Treasuring the Pearl of Africa – by Landry Green

Landry Green (Twitter: @melesandry) completed her MZool in Zoology with Herpetology at Bangor University in 2019. In September 2018 she was one of the first students to take part in the primatology field course in Kibale National Park, Uganda. This is her story.

Photos: Alex Georgiev

Landry with her project group in Kibale (from L: Laura, India, Robert, and Iosifina)

I never considered myself a ‘people person’ – I much preferred animals. 

This was emphasised by my 8 years working in customer service/retail jobs where you, unfortunately, get to experience some of the worst sides of people. 

During my early 30s I decided on a career change, hoping to realise my childhood dreams of working with animals. 

I went back to school and got onto my dream degree – Zoology with Herpetology, at Bangor University (Wales, UK).

I had no idea of the adventures that awaited my four years in Bangor (or the changes to how I viewed my own species).

In September 2018, as I prepared for my final year, I had the opportunity to join the university’s first ever primatology field trip to Uganda, as a field course assistant.

While herpetology – the focus of my degree – is the study of reptiles and amphibians, primatology is the study of monkeys, apes and other primates. 

It’s a bit of change, but I jumped at the chance to learn about this charismatic group of animals while gaining new field skills. (Was this the start of my drawing closer to people?)

I also hoped to impart some of my student and life experiences onto my fellow students who were at earlier stages of their learning. (Why would I care? There was definite change in the air.)

I haven’t travelled much as an adult, had never been to Africa and my limited knowledge of Uganda was heavily influenced by media accounts of the country’s violent history. 

Originating from Northern Ireland, I’m no stranger to violence and political unrest, so I mentally prepared for a country in bloody turmoil.

However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a flourishing country with a booming tourist industry, a drastic change from its turbulent past. Northern Ireland could learn a few lessons.

Spotting primates with the help with field assistants Erimos and James (and a bunch of other students from Bangor in the back)

What was my favourite thing about Uganda? It’s easy to say ‘all of it’, given the effect the country had on me.

What about ‘seeing chimpanzees in the wild’ – surely this is a life-changing event for anyone, let alone a zoologist with a growing interest in primates?

But ultimately, the most memorable part of Uganda I brought home with me were the people I met there. Yes, I had changed.

During part of the trip, groups of students were assigned a Field Guide to take us around the rainforest of Kibale National Park to learn about the primates that lived there.

My group’s Field Guide, Robert, had been working in the rainforest since 1984 – when I was a mere year old, and my much younger group mates weren’t even born.

Over 30 years experience in the forest was telling and invaluable to my time there – he could identify a tree species from 50m away, a monkey from a split-second rustle in the tree canopy high above us, or what bird that was singing in the distance.

But I also found myself interested in his life and experiences in Uganda, his family, traditions and beliefs. 

I was most surprised to find that despite having met countless foreign students and researchers, Robert had rarely left the immediate area, and never his country. Kibale was his world.

Robert teaching his project students about trees and measurements in the forest.

He asked me about my life and family back home, my studies, and about the ‘forests of the UK’, which I had to painfully inform him were few and far between and drastically different from the rainforests of Uganda. 

I felt we had bonded through getting to know each other, with mutual curiosity about our respective unfamiliar worlds.

I wasn’t the only student to bond with their Guide during our time in Kibale, and our leaving day was a very emotional one for students and Guides alike. 

Robert wasn’t the only Ugandan I got speaking to, though I didn’t get the same length of time to share with the minibus drivers, researchers or chefs as I did with Robert. 

I left the country full of emotion, and nod enthusiastically every time I hear Uganda referred to as “the pearl of Africa”.

In nature, a pearl starts off as a piece of grit that gets stuck in an oyster’s soft tissue, and over many years gets shaped and developed into the smooth, iridescent object we value as a precious gem.

Indeed, Uganda has worked hard to shape itself into the rare beauty we know it as today and has many aspects reminiscent of the colourful iridescence of a pearl. 

But for me, the Ugandan people, like Robert, are what make it truly rare and remarkable. 

I have realised more than ever how special humans can be and how I am, actually, more of a ‘people person’ than I ever thought possible.

The Day I Met the Chimpanzees of Kibale – by Brogan Mace

Brogan (when she met a baboon at the Makerere University Biological Field Station in Kibale National Park). Photo: Alex Georgiev

Brogan Mace completed her MZool degree in Zoology with Animal Behaviour at Bangor University in 2019. She was one of the first students who came to Uganda in September 2018 on Bangor’s field course in primatology in Kibale National Park. She tells us about her first encounter with wild chimpanzees.

Thick undergrowth obscures our path. We step over huge tree roots and duck under low hanging vines. Up ahead, our guide stops and stares into what looks to us as an impenetrable wall of foliage. Then, he points. We follow the line of his finger and there, through the understory, a glimpse of black hair. 

Something, or someone, is out there.

Photo: Brogan Mace

She moves up onto a fallen log and is now unobstructed. Cautious eyes, sclera black, peer out from a hairless face. We all gape in wonder and I feel the hairs on the back of my neck raise. She turns and wanders further into the forest and we follow her in palpable excitement. 

In the distance, screams herald the arrival of the rest of her party. We rush to the next clearing and can scarcely believe our luck. All around us, on the ground and high up in the trees, are the chimpanzees of Kibale National Park.

Brogan (left) watching primates in Kibale with colleagues. Photo: Alex Georgiev

When we arrived in Uganda, Bangor University’s first primate-based field trip, we were greeted by a wall of heat – vastly different to the famously cold, wet weather of North Wales in the UK. A long minibus journey later, passing through amazing landscapes so different from back home, we arrived at our first stop – the Makerere University Biological Field station inside Kibale National Park, which would be home for the next two weeks. We would go on to visit Queen Elizabeth National Park and be surrounded by elephants, be dazzled by the busy-ness of Entebbe, stand on the shores of Lake Victoria as ibis fly overhead. But one place stands out in my mind and in my heart: Kibale. 

Kibale National Park is a gem hidden within Uganda. The tropical forest, covering almost 800km², is home to one of the highest densities of primates in Africa, including a number of habituated groups of chimpanzees. These apes are the star attraction here and have been observed by people for over half a decade. We’ve gained much scientific understanding of them and ourselves through them, with several research groups studying different chimpanzee communities within the park. 

Brogan (eyes closed, second from the right on front row) with fellow primatologists from Bangor University after their hour of watching chimpanzees at Kanyanchu in Kibale NP. Photo: Izzy Winder.

We, like many a tourist before us, made our way to the Kanyanchu Visitor Centre and, after a briefing from the rangers of Ugandan Wildlife Authority, embarked into the forest to search for the elusive chimps. There are strict rules visitors to the forest must follow and with good reason. Chimpanzees are one of our closest living relatives, sharing 98% of our DNA and, consequently, they suffer from many of the same ailments as us. In humans, a cold is relatively harmless but for chimpanzees, colds can be fatal. As such, those who are ill cannot go on the trek. Even when healthy, you shouldn’t approach chimpanzees closer than about 10 metres. These apes are incredibly important to both tourism, conservation, and science and are rightfully well protected.

Photo: Brogan Mace

We spent our time with the chimps quiet and observant, soaking in the glory of the forest and its inhabitants, surrounded by a chorus of bird and insect song. Many chimpanzee dramas unfold: friends spat over ripe fruit or mating privileges; alliances are forged and broken in the throes of chimpanzee politics. 

The day we visited we were lucky to be surrounded by so many chimps. They moved all around us, graceful in the trees despite the bulk of some males. Their screams ran through me as a juvenile is denied a share of his mother’s fruit and throws a fit. A female approaches a dominant male, pant grunting a respectful greeting.

A juvenile peers downs at us from high in the branches above, seemingly unperturbed as we grin in awe and aim our cameras for a series of snaps. 

On a mossy branch an infant takes a few bumbling steps, learning the ins and outs of his forested world. His mother watches carefully, never more than an arms-length away. 

Photo: Brogan Mace

An adult male carefully folds lush branches into what will be his carefully constructed bed of leaves for a daytime nap. Once complete, he reclines back and stares into the dappled canopy above. I can’t help but wonder what a chimpanzee thinks of in those moments.

Photo: Brogan Mace

It became clear that, like humans, each chimpanzee has a personality of their own.

It was hard to tear ourselves away from the group, and as we pile back into the minibus I know I will cherish those memories forever. But the reminders of the threats to my beloved chimpanzees and their environment surround us – risk of disease from ecotourism, the armed guards who served to protect us tourists also protect the chimps from poachers, and the ever-expanding tea and palm plantations reducing forest space. We’re at risk of these becoming just treasured memories for me, and a mere story to others.