Lake Mburo National Park, and some regional concerns

The field station has grown much more crowded over the summer months. Most recently, we’ve had a large influx of European students participating in Kibale’s Tropical Biology Association field course. More relevant to the chimpanzee project, since the end of May, I’ve been sharing my duplex with an undergrad from Duke, Joel, who’s collecting juvenile feeding data that will hopefully be integrated into one of our tooth papers. There are also two undergrads from Harvard living in another duplex, Nick and Alex, studying chimp body size using a joint photographic/laser technique. They will all remain at the field station until the beginning of August. Also, I was fortunate to spend time with Zarin Machanda, a recent PhD graduate from Harvard Human Evolutionary Biology department and one of my supervisors. Martin Muller, a chimpanzee researcher from the University of New Mexico and co-director of the Kibale Chimpanzee Project, Richard Wrangham, and his wife Elizabeth Ross also came. All were here for varied lengths of time in June and July, and all of them are primarily chimpanzee researchers, save for Elizabeth, who is the founder of the Kasiisi Project. I’ll go into more detail about the Kasiisi Project and the Kibale Chimpanzee Project’s involvement in it later, but just to summarize: Kasiisi is a village next to Kanyawara on the outskirts of the Kibale forest. The Kasiisi Project is a non-profit organization dedicated to conserving Kibale National Park through supporting education in the local primary and secondary schools. I encourage you to visit their website to read more about it:

In addition to the chimp researchers, there is another undergrad from Harvard, Aleah, investigating inequity aversion in the local primary and secondary schools. Her graduate advisor, Katie—also a PhD student of Richard’s—was here with Zarin through July 4th. Although we didn’t have much in the way of a July 4th celebration, we did have an American-style grilling and a campfire.

The weekend before July 4th, Zarin, Katie, and Martin were nice enough to invite me on a short safari they planned to Lake Mburo National Park. Lake Mubro National Park is located in Uganda’s Mbarara district, just south of the equator and about halfway east to Kampala. It was a great trip: the park is known primarily as one of Uganda’s only national parks with a zebra population, and the only park in Uganda with impala. I had seen both of these animals in Tanzania, but not since then, and not in the same acacia woodland environment of Lake Mburo. We stayed at the park’s upscale lodge for two nights, made more affordable as the staff was nice enough to grant us the resident rate (even though I’m here for almost a year, I’m not officially a resident). The lodge is built on a rock outcrop overlooking a water hole, which attracts almost constant animal visits. In addition to zebra and impala, the water hole also lured warthogs, cape buffalo, a few different birds, topi, and eland. Seeing the eland was one of the highlights of this trip for me; these giant antelope are fantastic to observe, and their bold side-striping patterns look straight out of a cartoon coloring book.

An eland wanders close to our cabin near the water hole.

The first night we were in the park, we organized a night game drive. This was a neat experience: very rarely do parks offer the chance to drive around looking for seldom observed nocturnal animals. In addition to seeing most of what we’d find on a day game drive, we saw lots of hares, lots of nightjars, a couple mongooses, and a genet. I’m sure we were limited by only having one spotlight and the loud land cruiser engine, but we still had a great time. The next morning, we had planned on taking a boat ride on Lake Mburo, but none of the Uganda Wildlife Authority guides arrived. There was another couple who were also going to go on the 0800 ride, and we all waited around until about 0930 before giving up. I was really looking forward to being out on a boat, but we still got to see lots of birds and some hippos from the shore. On the way back to the registration area to get our money back, which was by no means a guarantee, we learned that another couple was just arriving for the 1000 launch. We figured that the UWA staff was just waiting to show up until then, so they could combine the two launches into one. This suspicion was confirmed while talking to the attendant at the desk, who urged that the guides would be here soon, if we could “just be patient.” Yeah, right. It benefited our psyche to be inured to this fairly typical occurrence when dealing with African management. I would also say in this case it benefited me to be a pessimist: if you don’t

One of many well-habituated warthogs near the Lake Mburo boat launch. I like how they kneel down to eat. Photo credit: Z. Machanda

expect things to go right, when indeed they don’t, you’re not disappointed!

The day was certainly saved many times over, however, by our afternoon activity: a horseback safari. Lake Mburo is also one of very few parks that offer this exciting way to observe African wildlife, and it was a fantastic trip. I had been on two earlier guided horseback trips in Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon; although those were a pretty long time ago, I’m glad I had those experiences to draw from, because we didn’t receive many tips or directions from our guides. Granted, for a lot of the time, the horses were sufficient at just trailing the one in front, but since there was no road we were following, we often had to urge them to get back on track or slow down. We also did a bit of trotting, which is the slowest of three horse “running” speeds (behind cantering and galloping). Zarin, who was a more advanced rider, said that trotting was the least comfortable, and I believe her. It’s not as easy as it looks to stay balanced, and if you don’t time the rise and fall correctly, it can be rather…bruising. But I think I got the hang of it after a bit, and really noticed how incredible it was to be riding a horse along darting herds of topi and impala. It was also a bit thrilling whenever we saw buffalo, because the buffalo will sometimes mock charge the horses. After a couple hours, we stopped for a break on top of a hill, which gave a marvelous view of the park’s surrounding vistas. The return trip turned out to be more eventful than anticipated. Our guides had warned us to pay closer attention to holding the horses back, since they knew they were going home, and they might want to get there quickly. The horses are retired thoroughbreds, after all, and I have a feeling they get tired of walking most of the time. At one point, Zarin and one of the guides went off on their own a bit to run faster; my horse saw them pick up speed and got excited, since he clearly wanted to go faster too. I tried to hold him back, but he got impatient, and threw me off! Too bad I was at the back of the line, so no one saw it happen—they realized something was wrong when they saw my horse running around without me on it. But the guides got to it quickly and calmed it down, and although it was well after dark by the time we reached the lodge, the rest of the trip progressed without incident.

I was a bit delayed in writing this entry, which is now a bit dated, because a lot has happened here in the last month. Hopefully I’ll be able to fill everyone in a bit later on. But until then, just to alert everyone to a couple global issues pertinent to where I am and what I’ve been doing: first, there’s trouble in the DR Congo. In itself, that’s nothing new, but it’s become more personal since a notorious elephant poacher and his gang invaded the Okapi Reserve and surrounding villages last month. The Okapi Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is located in the Ituri Forest, which was home to John and Terese Hart and family before they moved to Kinshasa a number of years ago. Although I haven’t spoken to John or Terese specifically about it, I’m sure it comes as a big and disheartening blow. Here’s the link to Terese’s blog:, where she gives an account of the attack and, more recently, a bit of what has followed in the attack’s aftermath.

Another recent and personally relevant situation in the Congo takes place in the Virunga Mountains, which I visited in April. The Virungas have become one of the remaining known strongholds for Congolese rebel groups, and recently, rebel group M23 has become much more prominent. All tourism in the Virungas has been terminated indefinitely, which would include the trip I went on to hike the volcano Nyiragongo. Further, the conflict has started to spill into Uganda, as M23 has occupied the border town between Uganda and DR Congo that we crossed to travel to the Virungas. It seems as though much of the Congosese army has deserted into Uganda, leaving much of the greater Goma area vulnerable to imminent unrest. Although geographically speaking Kibale isn’t too far away from this conflict area, the Rwenzoris provide a solid natural boundary between Uganda and Congo, and I find it unlikely the Congolese rebels will move too far into Uganda from further south. Here’s a short article written a few weeks ago that describes a bit of this:

Finally, as I’m sure some of you have heard, there’s been an Ebola outbreak in Uganda. It seems as though it’s contained to the Kibaale district, which borders the Karabole district—where I am—to the northeast. Although it’s undoubtedly being taken seriously here, several knowledgeable and well-informed people around camp aren’t very worried about it spreading here, and I’ve been told that Harvard is standing by to evacuate us if necessary. So again, even though geographically speaking the event is close, it’s unlikely we’ll be directly affected here.

On a brighter note, I’ve uploaded pictures from Lake Mburo National Park, and next week I’m taking a trip to visit Murchison Falls National Park. I’m hoping the weather holds out—it’s been a relatively rainy dry season over the last month.

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