanted to share some thoughts and see what you think.

I have recently been watching some DVDs of a popular series called “Gossip Girl” (no obvious relation to Conservation … but I’ll get there). In this season I am watching one of the main characters, Serena a very attractive girl from a very wealthy family, refuses to join one of the best colleges in America because she’s taking time off to rediscover herself and clarify her purpose in life.

I have recently taken some time to think about my purpose as a conservationist something like Serena is aksing about her own career. This brings me to the thoughts I want to share with you in this blog. It’s a question I have been asking myself every time I meet with local people who live next to protected areas ( see blog: interview with Emmanuel Akampulira).

Like Serena I have taken some time to rediscover myself and my purpose (in my case this is about conservation). I am  asking myself the question “Who am I real conserving for?” Not long ago in school we generally answered this question, “for future generations”. This in its right is an accepted answer, backed up by the usual slogans of conservation and sustainable development. Alongside this answer there other answers we use to justify conservation. In a nutshell the de-facto reason is to protect the biodiversity that we humans depend on. Let’s take a hypothetical situation where man does not depend on nature for his survival. Would he have the same strong convictions for conservation? This is debatable!

To those of us who are literate (with western formal education), we are lucky enough to learn about the usefulness of nature from the western perspective. We could twist our answers to this question in all sorts of ways to justify and satisfy our conditional protection of nature. But will the common man who’s never been to school share my reasons for conservation. Well it’s been documented that yes he could.

Local people use their very fertile land next to protected areas to grow cash crops like tea at the cost of the much needed food crops for fear of crop raiding

Allow me to share with the concept called the “noble savage and conservation“.
(A Noble Savage is someone from a primitive culture who is supposedly uncorrupted by contact with society). This concept of the noble savage being a conservationist is considered a myth by some anthropologists and conservationists. Critics of this concept argue that native people only conserved because during that time population densities were low, technology used in extraction of resources was not advanced and market forces were not as aggressive as they are today. Let us look at the flip side of this, say the noble savage conserved unconsciously because of certain fears or restrictions associated with culture and religion. What would that make him? In my opinion any effort consciously or unconsciously made to preserve biodiversity or the sustainable use of natural resources should be considered as conservation. I could easily get absorbed and lost in the controversies of this concept but my point here is indigenous people have always been able to conserve. How and why is still debatable.

The cost of conservation (Children sit by their family gardens to guard them against baboons instead of being at school)

The billion dollar question here is. Can we trust the concept of noble savage and conservation? My answer would be yes we could have but aren’t we too late. Haven’t we already pushed the noble savage against the ropes? The biodiversity he once respected now battles with him for survival. He is thrown in jail and fined for crimes against nature. Nature gets more sympathy and care from authorities than he does. The reason given to him. To make his life better. Does he see his life getting better? No! He thinks it’s getting worse. There are more costs for him from conservation than benefits. If his life is getting worse instead of better like he was promised by me the “smart” conservationist. It seems our hunter is now the one being hunted. When the livelihoods of the poor man leaving next to protected areas is being threatened. That means his existence and the existence of his future generation is being threatened too by the very nature he is being asked to protect.

Practical interventions in Bwindi where local people are allowed to harvest resources from the park

So where do we go from here? Truthfully terrific and impressive ideas have been drafted on paper about how to conserve through reducing costs and increasing benefits to the locals. Uganda is a good example of this. To say that efforts have not been made to pursue this agenda would be somewhat of a lie. Never the less more has to been done in the way of policy changes, practical and realistic interventions and more importantly development of partnerships and collaboration among all stake holders concerned.

Community sensitization and education is key to collaboration with local people and soliciting support for conservation.

Alas it seems I may be the one to benefit from conservation after all if checks are not put in place. Back to my first question WHO AM I CONSERVING FOR?

Thanks to Gossip girl, I took some time to rediscover my purpose as conservationist and am still working on it. These are some of the thoughts I wanted to share with you as my internalization goes on.

Let me know what you think.


Xoxo ….Emmanuel

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…

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)

Exciting experiences of our new communications officer

Dear readers,

Since a week, ITFC has a staff member dedicated to communication: Ivan Wassaaka. We are very happy that he has joined us and asked him to give you an impression of his new home and tasks. The floor is yours, Ivan!

Ivan Wassaaka - Communications Officer, Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation

Ivan Wassaaka - Communications Officer, Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation

For me, nature and writing are intertwined. I believe strongly in sustainably conserving our natural environment; it inspires me to reflect and write about it. As the Communications Officer I will be responsible for collecting news from ITFC’s areas of operation and writing it up for websites, blogs and other fora. Luckily, collecting the news is a hands-on job and I will be working with the other ITFC staff, volunteers and stakeholders in order to relay the information straight from the forest floor! And so each morning with my laptop, camera and diary I set off and help out where and when I can, seeking out the next inspiring tale.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me tell you a little about how I got here, first…

Previously I worked with Kalagala Eco-tourism Development Organization (KTDO) as a community relations officer. Yet having studied East Africa’s natural science history during my tourism degree at university, I kept feeling a sense of frustration that I was not able to do more in this field. I had another opportunity working with Edsa African Safaris as marketing and administration manager from where I acquired a lot of knowledge and skills in corporate communications during these years. So when the ITFC advertised the vacancy of a communication officer, it was just the position I had been packaged for.

Ruhija sits at over 2,300m ASL in the spectacular hills of eastern Bwindi and on clear days you have the wonderful view of the Virunga Volcanoes. That said, the first 2 nights were just too cold for a newcomer. Temperatures here sometimes fall below 6C. Thank God for the three blankets I was offered, but still they all seemed to offer no solution. I had to wear 2 shirts even in these blankets so that I could enjoy some warm sleep.

You can never get bored in Bwindi! Everyday I just get carried away by the diversity of plants here. Often I am amused by myself, especially by the times I take gazing at the plants here. A 10 meters’ distance can take me several minutes to walk. Please bear with me, I have been to forests but I think Bwindi is just so different.

Taking a deeper look at yet another unique plant in Bwindi

Taking a deeper look at yet another unique plant in Bwindi

Ooh I hear you wondering, how visiting about the gorillas? Well, I have not yet seen them, I already strongly feel their nearness all round over me. Just the other day, on a walk through the forest with my new colleagues, I was walking in fresh footsteps of a family!

For now it is just enough being surrounded by over 1000 different plant species, 350 bird species, and the other primate species in this ‘impenetrable afromontane forest’!

Searching for gorillas? Not yet - I (in the background), with other colleagues on a walk through Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

Searching for gorillas? Not yet - I (in the background), with other colleagues on a walk through Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

Who would not pay for escaping the early morning traffic jams in Kampala, dogs and cats making boring noise through the nights, dusty, potholed and be-garbaged city streets allover? Here instead I have monkeys patrolling the office and my house, wonderful bird songs to awake and set the sun and oh, plenty of fresh food!

Along with experiencing overwhelming first impressions; I have learned much useful and interesting information which will serve me well during my tenure here. I probably cannot say enough thanks to the staff more especially the directors who have been giving it all their best to ensure that I am well set-up, giving me lots of literature and talk.

I am already full of ideas and very much excited about being the communication channel for ITFC’s research, monitoring and conservation work in the GVL of the Albertine Rift.
I just can’t wait!

Trees and sticks for land stability and safety?

About a year ago Uganda suffered one of its worst natural disasters in recent decades. An entire village on the slopes of Mt Elgon dissapeared under a blanket of heavy mud: many lives were lost. Indeed an entire community was wiped away. People here tend to see these things as acts of god — that may be, but we mortals can influence these actions by more than prayers.

That area, Bududa, is a steep rugged region similar to the landscape around us in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Both areas have lost much of their forest cover to cultivation, have weak soils and geology, and are at risk of landslides. Here we have the additional risk of regular earthquakes — I’ve felt a couple of minor tremors the last week.

You may remember that last year we had a few smaller landslides here around the time of the Bududa tragedy (noone was hurt here as the falls were small and below the road). We became concerned. We had found some long gaping cracks in the ground around the station and decided for urgent action. We filled these fissures with earth as best we could, cut drainage ditches, and planted sticks. Then we hoped — it didn’t look very impressive. What can a few sticks do?

So what happened? Well many of the sticks have sprouted leaves and roots. So far we have not had more landslides. It might be working.

Planted sticks on the access road to ITFC. Most are figs and Erythrina trees. Some like this fig though less than a year old are already leafy.

At the same time as we at ITFC are trying to maintain tree cover to stop landslides, others are working, albeit unknowingly, in the opposite direction. Recently a program was started to improve the road through the national park. That sounds like a good thing, but without a proper impact assessment and good supervision there are reasons to be concerned.

In the last weeks we see a lot of tree cutting along the road, often on steep slopes. Some of this is needed as leaning trees can becaome obstructions. But sometimes trees are cut and split in a destructive and ugly fashion that will likely kill the trees (and thus their roots) even in locations where the tree is far from the passing traffic. On these steep slopes that doesn’t seem like a good idea.

The problem seems to be that a small team of local cutters is sent out unsupervised without really undestanding what is required. They are untrained and cut what they wish. Inside a World Heritage Site that would be a concern — in a steep and unstable landscape it becomes a major saftey risk too. We have notified the Uganda Wildlife Authority who shared our concerns and promptly followed up by contacting the roads authorities involved. Some of the less necessary and most damaging tree cutting should now be stopped. We hope too that the work will be better supervised.

Some of the road side tree cutting near Ruhija. Careful cutting is needed to reduce obstruction without killing the trees.

Cutting cover on steep slopes increases erosion and the likelihood of landslides. Evidence from across the tropics shows that human clearing of vegetation and restructuring of slopes greatly increases the frequency and likelihood of destructive landslides. Steep areas cleared of forest are especially vulnerable. Evidence also shows that landslides are typically more than ten times more frequent along roads than in similar, undisturbed rain forest terrain.

The geology around here is soft. Roads are cut like steps into the steep hillsides. The underlying material is not rock but compacted sediments that can often be crumbled between finger and thumb. This is a place for careful road-building and maintaining forests. We need the trees to keep us safe!

Let’s hope that we can avoid disasters like Bududa. Trees help, perhaps even sticks can make a difference.

Some of the cutting, like that high on this slope seems unnecessary and adds to land-instability in this steep region.

Best wishes


A camper’s nightmare beneath falling trees

Hello all, Badru Mugerwa is here again to share with you his forest experiences from the past eleven days of field work.

While camping in the forest, I do sometimes worry about the accidents that might happen when we are sleeping under all these trees. Our last camping site was 5km inside the rugged forest. This was our home for eleven days while measuring trees in our new plots.

One night just before midnight an awful thing happened. We were all in a deep sleep after a long-day’s work. The forest was dark quiet and peaceful, apart from the sudden squeaking sound of a breaking tree branch. My tent mate and I woke when we heard this sound, and we both sat up. It sounded as if the breaking branch was just above our tent. We knew that a large tree was about to land on us – we were saying our prayers.

Within a few second we heard a loud thunder-like sound a few meters from our tent, we heard screams and calls for help. Everyone rushed from their tents. I immediately realized that the affected tent was the one occupied by Marius (one of our tree measures) and Job (UWA ranger).

A very big branch had fallen on top of the tent, collapsing it beyond repair. Using a torch it was hard to believe there was still life in this tent, but the loud screams told otherwise. Fearing the worst, we all rushed to save the tent’s inhabitants. We started by carrying off all the wood debris that had covered the tent. By some miracle, neither Marius nor Job was injured. Somehow our prayers had worked.

After realizing that no first aid was necessary, our next task was to arrange where Marius and Job could spend the rest of the night. The crushed tent added to our ongoing problem of tent shortages. We didn’t have any spares and all our tents were fully occupied. To make matters worse, some of the tents already had more people than the manufacturers’ recommendation. Good field tents are hard to obtain in Uganda and expensive. In any case, deep inside the forest we didn’t have many options at hand.

The next morning we could see the remains of the crushed tent still with some pieces of the branch upon it.

The poles were bent and broken. Somehow the sleeping occupant were not even bruised. Now we need a new tent.

Fortunately, we were sharing our camp site with the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA)’s gorilla habituation team. They had a spare a tent which they lent to us. Many thanks to UWA for their help!

We were lucky this time. Now, let’s hope for Marius and Job that they get a replacement tent so that they can continue their work.

Let me know what you think, or if you can help us with tents!


Who’s scared to follow forest elephants?

I have been hidden to you for some time because I was in the forest with a team researching Bwindi’s elephants. This started in September and continues. To be honest when I was asked to help with this work I was nervous – even a little scared.

Elephants are feared by us, who live here, due to their size and the knowledge that they are sometimes aggressive and very dangerous. While I have often been in the forest with students, my instincts are to avoid elephants. But this time we were planning not to avoid them, but rather to seek out where the elephants are, and to follow them.

Fredrick Ssali, a student of Mbarara University, is assessing the impact of elephants feeding in the forest and what they select to feed on and where. Our work involves locating, identifying and measuring damaged and undamaged plants. Those which we cannot name are taken to the ITFC herbarium for identification.

(Douglas’s note: We don’t know much about Bwindi’s elephants.  The point of this work is that it will be easier to protect these animals and understand their needs if we know where they go to feed and why.  In addition, these animals probably have a significant impact on the habitat that influences a lot of other animals)

First we gathered information on where the elephants would be, and it was agreed that Rushaga was the best area to start as they have elephants in all seasons. We also determined that the bamboo zone (a small patch of bamboo forest inside the National Park) would likely have elephants in the rainy season, and areas of the Mubwindi Swamp is often used by them in the dry season.

Some elephant trails are easy to follow as the animals open up the forest

Christopher and Frederick record the vegetation along an elephant trails as Miriam watches

Our work started in Rushaga as planned. We located the signs of the elephants feeding in areas close to the rangers’ camp. We started following them over the subsequent days. Day by day we learned a lot, with the rangers in Rushaga sometimes telling us that they had seen elephants, when guiding tourists to the Mountain gorillas. We became braver – we knew we were getting closer. Every evening, we would share the day’s experience in the camp.

We seldom get close enough to see the elephants. One day in the morning while going for work, we saw a large solitary adult male. Though I had expected to be scared, I really enjoyed watching it feeding for about 40 minutes. Now I can work on elephants without doubt sand fears. We have all felt excited by the work. Really research brings rich experience and we are happy to be involved and share with you.

Christopher assesses a tree pushed over by an elephant.

Christopher and Frederick record the vegetation along the elephant trails

We now like following the elephants. You know elephants in the forest open the vegetation, trample, uproot and break some trees. Even when they are feeding far away you can hear them. They move long distances. (We tried to make some photographs of the elephants but they were very blurry and not clear enough to use as the light was bad and they were a bit too far for the camera — surely you don’t think it is because we had shaky hands do you?).

Readers, please let me know what you think about our elephants.


Giant Squirrels spotted in Bwindi!

The other day I was making a phone call in the corner of our compound (where the best reception is and I can look out over the forest and see Congo in the distance!). All of a sudden I saw an animal I had never seen before jumping from one branch to another. The thought struck me immediately: the African Giant Squirrel! I had only seen these in pictures : a 30+cm body, beautifully red brown on the back, and a large grey head, with a broad and flamboyant white and black banded tail of another 30cm.


Thanks to Jonathan Kingdon for allowing us to use this beautiful drawing of the Giant Squirrel

I checked Jonathan Kingdon’s East African Mammals book to find out what its supposed distribution is: “the Giant Squirrel is limited to well-developed high forests in tropical areas of West and Central Africa”. The distribution map shows that its occurence stops east of the Albertine Rift and Kingdon says that this squirrel occurs in mountain forests of eastern Congo, up to 2100 meter and “probably ranges that high also in parts of East Africa”. We are at an altitude of 2345 meter… could this be another little sign of warmer temperatures than usual (climate change) or was the squirrel running out of food at lower elevation?

People were at first sceptical when I mentioned my sighting, but in the meantime Douglas and I have seen one together, twice now and are convinced this really is the African Giant Squirrel! Hard to take a picture of… but I promise to put it on the blog if I manage!