Posts tagged ‘Uganda’

On our first day of chimp tracking, we follow Alf (shown) and Bahati.

Tracking the Sonso Community of Chimps

Seeing chimps in the wild was the main reason that I came on this trip to Uganda. I have had a fascination with chimps since I discovered how closely our social networks are to theirs. Really, Facebook is a glorified Pant-Hoot, the vocalization chimps make to one another. Many of us humans tend to cry out into cybersphere to let our friends and family know where we are and what’s going on. Chimps do the same thing in the forest. Day and night we would hear their calls. The field guides told us that they were letting each other know how far away they were. As though the Sonso group may separate during the day, they would join together at night to make their night nests and would keep track of each other’s movements during the day.

The Budongo Conservation Field Station
After our work with the trees, we were ready to track the chimps. The Budongo Conservation Field Station (BCFS) is surrounded by the greatest variety and concentration of primates of any forest in East Africa. The importance of the forest can’t be overstated as it is the largest remaining tropical rain forest in Africa.

It has been a research field station for the past 20 years. The chimp group that we followed consists of around 60 individuals, known as the Sonso Community, who live near the site of a former sawmill.

During the early 1990s, researchers habituated chimps by following them over the course of five years. The Sonso Community slowly began to trust humans and allow them to watch their activities. The researchers came to know these chimps as a family, naming them and watching the soap opera of their lives unfold. Foraging patterns, births, injuries, deaths, fights, political power struggles, immigration and emigration are all part of the chimp story that they’ve studied and documented over the years. Nowadays, graduate students from around the world and university students from Uganda are engaged in chimp and other scientific research at the site.

A Typical Day
We had two days of tracking chimps, where we headed out in the early morning darkness with experienced field guides to find them waking up in the forest. The field guides were primarily young men from the local community who had been trained to collect data on chimp activities.

We followed their path, watching them move through the forest, primarily eating, grooming, mating and posturing to one another, not unlike our daily activity.

On the first day, I spent my time watching Bahati, an adult female who was eating figs in a large tree with her infant, Belvin. This tree was at the end of its fruiting season and had few figs left so she was the only one feeding. They knew our field guide and so trusted the strange faces that were watching them. We sat below the towering tree with binoculars and recorded their actions every five minutes for the eight-hour shift.

Bahati pulled the figs off the tree, stuck them in her mouth and sucked the juice out of them. She seemed to pile a bunch into her mouth until it was full with fig-meat and then she would spit out the meat. They only want the juice from the figs as the meat was difficult to digest. Alf joined her later on and also consumed the figs in a similar manner, spitting out the meat on top of our heads as we stared at them through our binos.

In the early afternoon, the hottest part of the day, she created a nest out of leaves up in the top of the tree. She grabbed a bunch of figs and brought them into her nest with her infant.

During this time, we craned our necks to see what she was eating. What this ripe fruit? New leaves? What type of tree was she in? Was she grooming, defecating or taking photos? Whatever her actions, we would record them every five minutes. I came to appreciate the guides’ patience and stamina as the muscles in my neck felt like broken rubber bands by the end of the day.

I am going to stop here for now as there is much more to say about the Sonso Community, a group whose power structure was in flux with the alpha male Nick being challenged by two other chimps. I will save those details for my next posting, which will feature a bit of video from the field.

In the Budongo Forest.

The Ugandan Tree Phrenology Project

One of our roles on this Earthwatch expedition is to help with the Phrenology project, where they are studying how trees are budding, blooming and fruiting. The long term goal is to understand what is happening in the Budongo Rain Forest and to understand what is causing the changes, such as dwindling pollinators or climate change.

On our hike, a local field guide, Nelson, Pat (another volunteer from Earthwatch) and I went to designated transects and trees to collect specific data.

Using binoculars we surveyed the tree tops, which measured up to 70 stories tall, to determine what each tree was producing, if anything at all.

Although the seven-hour hike was a challenge of trekking over loose roots and massive tree trunks, the visual and aural gallery of birds, insects, flowers, foliage, songs and sounds provided a stunning backdrop nothing like anything I witnessed before, even on our most stunning days in Point Reyes, CA.

Although I didn’t envy their task of collecting data on 1 ,400 trees a month, I could imagine how rewarding it would be to work on an important project like this. I could also imagine getting addicted to the lure of the wildlife and majesty of this unique place.

Baboon on site.

In the Budongo Forest Reserve

I have seen more non-human primates on The Budongo Forest Reserve here in northwestern Uganda than humans so far with Baboons, Black and White Colobus monkeys and Blue monkeys and even a group of about 10 very boisterous chimps visiting early one morning.

Budongo has what brings many people to a home: good food. Figs and nut trees cover the grounds here and attract all sorts of birds and mammals.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of humans, too. This is the largest remaining tropical forest in Africa, and had been a field station doing research, training and conservation for more than 20 years. It started as a logging station.

Nowadays, students from Makerere University do research while international students from Poland, France and Great Britain are working on Masters degrees and a post doc on chimp vocalizations.

Our group of seven all happen to be teachers, curious ones who are eager to get out into the forest to look at plants, birds and mammals.

(re) Imagine Uganda

What do you think of when I mention Uganda?

Uganda Shoebill Balaeniceps rex Murchison Fall...

Uganda Shoebill Balaeniceps rex Murchison Falls December 2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you’re like many of the people who I spoke to before I left, you think of the Ebola virus, Idi Amin and some war that’s being waged. The reality of present-day Uganda should bring to mind a colorful, lush landscape with one of the most diverse populations of birds and mammals in the world.

With more than 1000 species of birds, 342 species of mammals and more than 10 species of primates (including our next of kin the chimps and gorillas), Uganda sits the Great Rift Valley near the origin of mankind. Idi Amin is dead, and has not been in Uganda for more than 25 years so it’s time to update your imagination.

Below are some helpful photos that I took today in the Botanical Garden in Entebbe. I leave tomorrow for the Budungo Forest and will continue to post more in the next two weeks.

Entebbe Botanical Garden
We saw a family of Colobus Monkeys playing with the young ones jumping off a large tree and then eating leaves in a nearby bush. Clearly they saw this as a game as their father stood watch.

We saw more than 20 species of odd birds, including Ibis, Grey Kestrel, Grey Parrots, Weavers bathing in a stream, and Horn Bills who kept sweeping over us with wings sounding like a stalled car engine. Then there were the many other bright orange and red birds, iridescent grackles and tiny slow-motion hummingbirds that I couldn’t identify.

At one point we walked into a vortex of bird songs whose chorus continued until we pulled ourselves away 15 minutes later. I believe they were celebrating the suddenly bold mid-afternoon sun.

Next time someone mentions Uganda you should think of a lush landscape of deep red roads, gorillas and chimpanzees, storks sitting on the roof, monkeys and prehistoric birds joining a chorus of afternoon sounds. If you want one image take away, make it the Shoebill, a strange prehistoric bird related to the Pelican shown in the photo at the top of this post. Though I haven’t spotted him yet, he is on my list and I know I will see him by the end of my journey.

Destination: Tracking Chimps in Uganda

Chimp in the Budongo Forest Reserve, Uganda.

Chimp in the Budongo Forest Reserve, Uganda.

Tomorrow I leave for the Budongo Forest Reserve, where 700 chimps live, one of the largest populations of chimps in Uganda. I am volunteering with an expedition organized by, called Tracking Chimps Through the Trees of Uganda.

During this volunteer research expedition, I will be investigating human, chimpanzee and monkey interactions while looking at strategies for sharing shrinking food resources between primates and local farmers.

I join scientists who have been monitoring the timing of natural events like the flowering, fruiting and leaf shedding of trees in this forest. They have been monitoring the forest for 20 years and have noticed how the trees are producing 15 percent less fruit. As an ecosystem, this effects both the behavior of the chimps who live in the forest and the subsistence farmers who live at the edge of the forest.

Impacts of Climate Change
I will be involved in monitoring the impacts of these changes and help to determine how climate change and the number of pollinating insects may have caused the decrease.  We’ll also observe changes in chimps behavior and the increased interactions between chimps and humans, where chimps are invading people’s farms. In the end, the goal is to understand these relationships to create better forest management.

I will be in the field for two weeks as a citizen scientist collecting and recording data about chimps, trees and local farmers. I plan to post images and updates to this Blog, which will update to my Facebook and Twitter accounts. So stay tuned.