Tag Archives: student project

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

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!

Happy?

Happy?

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.

Farewell

Farewell

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,

Ed

Hidden fruits sought by man and animals

I am happy to write you another blog that I hope you will enjoy. Maybe you thought I had run away from blogging, but that is not so. I have been busy assisting another research student, David, with his work in the field. Let me tell you about it.

This study will examine the distribution and abundance of the tree Myrianthus holstii in Bwindi. Myrianthus has round yellow fruits that are sweet when ripe and very much liked by the local people, who even plant these trees around their homes. In the forest these trees are sought by elephants and gorillas who feed not only on the fruit but also on the bark and leaves. During my time in the field with the elephant study that I wr0te about before we saw Myrianthus had been recently eaten by elephants on several occassions.

DSC03811.JPG

Myrianthus holstii with fruit

Some of our experiences during the Myrianthus study were quite scary. In this study we had to cut and follow straight line transects 2 kilometres long through difficult terrain using a compass. These are areas where gorillas and elephants range. We would often come across fresh trails of unhabituated gorillas and elephants as we worked and were often wondering if we would come face-to-face with them. In the thick vegetation it would be possible to get very close to an animal and not see it.

One day that I will not forget, is when we were out making our survey near the park boundary. Elephants had raided people’s gardens that previous night. The transect by chance happened to fall on the point where elephants had come out of the park. There was fresh dung and disturbed and broken vegetation everywhere. Everyone was nervous, even shaking, but we agreed to continue working. When we reached a point where we did not see fresh signs anymore, we dared to sit down for lunch, eager to eat our mandazis (doughnuts) and roasted groundnuts. We jumped off the ground when we suddenly heard the sound of trumpeting elephants (even though they were at a distance)! All went well that day and we reached our camp safely.

Another encounter happened some time later: we came across fresh signs of elephants and wanted to move a little distance away from it. But there was an adult elephant behind us trying to join the elephants that had passed, and two of us had not seen it. David, the student, called out. With help from the UWA ranger who works with us we were able to remain hidden from the animals and later continued the day’s work.

We have kept up our spirits and  gained good experience which will help us in the future. I hope to share more with you soon dear readers. The elephants and the gorillas are greeting you and I hope to hear your responses.

Christopher

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.

Christopher