“I want one!” – by Zoe Rule (Bangor University)

Zoe Rule took part in the first Uganda Field Course in September 2018. The blog post below was written as an assignment for the module. It is published here with permission.

“I want one!”

A guest blog post by Zoe Rule (Y2, BSc Zoology, Bangor University)

Seeing new, strange or funky-looking animals in a picture, on a screen or in real-life trigger something in everyone; I think anyway. But then maybe that’s just me being a classic animal-lover. I was overwhelmed by such species on my recent trip to the jaw-dropping locations in Uganda, east Africa. I was lucky enough to visit Kibale National Park and Queen Elizabeth National Park, with my now very good friends. The bumpy roads between took us to incredible new worlds including the Botanical Gardens in Entebbe, Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary in the Magombe Swamp and the Kanyanchu Visitor Centre for chimpanzee tracking. Not to forget the numerous pit stops along the way for photo opportunities and sights of the local wildlife. Those 2 weeks in Uganda were, and still are, the best 2 weeks of my life.

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Zoe (first on the right) in Kibale with her research team during the Uganda Field Course 2018 (L to R: Erimos, Megan, Josh) (Photo: Alexander Georgiev)

“I want one” came out of my mouth in excited outbursts countless times whenever I saw the exotic species roaming all around me. Even the cows and goats on the roadside by villages made my eyes sparkle. We hadn’t even stepped out the gate of Makerere University Biological Field Station at Kibale when we spotted a group of the thumbless black and white colobus monkeys, which was quickly followed by the appearance of a lonesome blue monkey.

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Male black and white colobus resting in the middle canopy of a Celtis durandii, a favourite for every meal (Photo: Zoe Rule)

It didn’t take long to learn that the forest is a very special place and it was heartwarming to feel the enthusiasm from the field assistants and other staff. They show insane amounts of passion through their bright eyes and big smiles – I aspire to have such emotions toward my work in the future. From strangler trees to trees I can’t even attempt to pronounce and fruits that make elephants drunk – the Balanites wilsoniana – now that one I can say correctly… I think. The elephants will eat the fruit whole and when it passes through their digestive tract is releases some magic stuff to make the elephant, well, drunk! I guess I learned elephants know how to have a good time. I was also taught that they’re actually really quite dangerous in the forest and you must take great care if you come across a group of them on your walk.

 

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A field guide pointing out the fruits of the Balanites wilsoniana in 1+ week old elephant dung (Photo: Zoe Rule)

Most evenings we would have lectures and talks by a range of inspiring people including previous/current students looking at mother-child relationships in both humans and chimpanzees. Martin (another field guide of ours) talked about the giant forest hog, which I didn’t even know existed but now I know basic things about their lifestyle and why they are popular with poachers. Dr Emily Otali is the field director of the Kibale Chimpanzee Project, which means it’s her job to send field researchers out on specific tasks and keeping track of the long-term data collection.

When I was given the task to write about my favourite part of the field trip I couldn’t decide on what topic to choose, in fact it wasn’t that I couldn’t decide it was that I had a complete mind blank. I looked back over the photos I had taken and the little notes I had taken down to remember and then it came to me. I wanted to write about something that meant something to me, but also meant something to the people in Kibale where their work is their life.

The Kibale Snare Removal Program (KSRP) came to mind immediately and so did the name Emily Otali. Richard Wrangham founded the Kibale Chimpanzee Project in 1987, in collaboration with the Uganda Wildlife Authority; in 1997 the KSRP was established. Presently here at Kibale there are PhD students carrying out research on different behaviours, adaptations to the social groups and even looking at the evolution of human language and how we can link that to chimpanzee communication. Alex Georgiev, our lecturer at Bangor University, worked with the team, too, so it was great to be out in the field with him because he really showed true eagerness and a want for us as students to learn something from these guest talks.

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The Kibale Snare Removal Program works to reduce illegal activity in the national park with particular focus on the snares being set up by poachers. Poachers set snares in order to trap bushmeat species like bushpigs and duikers. Unfortunately chimpanzees get caught in the traps and they are ultimately tied to a pole by a tight wire or sometimes nylon wire. This painful trap manages to get right down to the bone in some cases – any animal is stuck in the snare until the poacher comes back. Sometimes they escape but infection of the wound can be fatal.

The three main goals the project works hard toward are: forest preservation and wildlife protection, getting the community aware and involved, and the education of the wider community. The five guys in the patrol team spend 26 days a month in the forest searching for the snares or any other illegal activity the poachers have attempted. Thanks to them hundreds of snares every year are removed from the forest and there is now a map identifying the areas where poachers are most active. It isn’t just the chimpanzees that are saved it is all the wildlife in the forest.

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James Kyomuhendo, long-term field assistant of the Kibale Chimpanzee Project, attempting to free a giant pangolin from a snare in the north part of the Kanyawara section of Kibale National Park in 2006. (Photo: Alexander Georgiev)

A couple of days before Emily Otali gave us her talk on her work we went chimpanzee tracking at Kanyanchu. Here I saw and sat (at least 5 metres ish) by a chimpanzee whose name means, “Surprised”.  I liked his name; he seemed sweet and kept himself to himself. I soon came to learn his mother had been trapped in a snare. He was there, too, watching. On a less saddening note I found out that figs are his favourite fruit and there were plenty of Ficus species around… Although that hardly makes up for the pain he must have felt and still been feeling because of poachers.

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“Surprised” lying on his back resting near Entali, another other male at Kanyanchu, Kibale National Park (Photo: Zoe Rule)

I went to Uganda to answer a question on the travelling behaviour of monkey species based on their diets, but I came back with so much more information and that came with a bunch of questions, too. I feel this piece of writing has helped all the information I have collected and stuffed into my brain make sense. The Kibale Chimpanzee Project and the Snare Removal Project are doing amazing work in protecting the immense stretch of the national park and I hope the poachers will cease their “I want one” logic. Get more information on their dedicated work at https://kibalechimpanzees.wordpress.com/.

 

See also: Chimps losing lives and limbs to the ‘landmines of the forest’ (Guardian story)

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