Posted on Tuesday, 30 April 2019
Although Chris & I have travelled extensively in Southern Africa we have only recently been venturing further north to discover East Africa. In 2018 we spent time in both Kenya and Tanzania and this April it was time to visit Uganda!
The obvious draw card to Uganda are the famed Mountain Gorillas and although its neighbour Rwanda is better known for the Gorilla Tracking experience we opted on Uganda due to the opportunities of seeing a whole host of other primates and mammals as well as fantastic birding.
Upon arrival I was immediately struck by just how green the vegetation was. At the end of April we were visiting at the very end of the Short Rains and as such the hillsides and surrounds shone in a brilliant emerald green and the forests were as lush as one would expect a tropical rain forest to be, a far cry from the dryer Southern Africa we have become used to.
When we travel we do so on the principle of a couple of things. We have either been numerous times before and as we know the area so well we are really able to intimately experience different behaviour or we go on a recommendation from friends and colleagues. Uganda was totally new to us so we sort out the best guide possible. A guide is crucial to the type of experience you will have and their knowledge, experience and personal interaction that is shared with you on a trip goes a long way towards a happy and successful time.
Our guide, Livingstone, was recommended to us by numerous friends and it was easy to see why. He is one of the best Birders in Uganda, had great all round nature knowledge and was a joy to spend time with.
Our first mission was to find and see one of the World’s most sort after birds, The Shoebill. Five breeding pairs live in a swampy area near Entebbe called the Mabamba Swamps. It is a very large bird with a giant (shoe-shaped) bill that it uses to catch lung fish amongst other large prey. It is an extremely impressive bird to see!
Although this is a very rare and elusive bird to see, Livingstone has had great success in the past. In fact he has only missed seeing it twice in the last 15 years. We boarded a small local dugout canoe equipped with a motor but 5 hours into our trip with no sighting our chances were looking bleak. Shortly after coming across a local boat complete with hunting party and hunting dogs (illegally for Setatunga) there a Shoebill was spotted in the open marsh. The bird was very shy and just as we got a glimpse of it, it flew off deeper into the swamps. Although the look was brief I did still manage to see its famed shoe-like bill and we were very grateful for that. This is definitely a bird we shall try to see again in the future.
Our next stop was to be Kibale National Park. This is mid-level altitude tropical rain forest and is home to the Chimpanzee as well as other primates. The opportunity to spend time with habituated Gorillas and Chimpanzee is a major draw card to Uganda, bringing in huge income and creating employment within the surrounding communities.
In order to fully habituate a chimpanzee it takes between 7and 10 years. This is a big commitment but as there are financial and social economic rewards it means there is a reason to protect the Chimps and their rainforest habitat as well as creating incredible opportunities for people to spend time with these primates. The protection of the habitat cannot be underestimated as of course an entire eco system is at stake.
With the Chimpanzees it is possible to do two different activities. A “wild track” with a troop that is in the process of becoming habituated as well as a one hour session with a habituated group.
We were very fortunate to do both and both experiences were very different.
On the wild trek, the walk through the rainforest was just magical and many different bird calls could be heard, if not seen due to the high tree canopy. On this particular walk we heard and then spotted Red Colobus monkeys which was a new mammal for us. Chimpanzees will hunt and eat other primates so the sight of these colobus monkeys meant that the chimps were not likely in the immediate area.
As we made our way deeper into the dense forest we were suddenly enveloped in the sound of screeching chimpanzees. It was electric and the continuous screeching seemed to surround us as the calls became more and more fever-pitched. We were in no doubt that they were close!
Our excellent female guide started to indicate certain areas close to us and we began to pick up the large dark shapes of chimpanzee as they moved through the forest. As these chimps were not fully habituated they do not spend anytime close to you and on sight they will race up trees and jump from branch to branch and tree to tree. When they did come to ground it was surreal watching these dark shadows virtually glide through the thick and overgrown forest. It felt like watching ghosts in the night just on the very edge of our vision.
It was such a sensory experience and I could not wait for the next vocal racket to erupt. When it did the reverberation through the forest was tremendous and shook one right to the core. Its right up there with hearing a lion roar deeply in the night…
What I truly loved about this experience was the wildness about it. Although we did get very good views of the chimps it was fleeting and extremely exciting.
The habituation experience was completely different. The troop we were visiting were easy to find and it felt very strange, especially after our wild trek, to just walk up to the troop and literally sit down a few meters away from them. They seemed completely unfazed, even as we sit with the Alpha male, his female companion and their new-born chimp.
As with the Gorillas an hour is allowed with them and in this time we were able to sit and basically look them in the eyes, it was very special indeed! They were very social with lots of grooming, playing and play-fighting going on. And to our absolute joy there were many vocal screeches that took place in that hour. It really has to be right up there with one of our best wildlife encounters… a complete sensory experience: great visuals, forest smells, and all the different sounds and vibrations.
In the Kibale forest area we also had great bird watching, Red Tailed Monkeys, Black and White Colobus monkeys (including amazing calling at night around our bungalow!), Vervet monkeys and Olive Baboons.
As we moved further south towards the Gorillas we were able to spend a couple of days in Queen Elizabeth National Park. Here we enjoyed a spectacular boat cruise on the Kazinga Channel that links Lake Edward and Lake George. The highlights were the huge flocks of white-winged terns and the largest gathering of African skimmers we have ever seen. There must have been a few hundred of them and when taking off en masse, the murmeration made for some beautiful photography.
Having Livingstone are our guide meant that the bird list was becoming (for us!) impressive. QENP has the most number of different bird species in a park in Africa with a list of just over 600. It felt too easy as Livingstone would call out new bird after new bird! Although I can assure you that after this crash course in Ugandan birds am I starting to feel somewhat familiar with a fair chunk of them and I look forward to improving on our next visit.
In the South of the park we spent a night in the Ishasha area. This area is famous for its Tree Climbing Lions where whole prides can often be spotted doing what leopards are better known for.
The main reason for adapting to these climbing skills is to the escape the intense heat during the middle of the day by catching the breeze higher up in the tree. Another advantage is that the breeze also helps to keep flies from bothering them. The flies in the Ishasha area are particularly bothersome and it’s easy to understand the need for this.
This was one of the things I was most looking forward to seeing on the trip. We arrived at 1pm and before getting to our lodge we did a short game drive to where a pride was spotted that morning. As we pulled up one of the sub adults promptly walked up to the nearest Acacia Tree and jumped up, settling himself on an extended branch. We couldn’t believe it!
He stayed up there for a good 2 hours before jumping down again to sit with the rest of the pride. We were very fortunate to see this as we later learned the lions had not been in the trees in the last week or so due to the cooler weather. It must have been our good fortune on that particular day!
Our main reason for visiting Uganda was to see the mountain Gorillas and we were now heading to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. This is high altitude forest habitat and the Gorillas live at about 1600m. (5,300 feet). Around our lodge, which sat beautifully nestled in the forest, we picked up great sightings of Blue Monkeys and the exquisite L ‘Hoest Monkey as well as a surprise sighting of the rare and not often seen black-fronted duiker.
From Livingstone we were able to learn a lot of interesting things about Mountain Gorillas. In Uganda the population is about 400 and the total population between Rwanda, Congo and Uganda where they occur it is just 1000 individuals. They do not have anything that preys on them but they are very susceptible to stress which is their main killer. There are no Mountain Gorillas in captivity (just lowland Gorillas). This is attributed to stress and as well as not coping well when not in high altitude conditions. So, the possibility of seeing a wild Gorilla (although habituated) would be a huge privilege.
What was also extremely interesting is that trackers will stay within sight of all the habituated troops from sunrise to sunset, even if there is no tourist group on a particular day. In the past when they have not stayed with them troops have literally disappeared into the impenetrable forest never to be seen again. You can imagine how this must hurt after the years it took to habituate them. It certainly seems that huge efforts have gone into the Ugandan trekking program and this is a very well organised activity. Again, protecting the gorillas means the eco-tourism opportunities bring in huge financial and social benefits.
Our trek was to be with the Habinyanja Group and as they were located close by our trek was not going to be a marathon. Chris had injured his back so we decided in advance to hire a porter to help with the heavy cameras. I was initially horrified that the porter turned out to be a women but she was very strong and willing. By the end I was actually very pleased that women within the community were getting opportunities as well and when speaking to Regina it seemed she was very proud to be employed.
Within 45 minutes we had reached the trackers and so began a very steep climb down the mountainside to where the troop was resting.
When we got to the troop the sheer size of the Gorillas was the first thing that struck me. They are absolutely massive! H group has one Silverback, about 6 adults and a number of smaller juveniles. The Silverback is much bigger than the others and there was no doubt that he was the guy in charge. When he moved, the rest of the troop gave way and then moved with him.
I think we were a little unlucky in terms of our hour spent with them was when most of the troop were sleeping and the dense vegetation meant that for photography there was always a stick or leaf in the way. However, it did not take away from the greatness of this iconic primate and it was a once in a life time experience.
I do apologise in advance but I find myself needing to put across very important conservation messages each time I write now days. I think what really stood out for me on this occasion was the loss of habitat, most of which is the crucial forests that are home to so many creatures not to mention the important amounts of oxygen that they produce.
As we were driving along the highway to Kibale we came across a tiny patch of forest. We were informed that this was the last of the forest left in this region. Along the roadside was a dead Grey Cheeked mangabey monkey. Roadkill.
In the trees above a small troop where nestled in the canopy in what remained of this miniscule bit of forest. These Mangabeys were literally holding onto their habitat, and thus their survival, by their fingertips. It left us with a sickening feeling.
In Uganda the annual human population growth is between 8 and 10%. That is extremely high and this growing population means there is intense pressure on the natural resources. Trees are used for fuelling fires and more and more land is needed for agriculture.
During the brutal civil war years much of the wildlife and habitat was also destroyed as profiteers ran amok and unchecked. Thankfully Uganda has seen 30 years of peace and this situation is now under control.
I was however very ashamed to see how much of both the mid-level altitude and high-altitude forest had been lost to tea farms. It’s hard to imagine that a simple cup of tea can be so costly, but it is so. In fact we have seen the same loss of forest habitat to tea farms in Assam in India.
What I can positively say is that the forests in Kibale and Bwindi are now fully protected and there will be no more habitat loss. This is mostly due to the Chimpanzee and Gorilla populations that live here and the income and jobs that are created through eco-tourism from their very presence. I feel that the eco-tourism model works extremely well here and impact on the animals themselves feels minimal.
In closing I have to say what an incredible destination Uganda is. We went for Gorillas but there is so much else on offer in this beautiful country and I am grateful for the opportunity of seeing and experiencing so much.