About Me

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Canberra-based naturalist, conservationist, educator since 1980. I’m passionate about the natural world (especially the southern hemisphere), and trying to understand it and to share such understandings. To that aim I’ve written several books (most recently 'Birds in Their Habitats' and 'Australian Bird Names; origins and meanings'), run tours all over Australia, and for the last decade to South America, done a lot of ABC radio work, chaired a government environmental advisory committee and taught many adult education classes – and of course presented this blog, since 2012. I am the recipient of the Australian Natural History Medallion, the Australian Plants Award and most recently a Medal of the Order of Australia for ‘services to conservation and the environment’. I live happily in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise surrounded by a dense native garden and lots of birds.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

Is there a more alluringly-named park in the world? I can't readily imagine it. Moreover it's one that fully lives up to its implied promise - not least, and most famously, for these!

Eastern Mountain Gorillas, Gorilla beringei beringei, mother and 18 month old baby,
Buhoma, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
The fundamental division of gorillas is not, as is often presumed, into Highland and Lowland Gorillas,
but into Eastern and Western Gorillas (G. gorilla), which form two quite separate species.
In turn each has a highland and lowland subspecies.

Young Eastern Mountain Gorilla, Bwindi NP. There are less than 1,000 of these Mountain Gorillas left,
in two populations. One is in Bwindi, in south-west Uganda (map coming up!), the other is in the nearby
Virunga Mountains of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Rwanda. Lowland Eastern Gorillas are
somewhat more numerous, and perhaps 4,000 of them live in the eastern forests of the DRC.
(Western Gorillas are much more numerous, with probably over 100,000 left,
especially in Republic of Congo (different from DRC) and neighbouring central-west African countries;
they are still highly threatened, by Ebola, poaching and forest clearing.)

Massive male 'silverback' Mountain Gorilla, leader of the family in the above photos.
I described my memorable day spent trekking for these gorillas some time ago; you can read that account here if you are so inclined. I won't repeat the story today; they are an excellent reason, but far from the only one, to visit this park.

Bwindi Impenetrable NP is in the far south-west of Uganda, in the Rwenzori Mountains on the border of DRC and Rwanda. It lies on the edge of the Albertine Rift, a rift valley which is the western arm of the Great Rift Valley, gradually splitting north-eastern Africa from the rest of the continent. The Albertine Rift is biologically very rich, containing many endemic species.
The end of the red arrow indicates the approximate position of the park, adjacent to the DRC and Rwanda.
The forest was first offered some protection in the 1930s when two blocks were designated Crown Forest Reserves (though I'm unclear just what protection that offered). In 1964 (shortly after self-government) it was designated as an animal sanctuary because of the gorillas. Subsequently other blocks have been added, until its current size of 33,000 hectares, and in 1991 it was given the current name and brought under the direct management of the parks service, now known as the Uganda Wildlife Authority. (Sounds good, and mostly it was, but it was very bad for the Batwa pygmy people who were summarily evicted, without compensation. Ironically recent settlers who, unlike the Batwa, had cleared forest for crops, were compensated.)

Gorilla trekking became a major source of income for local people, and in 1993 the park was added to the World Heritage List for its biological values - it supports 120 mammal species, 350 birds and 220 butterflies. Some of the additions to the park enabled the two forested blocks to be linked by a corridor, ‘the Neck’, Kitahurira, a narrow strip of forest linking the northern and southern sections.
Bwindi Impenetrable NP; the red 2 marks the Neck.
The other numbers refer to places I shall mention below.
(Map courtesy African Adventure Company.)
We spent three nights at newly-opened Engagi Lodge at Ruhoma (1 on the map above), then transferred to Ruhija, where the even newer Ruhija Gorilla Lodge (3 above) had just opened, for another two nights.

My room at Engagi Lodge...

... and the view from that verandah to the Rwenzori Mountains, up which we struggled the next day
in search of the gorillas.

Lovely open-air restaurant, Engagi Lodge; it too looks out to the mountains, with the DRC
just across the ridge.
After the exhausting (but thoroughly exhilarating) day following the gorillas, we spent another on the forest tracks around Buhoma.
An enticing place to walk (even when the rain came later in the day).
Off the track the rainforest really was, well, impenetrable! Fortunately the track meant that
penetration was largely unnecessary.

Raffia Palm Raphia sp., boasting the longest leaves in the world -
they can be 20 metres long and three metres across!
L'Hoest's Monkey Cercopithecus lhoesti, Buhoma.
This lovely monkey lives only in these mountain forests around Bwindi, west into the DRC
and south into Rwanda and Burundi, in female-dominated groups. They mostly feed on the ground.
Northern Double-collared Sunbird Cinnyris reichenowi;a lovely bird, not done justice by this photo.
Cinnamon Bee-eater Merops oreobates, a mountain species found across central Africa.

Chubb's Cisticola Cisticola chubbi, a species associated with the Albertine Rift mountain forests.
While vertebrates were not easy to photograph in the forest, insects, especially butterflies, were prominent.
Dragonfly, family Libellulidae - thanks Susan!
With butterflies however I may have been a bit more successful, though any corrections welcomed.
Butterflies on mammal (civet?) dropping, Buhoma track.
Acraea sp. (take it as read that there's an "I think" after all of these...).

Antanartia sp.

Euriphene sp.

Junonia stygia

Nymphalidae species.

Pieridae species.

Protogoniomorpha (Salamis) temora.

Cymothoe sp.
Butterfly and fly (probably family Sarcophagidae - again thanks Susan).
The drive to Ruhija passes through more superb rainforest in the Neck (2 on the map above).

However this drive also shows how ongoing clearing for small-scale agriculture is pressing hard against the borders of the park.
The park boundary, near Ruhija.
The boundary is marked by a double row of planted eucalypts - any other markers simply
get moved into the forest, which is then cleared up to the new 'boundary'.
Recently cleared rainforest near Ruhija.
And the culprits in all this? No, not multi-national companies clearing forest for profit, but poor, hard-working farmers in the most populous corner of Uganda. There will soon be little forest left here outside of reserves, and it's hard to see what can be done about it.
This strong young woman was swinging the heavy hoe from behind her back to remove weeds.
While we were there she picked up the baby from under a tree, fed him, then tied him onto her back.
Each blow must have jolted right through him, but he quickly went to sleep.
Woman and children, Ruhija. Anything can be carried on your head!
 Ruhija is a small village straggling along a ridge on the park boundary. There are habituated groups of gorillas here too, but we didn't go looking for them.
Ruhija village on sunset.
The new lodge is comfortable, though it doesn't have the views into the park that the Buhoma lodges offer.
Balcony outside the upper rooms.

The lodge from the restaurant balcony - it's quite a climb up.

My room (before I untidied it!).
Our main activity here was an all-day walk down into Mubwindi Swamp (4 on the map above), through more superb rainforest.
Dawn over Bwindi Impenetrable NP at Ruhija.

Rainforest from the ridge above Mubwindi Swamp.
From here we could hear Chimpanzees calling far below.

Mubwindi Swamp from above.
At about 100 hectares, this is by far the largest level area in the entire park!
Mubwindi Swamp from eye level.
The swamp is renowned among birders as a site for the sought-after African Green (Grauer's) Broadbill, a rare Albertine Rift endemic, but we were out of luck that day. All was not in vain however - and a day in tropical rainforest never could be!
Unidentified tree frog, Mubwindi Swamp.
As we climbed out in the gathering darkness, a huge (for a duiker!) Yellow-backed Duiker, seemingly the size of a calf, dashed across the track in front of us, and a party of gorillas crossed soon afterwards. This was a known habituated group, but only for scientific study (ie not tourists).
Evening, on the way home.
When we left to drive south, we took the road south-east from Ruhija, climbing to 2500 metres above sea level, through the bamboo zone, reminiscent of that in the cloud forests of the Andes.
Bamboos, above and below.

Huge flowering daisy bushes were a feature up here.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park; roll it around in your mouth and then tell me you have no interest in going there. Could you say that with a straight face?

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Susan said...

The dragonfly is a Libellulidae, the fly looks like a Sarcophagidae probably.

Flabmeister said...

You said "There will soon be little forest left here outside of reserves, and it's hard to see what can be done about it."

It is very easy to see what can be done about it. Adopt a Government policy to educate people that it is ungood to have umpteen kids per woman, to ensure there are enough kids to keep the patriarch in comfort.

Unfortunately achieving this seems to be nigh on impossible as certain Governments - especially the one between Mexico and Canada - which sometimes provide aid see this as against some sort of belief system.

Ian Fraser said...

Of course you're right Martin, though I suspect you're just begging the question. Perhaps my comment should have been "how to persuade the Ugandan govt (and of course many others) to address the root problem, unsustainable population increase". And yes, that odd mob in central N America are trying to make it harder, but to be fair quite a few others, especially in Europe, have weighed in to try and counter their bastardry in that area.

And thanks as ever Susan for your assistance with inverts.