Sunday, June 12, 2011

Hi from Kibale National Park, Uganda

The locals who work in Kibale National Park (KNP) like to say, "In the forest, we use our eyes, ears, and legs".

Monday, May 30, 2011

I spend my first day of fieldwork following my field assistant, Richard Karamagi, through compartment K30 of Kanyawara. Centrally-located Ngogo and Kanyawara in the northwest are the two main research areas of KNP.

Richard, a native of the Toro Kingdom in western Uganda, is a taciturn man whose infrequent laughter rings with boyish glee. Over the next few days, we bond over little things, such as being born in the same month, as well as our mutual curiosity about the other's world. But on this day, Richard teaches me how to find black and white monkeys (Colobus guereza) in the forest. With the monkeys' preference for resting in 30-50 m tall trees, sometimes in densely-forested patches where sunlight shines feebly through thick canopy, this is no easy thing.

Tail view.

The forest is a magical place, resounding with life. It is a pulsing symphony of wind-tossed leaves, creaking branches, and the myriad calls of crickets, cicadas, hornbills, baboons, chimpanzees, red colobus, etc. It is never quiet. I realize this as I walk/stumble along the trails after Richard, pushing to keep up with him in the heat and humidity, and it surprises me. My prior imaginings of the African forest as a tranquil place I ascribe to a tendency to romanticize.

Richard shows me the open places in the forest which the monkeys are thought to favor, the trees (Celtis durandii, C. africana, and more) that are their preferred food. I mentally file these observations with the other trivia about the monkeys that I've learned from the literature. As we scan the trees for black and whites (as they are known here), I begin to feel a kinship with the visual predators of the world. I imagine myself as a crowned hawk-eagle (one of the monkey's main predators) scanning treetops for furtive primates. I look for suspect dark shapes on branches, for distinctive long black tails swathed in cottony white at the tips dangling among the leaves. In other words, I develop a search image. Even an act as natural as seeing is transmuted in the forest.

A group in the Valley of Elephants, basking in the knowledge that I can't sample them because of, well, the elephants.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

This morning we start trekking at 7:30 but don't spot a group until 9:15 in K30, a compartment that has never been commercially logged. We settle under the Olea welwitschii tree on which the monkeys are resting, attempt to determine the sex and age of each visible individual, and wait.

By this, the third day of fieldwork, I have begun to learn the best characteristics for differentiating between male and female monkeys when said individuals are 30-50 m up and are more often than not partially obscured by vegetation. Glimpses of nipples and genitalia are the most edifying, but many times relative size is all we have to judge from.

While finding the black and whites inarguably is the most frustrating part of the fieldwork, waiting for them to defecate so that we may collect fecal samples is both irksome, because sometimes they don't if we catch them at the wrong time, and tedious, because sometimes it may take several hours. Today we are lucky; we wait only 45 minutes.

I've come to think of finding fecal pellets deposited in undergrowth and forest litter from great heights as akin to looking for the prize in a scavenger hunt. In both, you attend to clues. Most of the senses are engaged in recognizing the clues in this particular game--the glint of urine drops on leaves, the buzzing of flies and dung beetles, and finally, the distinctive woodsy smell of guereza poo.

Nearly like manna from heaven.

In deep hunting mode, I move across the site, scan the ground for fecal pellets, distractedly pull at stems and leaves obscuring my view, step on crunchy leaf litter--generally not noticing anything around me and contributing my fair share to the soundtrack of the forest. So it comes as a complete surprise when Richard whispers to me from about 5 m away, "Elephants. We need to go." I take a few seconds to process what he has just said, and then I hear them. There's no trumpeting or anything else that would obviously signal that potentially dangerous 12,000-lb. mammals were less than 15 m away from us--just the jarring sounds of branches cracking and underbrush being trampled.

"Danger" explodes in my mind and I start running toward Richard, who has his hand outstretched toward me. But then I think of my backpack, with the ten samples that we'd just collected nestled inside, and hesitate. Images of my newfound prizes being trampled or tossed about by uncaring, scientifically-uninterested elephants flit through my mind. I look toward where the elephants (which I can't see) are, vacillate, and then run back to grab my backpack. Then we run up the trail, in the direction opposite to that of the elephants.

Only after we reach relative safety away from the valley do I realize what an incredibly asinine thing running back for my backpack was. Not only did I take a chance with my own life, I also had put Richard's at risk for ten samples. No amount of samples is worth that. Luck was truly on our side today, since the three elephants decided for whatever reason only they can understand not to attack. Elephants are serious business in the forest and anywhere they wind up. Just a few weeks ago a man was killed by elephants while protecting his crops in the nearby Kasese district. (If you need convincing check out chapter 18 of Gordon Grice's Deadly Kingdom: The Book of Dangerous Animals.)

So today I learned the importance of the latter two-thirds of the locals' adage--take heed of what your ears tell you and use your legs if necessary in the forest--and relearned the humbling lesson that I can still be an idiot at the advanced age of 26. I will take the advice of a few more seasoned researchers at the field station should I come across elephants again--drop everything and run.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Today we head back to compartment K15, which suffered from heavy selective logging nearly 43 years ago, to revisit the group that eluded us yesterday afternoon. I've gotten used to waking up before 7 (those of you who know me well should be very, very impressed) to get out into the field by 7:30, even on Saturdays. I work six days a week in the field and take only Sundays off; many of the locals, including Richard, are steadfast churchgoing folk.

The hike from Lower Camp to K15 takes us about 45 minutes at a moderately brisk pace, but once we're in the forest, we spot the group after only half an hour. The group scatters, with individuals frantically crossing to other trees, as we approach. We settle down and wait; the monkeys quieten down and hide. Unhabituated groups are difficult to work with because of their instinctive fear (rightfully so) of humans. Today we have no better luck than yesterday. After we wait for three hours, the monkeys decide that they have tolerated our presence for long enough and flee across the treetops, without dropping any fecals.

Compartment K15.

We head out to another part of the compartment and quickly find another group. Fortunately the monkeys in this one are resting near the top of an Olea tree, so it is easy for us to sneak underneath without attracting their attention. Unfortunately for us the rain soon follows. From naive Internet research and readings, I know that Uganda has two main rainy seasons, one in March-May and the second in October-November. I would like to qualify for any interested persons that those are the peak rainy periods--there is no such thing as the end of the rainy "season" here.

At first, I'm miserable as I slip and slide the 45 minutes back to camp in the heavy downpour, with thunder pealing in all directions around us, in my sodden field pants and squelching hiking boots. But then I hear the birds calling and crickets chirping through the pelting of rain on my hood and realize that this is part and parcel of why I came to Kibale in the first place. There will be good days, with uneventful but fruitful sample collection, and other days such as this one during which nothing seems to work. Such is life in the field.

I return to camp and then head to the closest town, Fort Portal, in a taxi to do the coming week's grocery shopping for my house and run other errands. I will write about Fort Portal later, but for now, marvel at these Cadbury chocolate bars that I found. Kenyans know how to enjoy their chocolate.


  1. Lucy, what an adventure you are on! I loved reading about it, especially the sensory experiences in the forest, I can picture it. I look forward to photos and more blog posts! Watch out for elephants!

  2. one of my favorite things about visiting new countries are all the different cadbury bars. talk about understanding the local market :-)

    And I got soaked many a time while doing research on the George Reserve, so rest assured you're not the only one experiencing that joy.