Tag Archives: Mountain Gorilla

ITFC honors Professor F. I.B Kayanja for his dedication to the conservation of Bwindi’s Mountain Gorillas

On the 17th and 18th July, ITFC and UWA held an annual research information sharing workshop in Ruhija, Bwindi whose theme was “25 years of research collaboration between Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), partners and Mbarara University Science and Technology (MUST), realizing effective and sustainable partnership in conservation”. One individual who has been at the helm of this collaborative research between UWA and partners is none other than the distinguished Prof. F.I.B Kayanja. Indeed there was no better time of honoring his contributions towards the establishment of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and the conservation of its Gorillas than at this year’s ITFC/UWA information sharing workshop. Paying tribute to Prof. Kayanja for his commendable service in conservation was undoubtly  the biggest highlight of the workshop.

Prof. Kayanja, who will be retiring from public service on the 24th October 2014, was very pivotal in the establishment of a research institute of MUST-the Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation (ITFC) and gazettement of Bwindi forest into a national park in 1991. Before then, the Bwindi’s mountain gorillas were on the verge of extinction. By the establishment of the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Bwindi’s Gorillas were saved from extinction a task Prof. Kayanja painstakingly achieved. Furthermore, ITFC was the first of its kind that that specialized in tropical forest ecology including research on Mountain Gorillas. ITFC has helped train many Ugandans and others in these fields since 1991. At this years workshop MUST with its field research institute (ITFC) was commemorating 25 years of partnership with UWA and other partners.

During the workshop, on behalf of ITFC, Dr. Robert Bitariho (the director-ITFC) surprised the whole entire workshop by presenting a surprise souvenir of a mountain gorilla painting to Prof. Kayanja. This was after he read out a long list of citations of Prof. Kayanja’s contributions to conservation in Uganda. The citation was concluded with a phrase from one UWA senior warden that Prof. Kayanja was a “god” father of conservation in Uganda. “I am greatly humbled” was a response from Prof. Kayanja while he received the souvenir.

Dr Robert Bitariho reads out a citation of Prof. Kayanja before presenting to him the souvenir with the help of BMCA Conservation Area Manager, Mr. Pontious Ezuma (to the left) and Bwindi Southern sector Chief warden, Mr. John Justice Tibesigwa (to the right).

Dr Robert Bitariho reads out a citation of Prof. Kayanja before presenting to him the souvenir with the help of BMCA Conservation Area Manager, Mr. Pontious Ezuma (to the left) and Bwindi Southern sector Chief warden, Mr. John Justice Tibesigwa (to the right).

Prof. Kayanja receiving the souvenir midst heavy applause from the audience.

Prof. Kayanja receiving the souvenir midst heavy applause from the audience.

Prof. Kayanja later blessed the occasion with a captivating key not speech, during which he emphasized that his contribution, General Moses Ali and Dr. Eric Edroma in the gazetting of Bwindi Impenetrable forest as a national park was to be highly revered. Prof. Kayanja astonished the audience when he made a very generous offer for his support in all matters of ITFC even during his retirement. “ITFC is my brainchild,” he added, while an enchanted audience listened with bated breath as he spoke about the importance of handling the legacy that ITFC is. “The challenge I leave with you is to be satisfied with the fruits of your labor in your youth, just as I have done.” He concluded his speech by thanking and appreciating all partners and their contribution towards conservation, especially for the dream that ITFC and UWA have become.

Prof. Kayanja giving  a keynote speech at the recently concluded ITFC/UWA information sharing workshop, Ruija

Prof. Kayanja giving a keynote speech at the recently concluded ITFC/UWA information sharing workshop in Ruhija

Several speakers would agree, that it’s never an easy task to speak after Prof. Kayanja. However, many of the well-prepared workshop participants stood up to the challenge and embraced this unique opportunity to stand on the same podium to present their research findings. Catch these proceedings in our next blog.

Best regards,

Emmanuel Akampulira, Robert Bitariho and Badru Mugerwa

Update on Habinyanja blackback killed by poachers

A couple of weeks ago I promised to keep you updated on the death of Mizaano from the Habinyanja Mountain Gorilla group. Well I just talked to the senior warden in charge (Acting Conservation Area Manager) of the park who confirmed that suspects have been arrested but are currently denying all charges. The legal process will now takes its course and may take some time to complete.

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is probably one of the best protected National Parks in Africa — but these recent events remind us that very real threats are never far away. Conservation success remains fragile and requires our vigilance.

A vulnerable existence: Mountain gorilla Bwindi. Douglas Sheil ITFC

The Uganda Wildlife Authority has posted an official release on the Mizaano event. This remains the best summary of what is known at this point in time. Let me quote it in full:

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Friends of critically endangered Mountain Gorillas are mourning the brutal death of Mizaano (meaning playful) on Friday June 17 2011, of Habinyanja Family, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park(BINP) who has been the only blackback in the group.The carcass of the stocky gorilla who had been in line to succeed Makara the reigning silverback was discovered by the trackers on Friday morning with a spear wound in the right side of the shoulder.

Preliminary findings from a post mortem carried out by doctors from the Conservation Through Public Health indicates that the gorilla died a brutal death because it was killed by a spear through the right side of the shoulder into the lungs that got suffocated to death. It is probable that the dogs tried to fight off the gorilla and in the process the black back must have fought the dogs, and realizing that their dogs are their life line, the poachers decided to save them by killing the gorilla. Uganda Wildlife Authority which is charged with the protection of the mountain gorillas is working with security and other partners in conservation to bring the suspected culprits to book and end the vice of poaching.
It is believed the poachers had laid traps targeting other animals in the forest including the antelopes which ended up netting the gorilla.
Last year, a poacher’s wire snare which caught an infant gorilla round its neck in Nyakagezi Group of Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, almost ended its life before the intervention of Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project Staff to remove the snare.
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We hope to have more positive stories soon!
Best wishes
Douglas

Sad news from Bwindi

We received some sad news last Saturday. One of Bwindi’s mountain gorillas (a black-back male called “Mizano”) in the Habinyanja group was found dead. It appears the animal might have been speared — but we have heard so many different stories already we shall wait to hear the official conclusions from the Uganda Wildlife Authority who are now investigating.

The Habinyanja family had 17 gorillas leaving 16 now. An official postmortem has already taken place and we hope to hear more soon.

Mountain gorilla — with less than a thousand animals left alive on the planet they are highly endangered

We’ll keep you informed when the official accounts are available.

Douglas

What to do with the old bamboo?

We have just started a new study in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. This is Uganda’s smallest National Park: an area on the slopes of the Virunga Volcanoes that borders Rwanda and Congo (DRC). It is a fun study.  It is about bamboo.

The African Mountain Bamboo is a key food for several animals. The young shoots provide a valued food to Mountain Gorillas and to the rare African Golden Monkeys (a species found only in the Virungas). According to UNEP “Mountain Gorillas depend on bamboos for up to 90% of their diet in some seasons. The survival in the wild of the Mountain Bongo [a forest antelope] depends on conservation of the bamboo thickets to which it migrates during the dry season”.

Bamboo are also a valued commodity for people in the surrounding communities who use the larger stems for building, old stems for fire-wood and bean stakes, and use young stems for weaving durable baskets. (In Eastern Uganda bamboo shoots are also eaten smoked … but that is not the case around the Virungas).

Botanists have argued a lot about what to call bamboos. The problem is that botanists like to have flowers to base plant names on … and bamboo doesn’t flower often which makes it hard for them to classify. The African Mountain Bamboo has at least three names to confuse everyone: Arundinaria alpina or Sinarundinaria alpina or Yushania alpina. It is all one species.

Pontious – Sr Warden in Charge of Mgahinga Gorilla National Park explains the challenge of the bamboo.

The Virunga mountains are a scenic place to work

The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) has been concerned that the Mgahinga Mountain Gorillas are spending less time in Uganda  than in the neighbouring countries. That means that tourists who visit are sometimes disappointed. One suggested reason why the gorillas do not stay longer is that the bamboo was old and dry and not producing the young shoots that would (twice a year) attract the animals to feed. It is also a concern regarding the Golden Monkeys.

Much of the park’s income from tourism depends on the gorillas and the monkeys. At the same time, MGNP management is under pressure from local communities who are eager to access bamboo. UWA asked us at ITFC to help them with a study: if they allowed local people to cut the dry stems would it encourage the bamboo to produce more young shoots?

UWA had already gone ahead selecting an area where local people were allowed to cut and collect dry stems for building and fuel.  That was completed a year ago.

So we though we could try and help. We visited Mgahinga in mid September to see the site with UWA staff. We then designed our study. Then in the early days of October,  two ITFC volunteers together with MGNP rangers and ourselves spent a few days in training and started the actual data collection. We had two small teams and spent a lot of time counting, measuring and assessing bamboo stems. Our teams included UWA Head Ranger Research and Monitoring: Barebwa Ismael, three UWA Rangers: Uwihoreye Allen, Adrama Francis and Halera George and two ITFC volunteers: Ssali Frederick and Mukasa Joseph. The photographs should give you some feel for these forests.  It is high up (about 2,500 meters plus) and cool.

We never saw any wild buffalo, though their tracks were everywhere (the rangers need to carry a rifle just in case — the buffalo are often agressive). We did not see the Golden Monkeys but we heard them close on a few occasions. There was an odd popping sound that carried through the forest as the monkeys snapped off the young nutritious bamboo shoots.

Training at Mgahinga — training is an important part of the research process.

Training at Mgahinga — counting bamboo is not so simple!

Training at Mgahinga — counting bamboo needs care and attention.

Joseph and George reading the calipers – Mgahinga.

Bamboo forest – Mgahinga

Bamboo forest – Mgahinga

In an ideal world UWA could allow local people controlled access to bamboo without it having any negative impacts … it may even increase the food available for Mountain Gorillas and Golden Monkeys.  Perhaps that is true, we don’t know yet. We’ll wait and see the data.  That’s applied research.

Best wishes

Douglas

Gardening or wilderness protection: when should we manipulate habitats?

When should protected area managers actually manage, and when should they they simply try and keep out external threats and allow nature to follow its own course? One traditional view of park management is that it should keep areas ‘wild’ or even ‘the way they were’. But nature is seldom as static as our imagination paints it: habitats are always changing. When are interventions justified?

Young mountain gorilla: What’ll you do with my forest?

Here in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park there has been a lot of discussion about making the habitat as good as possible for gorillas. This does not mean keeping as much majestic old-growth forest as possible because gorillas actually like to feed on the weedy undergrowth found in disturbed areas (see my June post “What is the point”).

In the past, areas that have been subjected to logging, fire and even cultivation have subsequently proved to be attractive for gorillas as they feed on the dense soft leaved herbs that soon dominate. In contrast, old forests have less low and leafy vegetation and possess fewer of the plant species gorillas like to eat.

Disturbed areas do not stay disturbed.  Slowly such areas recover to become closed forests once more. Without human intervention (or elephants, who like to push over small trees) trees will generally grow thicker and denser, year-by-year until we have more tall dark forest … and thus less gorilla salad. That’s natural.

Bwindi’s Mountain gorillas find most of their food in more open herbaceous areas.

The idea of manipulating protected areas is nothing new. For example, most of the drier protected areas in East Africa are fire ecosystems and the areas are often burned by managers in various ways to maintain good habitat for the desired species.

In Lake Mburo for example, the woodlands have long tended to get denser over time, with the risk that they can become too dense for some of the grazers (and for the tourists to see the animals). Therefore there is regular controlled burning in the park. The grazers thrive on the fresh sappy grass that soon sprouts in recently burned areas. There is also manual tree clearance in some areas. It requires effort to keep things more-or-less as they are.

After controlled burning at Lake Mburo. Soon the grass will return greener and more succulent.

So what is best for Bwindi? Do we clear trees to ensure we can feed more gorillas?

I’ll admit I do not like the idea of heavy handed interventions. Mountain gorillas may naturally occur at quite low densities – increased population densities (as a result of more food plants) will make the animals more vulnerable to disease (allowing more effective transmission among them). I am also not at ease with the idea that we view the forest as a gorilla ranch or a glorified species-centered salad bar.

More gorillas would be a good thing, but there are other rare species in these forests that also deserve our concern and protection. Some of these other species depend on old growth forest and are vulnerable to forest disturbance. There will be trade-offs.

Don’t forget me! There are many species besides mountain gorillas that will be impacted by any changes in the forest.

Bwindi forest fungi. Tropical forests are complex ecosystems (where even decomposition has beauty). How much can we control? When should we intervene?

We don’t know everything we’d like to. There are many uncertainties. Science and research can and do help us understand the biology in these bigger issues but what we finally choose to do requires us to weigh up our choices in a wider context and it involves risk. Ethics and politics have a place beside the science. So who decides what to do and how? People will disagree but decisions are needed.

What should be our guiding principles? I’d be keen to hear your opinions.

Best wishes

Douglas Sheil

Overview on gorilla conservation in the ‘Year of the Gorilla’

Being based in a remote corner of the planet mail sometimes comes late. But better late than never.

I found an interesting article on the ‘Year of the Gorilla’ in the New Scientist of July 27 which just arrived. I think it is worth sharing as many of you will be interested. … luckily it is also available on line (see here).

The article discusses the plight of gorillas across Africa and mentions Bwindi’s Mountain gorillas in several places. Lots of useful facts and opinions.  Its a mixed story with room for pessimism and optimism.  Let me know what you think!

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Although numbers have increased mountain gorillas are still critically endangered (Image: Andy Rouse / NHPA, from New Scientist)

Best wishes,

Douglas

Kyagurilo gorillas; Bwindi’s best known mountain gorillas!

I spend a lot of my working time for ITFC on monitoring the Kyagurilo group. ‘What is that?’ you may ask.  I’ll tell you.

Kyagurilo is a mountain gorilla group that has been monitored daily since 1995. The group got its name from the area where its home range used to be, near Mubwindi Swamp in the centre of Bwindi quite near to ITFC.

Martha Robbins, from the Max Planck Institute (MPI) in Germany, has been carrying out a long term study of this group’s behaviour, feeding habits, ecology, sociology and home range. Every individual in the Kyagurilo group has a name. The names are given according to each animal according to their features and distinguishing marks; for example ‘Kakumu’, (kumu meaning ‘finger’ in Rukiga language), has a stiff finger that points up all the time; and ‘Binyindo’ means a big nose with a scar mark; and the name ‘Mugwere’ was given to a gorilla that looked sick (‘in a sick state’). That way we can remember their names more easily.

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Rukumu, on the left, is a silverback of the Bitukura group who has a stiff finger too

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Binyindo with a distinguishing mark on her nose!

Sometimes some of the young males hide in the bushes and can jump out and grab you. They are playing but it has given me a fright several times. Indeed it is a serious matter: we have to try hard keep our distance to over 7 meter so as to avoid direct contact and to reduce the chance that the animals may catch any ilness from us (we are careful and we do not go to the field if we feel ill or have a cold).  At times I like to see the infants playing and the adult females grooming the silverback during resting periods.

This group currently has 14 members; one dominant silverback, 5 adult females, 3 black-back males, 2 juveniles and 3 infants. There have been changes over the past years; in 2004, for example, the dominant silverback was over powered by a younger one and left the group after a heavy fight. But he had serious injuries from which he did not recover, and he died. Also, a young adult female left the group and joined another one and recently Kakumu left Kyagurilo group, with an infant. Black back males have left for shorter or longer periods, some came back, other live a solitary life. These changes are normal, (like in human groups?) and we record all of it.

My fellow field assistants and I continue to monitor this gorilla group daily. In another blog I will tell you how a day with the Kyagurilo group looks like.

This experience with mountain gorilla monitoring has helped the management of the park to habituate other gorilla groups and several are visited by tourists. Again it has helped me and my fellow field assistants to be involved in contributing to conservation activities.

Let’s join hands and save the mountain gorillas and their habitat.

Looking forward to your responses, Christopher

Hello, I am Christopher Byaruhanga

I am called Christopher Byaruhanga. I work with ITFC as a field Assistant.

I come from Katoma Village where I was born which is about 1km from Ruhija. I am aged 38 and Mukiga by tribe.

I completed three years of secondary school at St. Adrian’s Seminary Rubanda in 1989. Due too to the fact that I lost my father, I could not go ahead with studies.

I got married to Lestatuta Musimenta in 1989 as I was the first son to the family . Let me explain, in our culture when the father dies the oldest son is expected to marry. We have 8 children of whom 3 are girls and 5 are boys. All the girls and three of the boys are in primary education in different classes and next year, 2 girls will join secondary education. The other two boys are still young and stay at home with the mother.

I have land which is almost 4 acres with steep slopes and valley terrain. This is where I grow Irish potatoes, beans, sweet potatoes, peas, yams, pumpkins, bananas, sorghum, millet, green vegetables and this is for home consumption and for sale locally. I have wood-lots, some small areas of eucalyptus and black-wattle grown for our fire wood and small income. I have goats, sheep, and hens too which also provide a little income. I also have monthly pay from ITFC though little it helps me and my family.

In 1989, I joined IFCP (Impenetrable Forest Conservation Project – a project of WWF) which had started in 1986 with Dr. Tom Butynski as director who was doing ecological surveys in and around Bwindi. He worked closely with the Game Department based in Entebbe and I was taken up as a game guard trainee, later our surveys and findings helped in recommending Bwindi to become a national park.

In 1991 when Bwindi was gazetted a national park, I was taken up as a ranger. This same year 1991, IFCP changed to ITFC (Institute Of Tropical Forest Conservation) under Mbarara University and I continued to work with Uganda National Parks which later became UWA (Uganda Wildlife Authority) in 1996. During this period I attended various trainings like Para military (policing and patrolling), Wildlife management, Administration and Geographical Information Systems, these helped me to gain skills and knowledge. Then in 2001, I left UWA and joined ITFC where I currently work as a field Assistant.

Christopher measuring a plant used for baskets and valued by local communities

My work at ITFC has been mainly assisting researchers. Activities include: data collection on seed dispersal by chimpanzees and mountain gorillas, gorilla monitoring, ecological resource monitoring (helping UWA in regulating medicinal and basketry plants harvest which is allowed in some specific places to help local people), vegetation mapping, gorilla and big mammal census, fire impacts (assessing fire impacts and recovery in burnt areas)and forest regeneration. Throughout I have gained skills and I like my job as a field assistant in ITFC and this has created in me a love of wildlife. In addition, now WildlifeDirect blogging has started and am being trained how to use a computer and I feel very happy about it. Now I will be writing stories in relation to my day-to-day work experience.

Christopher blogging happily

Let’s join hands and we help people to know what is happening in Protected Areas and the adjacent communities.

Please let me know if you have any inquiries, questions and comments.

Christopher