Wednesday, 28 January 2015

... Gorillas in the Mist: Planet of the Apes

Kalinzu Forest Reserve is located in the Bushyeni district of SW Uganda and is close to the well-known Queen Elizabeth National Park. It is home to 378 species of birds (including sun birds, black and white casket, cuckoos and the Great Blue Turaco), 97 moths, 262 butterflies, a variety of flora, reptiles, several mammals (it provides refuge to several savannah grassland species) and over 5 species of primates.

Another early start of 520am was because today was the day we would be tracking chimpanzees in the forest. The endangered chimp shares an unbelievable 99% of their genetic makeup with... Humans. Like us, they're highly social, care for their offspring for years and can live to be over 50. Communities can consist of between 9 and 120 and the males will spend their entire lives on ancestral turf in shifting hierarchies whilst females will disperse to other communities. Decades of research into chimpanzee behaviour has been done at Tanzania's Gombe National Park. Dame Dr. Jane Goodall is a name synonymous with chimpanzees: considered to be the world's foremost expert on chimpanzees, she is best known for her 55-year study of social and family interactions of wild chimpanzees and I highly recommend the IMAX film "Wild Chimpanzees" (2002) which we have played at Science World. Chimps have already disappeared completely from four countries and are under tremendous pressure everywhere else they live. Their population is believed to be within 170K to 300K (per the WWF).

Poaching is a major threat, like with most endangered species in Africa. Bushmeat has always been a primary food source in some parts of Africa and in recent years has become commercialized to satisfy the appetites of wealthy urbanites. Infant chimpanzees are frequently taken alive and sold as pets. There are obviously some very dumb people out there. Sadly, there has been a high level of illegal hunting in the Reserve too and many of the chimpanzees that live there have snare injuries, even though they are not the target. The Jane Goodall Institute and the National Forest Authority started a snare removal programme within Kalinzu Forest Reserve in the late 2000's, supported by the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund and the Japan Ministry of Environment Global Environment Research Fund.

Upon entrance into the forest there was a blue monkey high in the trees but it didn't take long to start hearing the calls of the chimpanzees. It was pretty amazing to hear not mention loud. Now we just had to locate them! As we trekked deeper into the forest they were all of a sudden above us swinging from tree to tree. I was admittedly awestruck. A little baby held on tightly as its mother moved from branch to branch. They all seemed to be eating voraciously and didn't appear to notice us down below.

When they moved we followed. Aside from seeing one on the ground a short distance away that was very obviously staring at us, they stuck to the tree tops which is where they spend most of their time. We attempted to follow two different groups and came across chimp poop, nests that they make to sleep in, knuckle prints in the ground and, just when you start thinking how cute they are, some colobus monkey fur.... with skin attached. Chimpanzees eat Colobus monkeys and will corner their meal before ripping it to shreds. Lovely.

To be able to track chimpanzees you need a permit and a strong sense of adventure. Wild animals don't obey anyone but themselves. You may come across them within minutes or you could be trekking for several hours. Our trek in total was 3.5hrs.

Upon return to camp for brunch and to pack away our tents we were joined by a baboon family. It certainly made me wonder what may have been lurking in the bushes whilst I had slept.

The road quality deteriorated quite considerably from the ones in and around Kampala and I was treated to the "African massage" for many hours. The scenery however was certainly even more green and lush than it had already been plus a lot more hilly. I also saw a little monkey sat on a telegraph pole as we headed towards Kabale and Lake Bunyonyi in the south west, very close to the Rwandan border. Our campsite, Bunyonyi Overland Resort, was right on the shore of the lake and the views were absolutely stunning even if we did have several flights of steep stone steps to climb with a tent. The great thing about the camp is that it is ecologically built, with local materials, locally owned and provided employment to the people who call Lake Bunyonyi home. Of course having hot showers and flushing toilets also helps. 

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