Kia Ora from Auckland!

For the second time in a row, I am first describing my presence in a new country after a month of residency. But hello from New Zealand!

At about 37°S, Auckland is the furthest south I have ever been, and although I’ve made the transition between Northern and Southern Hemisphere seasons before, the abrupt addition of 4.5 hours of sunlight in the evening was startling. I have since grown accustomed to the longer days and 18-hour time difference, and maybe surprisingly for some, think fondly of the fantastic snowfalls New Jersey is seeing this winter.

I’m here working on my first marine project since my undergraduate thesis, and my first field-based marine project ever. Most of my time is spent at Massey University in the Natural Sciences post-graduate building, a home away from home for the several PhD students working under Dr. Karen Stockin. I am employed by one of these PhD students, Krista, who is writing her thesis on the population of Common Dolphins (Delphinus delphis) in the Hauraki Gulf using a photo-ID method. It is these dolphins I and the other researchers go out to photograph on the Dolphin Explorer, a tourist dolphin- and whale-watching catamaran that departs daily from downtown Auckland.  I’ll go into more detail about how we take the pictures and what we do with them in a future post, but the general principle behind photo-ID is self-explanatory: we photograph as many dolphins as we can and use their uniquely pigmented and scarred dorsal fins to identify individuals.

This research experience is completely different from my prior positions, beginning with the basic fundamentals of living: compared to most of my previous destinations, living here in NZ is…well, easy. People speak English. I live in a house without risk of losing electricity as I’m sitting here writing. I go to the indoor supermarket to buy food. I take the bus to MasseyUniversity at 8:20 every morning, and return at 5:15 every evening. If I decided I wanted to leave the country, I could drive to the airport in 45 minutes. All of these features aside, it does seem like something is missing from a field research experience when I’m not concerned about charging elephants, hordes of safari ants, or getting bitten by anything remotely poisonous. In short, I have grown to identify “traveling” as synonymous with “traveling somewhere isolated from modern convenience where meat is not refrigerated and English is not common.” Even though this is the furthest away from New Jersey I have ever been, the comfortable western lifestyle makes it seem like I’m not far away from home at all.

Then I recall the 17 hours of flying between Philadelphia and Auckland, and my long founded image of NZ as the epitome of exotic adventure travel. NZ is a country I’ve had at the very top of my “Places to Visit” list for about as long as I can remember. Of course, many people will now forever associate the captivating imagery from Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth with New Zealand, and indeed I may end up climbing Mount Doom (Mt. Ngauruhoe) before I leave. Unfortunately, I will not have ample time to visit the South Island while I am here, so the spectacular sights of Milford Sound and the Southern Alps will have to wait for a future dedicated trip. But my travels around the North Island started my second week in the country with a few days in the Bay of Islands.

I was first drawn to this region of the North Island by a sequence featured in BBC’s Blue Planet series: a brief focus on New Zealand’s Poor Knights Islands showed a shot of hundreds of stingrays congregated under an arch during the mating season—January to March—to avoid their most prominent predators, killer whales.

A dive boat next to the Poor Knight's Southern Arch, the largest sea arch in the southern hemisphere.

A dive boat next to the Poor Knight’s Southern Arch, the largest sea arch in the southern hemisphere.

Unfortunately, I cannot boast such an encounter after my two dives around the Poor Knights, but it is a spectacular place; in these summer months, warm water from the shifting East Australian Current brings down Nemo, Crush, and lots more of our tropical Pixar friends to the NZ coast, occupying the Poor Knights with a unique diversity of tropical and temperate species. I tracked further north to a beach town called Paihia, remaining there for 3 days while completing my Advanced Open Water diving certification. A noteworthy highlight was diving inside the HMNZS Canterbuty, my first wreck penetration experience. It’s eerily majestic to float in the shadow of such a large (113m) frigate, swimming along gangplanks and within compartments that were trodden upon just 6 years ago before the frigate was scuttled. Certainly something I want to do more of!

I’ve also tried out a couple new water sports over the weekends: surfing and stand-up paddleboarding. A nearby west coast beach called Muriwai is renowned for its consistent surf and was a great place to learn, likewise the placid waters of the east coast Orewa inlet were idea for SUP boarding. Orewa is a short 20 minute drive north of Torbay, the suburb where I am living. In addition to being conveniently close to the University, the Torbay coast is about a half-hour meandering walk away. I’ve spent several Saturday afternoons walking north along the base of the coastal cliffs at low tide, going from Torbay up through Long Bay Regional Park. These cliffs are lined with precipitously overhanging Pōhutukawa trees, or the New Zealand Christmas Tree. I just missed their December blooming period, but was still treated to a couple remaining flowers on a small Pōhutukawa in my backyard. Another iconic endemic plant found in a small Torbay park—and many other places around the country—is the NZ tree fern (whekī). The koru, or curled up frond of these tree ferns, is a renowned Maōri symbol and stylized as the logo for Air New Zealand.

The Torbay coastline at low tide.

The Torbay coastline at low tide.

Looking up at the impossibly anchored Pohutukawa trees.

Looking up at the impossibly anchored Pohutukawa trees.

One vestigial Pohutukawa flower in my backyard.

A single Pohutukawa flower in in my backyard, a vestige of the trees’ seasonal December bloom.

The towering tree ferns along a path in a small Torbay park.

The towering tree ferns along a path in a small Torbay park.

I have not yet been hiking in NZ, which is certainly on the top of my to-do list, so next time I hope to describe some of the regional mountain scenery in detail. I’ll also be posting a first round of pictures in the near future.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Update from Ecuador

Hola, everyone, for the first time from Ecuador. I am writing the bulk of this update on July 13th from Camarones, the village that is about an hour hike from my living quarters. Camarones offers the closest electricity to the reserve, so I have hiked down several days over the past couple of weeks to take advantage of it and use my computer a bit. The closest internet, however, is significantly further away, so I save the task of uploading this message for a future weekend.

[This ¨future weekend¨ I happen to be spending in a town further south along the coast called Puerto Lopez, the details of which I’ll save for a future update.]

As a refresher to what I have been doing this summer, since the beginning of June, I have been working for a US-based education and conservation nonprofit called Third Millennium Alliance (TMA). I was hired to carry out a camera trap survey of the wild felines in the ecological reserve TMA has established: the Jama-Coaques Reserve (Jama and Coaques are both coastal towns relatively close by), I will comment on the progress of the cat survey later. At the reserve, myself, the six other interns, and several staff members live in an open bamboo house. Although there are inconveniences, it is largely a fantastic place to live: with the surrounding forest valleys, continuous chorus of birds and insects, and the soothing gurgling stream just below us, it’s easy to look forward to coming back from a hike and collapsing in a hammock just to look around and listen. There are a few additional non-human inhabitants with us, namely a few chickens and our house cat, who fortunately has taken to hunting the numerous cockroaches which plague our kitchen at night. All our food and supplies are brought up by person or mule, after being purchased in the coastal town of Pedernales about an hour’s drive north of Camarones. We do eat very well at the reserve (compared to remote places I have worked at before), although the lack of any meat or fish gives me an extra reason to look forward to weekend trips to the coast.

Although I did not enter this position with a very thought-out anticipation of what specifically was entailed, the days I have spent at the Jama-Coaque Reserve have not progressed as I might have anticipated. Some of the unexpected events have turned out serendipitous, and some have turned out disappointing. Without bogging down this belated message with too many details, I’ll give a short representative summary of what I’m talking about.

To begin with, the one solid expectation I did have was to work on a camera-trap survey of the wild felines in, and perhaps around, the 800-acre Jama-Coaque Reserve. By using camera traps (cameras that are set up in the forest, usually attached to trees, which will take a picture when triggered by motion/heat) I intended to discover more about which species of feline were in the reserve, distinguish individual cats based on their uniquely personal spot patterns, and make some preliminary conclusion about their density. This survey proved to be both mis-advertised—although I’m sure much of that was unintentional—and unreasonable to complete as I had hoped. Upon arriving here in early June, I found that out of the six species of cat TMA advertised to occur in the reserve’s range, only one—the ocelot—has ever been seen, and only the ocelot and the jagarundi are confirmed to be here. One of the six species, the oncilla, does not range west of the Andies at all. And, when I asked if the two largest species, the jaguar and puma, were ever sighted or believed to live near the reserve, I was answered with a, “No, they’ve never been seen” along with a chuckle to implicitly call out the naivety of my question. Of course, I’m the first to admit that just because there has never been an indication of these cats being here does not mean they are not here. My second unfortunate discovery, however, makes finding such potentially present and definitely secretive species extremely improbable: TMA only has a meager arsenal of three camera traps. Granted, the 800-acre expanse of the reserve is a small area for a survey, but it is usual for preliminary surveys to have tens of cameras, with each station having two cameras facing each other to maximize the likelihood of getting a clear picture of a passing cat. Considering these and other restrictions, the camera trap survey has fizzled down to a trial period of tweaking the cameras’ technical settings and physical camera sets, intending to identify how best to use the cameras for a future time when TMA does acquire enough equipment for a proper survey. Although this is still a somewhat valuable task to complete, it strikes me as contrived, and I fear there will be little I have to offer TMA after two months.

So that is the bulk of the bad news concerning the cat survey. On the bright side, we have gotten some good pictures and videos (the camera traps can take video clips when triggered, also) of the endangered ocelot. I also get to spend the majority of my hours during the day walking the trails, since I am looking for the best places to put cameras for a future survey. Of course, I usually find lots of distractions while hiking around to steal my attention…I’ve seen lots of plants and flowers, birds, snakes (the Common Boa who frequents our bathroom and shower is pictured), insects, tarantulas, monkeys. I never get tired of hiking around, and I usually see something different every day.

On that note, the PacificCoast equatorial rainforest here in Ecuador is also quite distinctive from the rainforests where I’ve worked in Africa. In addition to a different composition of flora and fauna, the most striking difference is the amount of running water. In Kibale forest, for example, there were very few streams or rivers; based on the season, there were varying levels of stagnant water in the papyrus swamps and forest valleys, but very little flowing water. Here, we are in a forest that sits one the side of a mountain (incidentally, probably one of the reasons the forest is still standing—less steep areas have largely been slashed and burned for agriculture) and near the headwaters of the Camarones River. There are a few streams trickling through the reserve that converge to form the larger Camarones further downslope, and walking along the streambeds I have found many quintessential jungley waterfalls. Since we are here in the dry season, when there is much less water flowing through than in the wet season, the streambeds are largely hike-able, and I’ve spent many hours just following the water up or down. Less cascading water also means dryer rocks, so I’ve been able to scramble around some of the waterfalls where it would be impossible in the rainy season.


Our work week lasts Monday through Friday, and a typical weekend sees us hiking down to the highway and taking a truck or bus to a beach town along the coast. Thus far, I have spent a day or two over-nighting in Pedernales to the north, Canoa to the south, and Bahia a bit further south. These beach towns offer a nice way to relax in the open air outside of the closed forest. Although we eat very well at the reserve, it is also a refreshing change of pace to drink some cold fruit juice or fruit badidos, a delicious Ecuadorian milkshake. A significant portion of these weekends for me is also spent in an internet cafe; the closest electricity to our bamboo house is an hour away in Camarones, but the closest internet is a further hour’s driving along the road to Pedernales. So, all of our corresponding and researching is restricted to weekend days.

Although the peculiarly-chosen American movies dubbed in Spanish playing at a volume sufficient for the car behind us to benefit from was enjoyable, certainly my favorite part of the bus rides south have been the short stop in Jama. There, vendors board the bus bearing pitchers of coconut and orange juice, empanadas, pastries, and a fantastic kind of bread with cheese baked in called pannes de yucca. The yucca root is one I’ve grown very familiar with in East Africa, where it is called cassava, and I often ate a porridge-type meal which used cassava flour. Never before, however, had I tasted it in bread with cheese, which is by far the best-tasting method of cooking it I’ve experienced.

My final two weeks here will largely consist of what I’ve now been doing for 6 weeks, probably with a few farewell activities thrown in before I leave the reserve on August 3rd. From there, I will probably take the bus back to Quito and spend several days there before my return flight home on the morning of the 6th. I return home only to leave again several days later for a mountaineering trip in the Pacific Northwest, however I do anticipate writing more about living and working here in Ecuador sometime soon. It is unlikely I will write more while I am still in Ecuador. I will also upload more pictures in addition to the several I’ve given here as examples. So, I hope everyone is enjoying their summer, and in all probability, hasta luego from Ecuador!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

On the road again: Ecuador, summer 2013

Hello again all, and thanks for sticking with me through this long blog hiatus. If you have, indeed stuck with me—chances are, many of you have given up. Oh well, I assume I’ve more than bolstered my faithful followers with junk emails.

It’s been a loosely scheduled but still relatively busy few months for me in New Jersey. I’ve worked a lot on some tedious aspects of the projects I’ve been involved with since graduating, and have claimed authorship on my first two peer-reviewed scientific papers in the process. One is the first paper to come out of the chimp tooth project, and the other comes from the project in Chile. If you’re interested, here is the link to the tooth paper (we paid extra for online open-access), and the citation for the Chile degu paper.

First molar eruption paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, USA (PNAS)

Degu Stress paper (abstract only), published in General Comparative Endocrinology:


I have primarily started writing again because I am going to travel again. I will be leaving tomorrow for two months in Ecuador, working for a non-profit called Third Millennium Alliance. They are a conservation organization geared towards conserving towards a stretch of Pacific Equatorial Forest (the last remnant of this type of ecosystem) and the biological diversity within. They also have a strong partnership working with local communities to attempt and achieve sustainable alternatives to natural resource extraction from these isolated forest ecosystems.

After flying into capital city Quito tomorrow night, I will travel on Saturday by bus to coastal town Pedernales, which is close to Third Millenium Alliance’s Jama-Coaque Ecological Reserve. This 824 acre reserve will be my field site.

My main task for these next two months at the Jama-Coaque Reserve will be to work on an ongoing camera trap survey of felines in the forest. There are six species of wild cat that inhabit the reserve: the ocelot, jaguar, puma, oncilla, margay, and jagarundi. I hope to actually see some of these elusive predators when I’m in the jungle in addition to just catching them on hidden cameras, but I am not keeping my fingers crossed. I recall my friend David, who has worked on a survey of golden cats in Kibale Forest (my workplace in Uganda) for over two years now, and has never actually seen one.

I will not have very much access to internet while I am abroad, so the likelihood of uploading pictures while in-country is small. I will, however, try and write a bit every couple weeks, and maybe a few sample pictures. I am now the extremely fortunate owner of a similar dSLR high-resolution setup to what I was using in Uganda for the chimpanzees, so I’m anticipating lots of high quality forest shots! 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Farewell from Kibale

Unfortunately, due to a comtinually-tightened and restricted schedule in my final month in Kibale, I was not able to post a final full-length entry. But, here I am, at 4am on December 8th, an hour before I leave Kanyawara for good, and just wanted to have a final little farewell on record.

My last month with the chimpanzees progressed quickly and somewhat modestly. Other than an exciting encounter with a neighboring community, which I’ll detail later, the chimping was very quiet. Usually, the field assistants tell me, in October and November, it’s not uncommon to find vey large groups and seeing the chimps hunt almost daily. No such luck this year, though. We passed most of the days with small to medium-sized groups, lazily sitting below feeding trees much of the day, and often waiting for the rain to stop. Still, I enjoyed spending every day following the chimps; how could I not, especially over the last couple of weeks, knowing that every time I saw an individual might be the last time. And on Thursday, my last day in the forest, I found myself looking at my surroundings with an innately rejuvenated eye: all the trees seemed just a bit taller, the downpour a bit less stinging, and meeting the chimpanzees’ gaze a bit more soothing.

My most vivid memory of the first day I worked back on February 10th was of one chimp, Bud, displaying across a trail right behind one of the field assistants, Wilberforce. I was taken aback at how powerful that animal seemed, that we could get that close to him (and he would get that close to us), and that Wilberforce wasn’t fazed by his display of strength at all. Although after more than 10 months of spending almost every day with these chimpanzees has certainly left me more accustomed to their powerful behavior, I am still amazed by their receptivity to (cautious) human presence. Sitting 5 meters away from 5 or so adults and watching them groom, I realized I’ve forgotten they are wild animals. The chimpanzees in Kibale do not seem like a part of the forest, the way I would look at a deer or a bird; somehow they just don’t fit. They seem above the forest. Modifiers. Influential. Aware. It is this aspect of watching chimpanzees—that I’ve come to know them almost as collaborators, not as forest animals—that will really set this experience apart. And although 10 months isn’t even that long of a time, I have still been able to see some of them grow up a bit. Thatcher, who was less than 2 months old when I arrived and still spending every waking moment clinging to her mother for dear life, is now just over 1 year old, and quite the climbing / tumbling enthusiast.  I think Thatcher is my favorite young chimp, mostly because she spent more time looking at me than any other infant. Even after 10 months, I still found myself instinctively smiling at her, and even occasionally making facial expressions as to a human baby to spawn a laugh. I suppose that might count as violating the “don’t affect their behavior” clause, but find me a person who wouldn’t have done the same thing.

So, I’m now leaving for Kampala, where I’ll start my week-and-a-half long vacation to finish off my stay in Africa. Although much of that time will be spent travelling, my plans include whitewater rafting on the Victoria Nile, and down to Tanzania to dive on Mafia Island and hopefully see some whale sharks. I’ll be adding more posts about Uganda over the next couple of months from the US (hoping we make it past December 21st), and uploading more pictures as well. But, for now, farewell from Kibale National Park, from Uganda, and from East Africa.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Electricity, snares, and my pet name

Although I wasn’t writing blog entries that often before, it’s tough nowadays to keep up with them even once a month. A big perpetrator here is the frustratingly inconsistent power supply at Kanyawara. Given the recent widespread power outages on the East Coast, this seems as good a time as any to talk about it.

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s normal for the power to go off every few days, for a few hours at a time; this is just a load-shedding system Uganda utilizes to deal with an insufficient supply to meet an overwhelming demand. However, the power will also go off when there is a problem, and here, problems are common and take a long time to fix. Exacerbating this elongated repair time is Kanyawara’s relative remoteness, and when I say remoteness, I’m talking about our proximity to Fort Portal within the greater Fort Portal area. It seems that Uganda’s one power company (there’s another problem in itself–with no competition, there’s little incentive for the power company to fix problems right away) is more concerned with Fort Portal itself rather than its surrounding villages, so when there’s a problem with the power lines between Kanyawara and Fort Portal, repairing it is a much lower priority. All of that background is leading up to the point that it’s also normal—although it shouldn’t be—for the power to be out for at least several days at a time due to the inevitable repair time lag. Since I’ve been living here, there have been four different periods (that I can remember) of 5 or more days without power. Just last week, the power was off for about 3 days due to a number of damaged poles—some of the same poles that were just replaced in March, which caused about 3 weeks without power. And this past outage came just after we lost power for about 12 days in early-mid October, when it took that long to replace the field station’s blown transformer.

The Kanyawara field station is separated into different “camps,” and the camp that houses the administrative offices has its own generator. Even though they don’t use it very often, they’re less likely to complain to the electric company since they don’t wholly depend on Kanyawara’s main power supply. Us researchers, living at a different “camp,” are allowed to charge our computers, etc. while the office has its generator running, but we’re still without power in our duplexes. After talking at length about the electricity with David, the golden cat researcher who’s been living here for two years, we think Uganda is dealing with two main issues: an economic inability, and a lack of understanding of how pertinent reliable power grids are to development. At this point, only about 16% of Ugandans live with electricity, and many view it as a luxury: great when we have it, but no big deal when we don’t. The paradigm is one of serendipity, not one of expectance.

Even when the power did come back on last Saturday, years of being a successful pessimist have encouraged me to keep my expectations low, and assume we wouldn’t have power for long. Although it hasn’t gone off again yet, we are in the middle of the long rainy season, and each daily downpour threatens to sever our tenuous connection to the grid. Just two days ago, actually, I was almost responsible for blowing my own power. I got back from the forest just as a thunderstorm hit. It was raining heavily, but it didn’t seem heavier than usual. I sat down at my desk to upload and edit my photos from the day, and after a few minutes felt a light shock from the computer keyboard. I looked at the plug, and noticed a stream of water that had come under my door and gathered around my surge protector and all the electronics I had plugged into it. It was a dangerous situation, and one I was lucky to come away from unscathed.

Anyway, power hindrances aside, I haven’t mentioned anything about a significant chimpanzee event that occurred back in July. Probably the most considerable and probable threat to the Kibale chimpanzees is snare traps. Poachers illegally set these snares for catching small game like duikers or bushbuck, or even larger animals like buffalo, but very often chimpanzees get caught in them as well. Snares are usually made of wire or nylon rope, and are designed to snag either an animal’s foot, hand, or neck, tightening as the caught animal continues to struggle against it. The chimps are strong enough to pull the wire or nylon or rope away from the branch it’s anchored to, but then are left with the snare wrapped around a wrist or foot. Usually the chimps can’t bite through the snare, and the more they work at it, the tighter it gets, eventually cutting the limb off. Probably 20% of the Kanyawara chimps have at least one snare injury, including our alpha male, Kakama. Our most unlucky chimpanzee is probably Max, who lost both his feet to snares.

Kakama’s left hand is permanently twisted due to an old snare injury. Because it hasn’t healed very well, it’s possible the wire itself is still embedded in his hand.

Max has lost both of his feet from two independent snare incidents.

The most recent chimpanzee to get caught in a snare was a sub-adult female, Special. We first saw her with a snare around her right wrist at the end of July, and a vet was called in the next day to try and remove it. Veterinary interventions are a risky business with chimpanzees: among other hazards, it involves darting the chimp to put it under anesthesia, and some research sites won’t take the risk. It should take about five minutes for the anesthesia to take effect, and in that time, it’s a very real possibility to lose track of the chimp. That’s almost what happened with Special: we lost her as she came down the tree she was in, and only found her about half an hour later when another chimp, Lanjo, led us to her. But the procedure went as well as could be expected: the vet removed the snare and cleaned and stitched the wound, and we followed a woozy Special the rest of the day until she climbed into an old nest early in the evening.

I really didn’t expect Special to make a significant recovery. There was another chimpanzee several years ago that had a similar injury in similar circumstances, and although the vet was able to stitch her hand back together, she never regained use of it. Amazingly, though, when we observed Special in the middle of September, she was using her injured hand to scratch herself. Later, in early October, we observed her moving her fingers and using her healing hand to climb a tree. It seems like Special will make a near-full recovery.

I posted just a few pictures outlining Special’s story at the end of my Kibale Chimpanzees album. Given their graphic nature I didn’t post any pictures of the snare removal surgery, but several pictures are posted on the Kibale Chimpanzee Project’s website, along with several blog posts I wrote (with help from Sonya Kahlenberg) detailing Special’s injury and subsequent recovery:

On a different note, I passed a noteworthy cultural milestone last month: I finally asked for and was given an empako. Out of the many different Ugandan tribes, empakos are unique to the Rutooro culture and a central mark of ethnic awareness and social interactions. An empako is a “pet name,” used when greeting someone as a sign of respect. There are 13 different empakos, each with its own meaning and significance. Empakos are usually given out by parents, but in my case, I called upon the chimp field assistants since they are the people here who know me best. They chose Apuuli, which I gather means something about puppies (the other one they were thinking about was Araali, which relates to thunder and lightening. Maybe I like that one a little better, but oh well). The initiation of an empako is also supposed to be accompanied by a party, during which they prepare and cook the ubiquitous millet dish. I haven’t done that yet, but maybe on my last night here. Either way, although it took me over 8 months, I’m now known to many of my Ugandan friends as Apuuli.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Murchison Falls National Park

At the beginning of August, when the undergraduate researchers were finishing up their summer projects, the five of us went on a trip to Murchison Falls National Park. Murchison Falls, located in west-central Uganda, is the largest national park in Uganda. Its main attraction is the Nile that runs through the middle of the park, culminating with a stretch of rapids that spills over the actual Murchison Falls. The stretch of the Nile running through the park is the Victoria Nile, so named because of its headwaters at Lake Victoria, and is one of the main tributaries feeding the White Nile.

The easiest, and one of the cheapest, ways to travel to Murchison is to book an organized package deal with one of the hostels in Kampala. This arrangement did extended our travelling distance, since we had to drive to Kampala first (about 5 hours) and then up to Murchison (another 3 hours or so), but the alternative road directly from Fort Portal to Murchison is in poor condition, so our travelling time would have been about the same. And, we were going to take a bus from Fort Portal to Kampala, but given our concern of using public transportation in the midst of the Ebola outbreak, we opted to reserve our own taxi.

This was, in fact, my first time in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, since I’ve been here; I drove close by on my way from the airport back in January, but I’d never been in the city before. It’s not too dissimilar from the other African capital cities I’ve been in—Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and Kinshasa in DR Congo—with the dusty and dirty streets, hoards of people walking everywhere, the street-side markets. Like the other cities, it’s built more out than up, sprawling to try to keep up with its escalating population but scarcely a structure taller than several stories. But there were a few attributes of Kampala that stood out: in particular, the many soccer “fields” on the side of the roads.

One of many dirt soccer pitches right off the busy streets.

Many of the markets were really mid-street markets as opposed to street-side, adding to the city’s significant traffic problems. I’ve grown accustomed to buying food, even meat, from local roadside vendors, but I’d have to live here a bit longer to stomach a head of lettuce lying on a muddy curb, tinged grey from diesel exhaust. But the chaos inevitably accompanying an over-populated area did not seem to negatively affect the daily flow of activity in Kampala: instances of disorderly conduct instilled an insouciant and unfazed reaction from those involved, ostensibly making the disarray rather enduring.

After one night at the Backpacker’s Hostel, we began our trip to the park. There’s a lot that I could tell you about what went wrong with our trip to Murchison, but in an attempt to avoid perpetuating my pessimism, I’ll just share several major hiccups. And what went well, of course.

On the morning we left Kampala, we and the other tourists on our trip met for a briefing, and it was right away that our troubles started. The company’s newly hired marketer had told us over email that we could pay our fees via credit card; that morning, she informed us that credit cards were not an option. The nearest ATM, she told us, was only about 50 meters down the road from the hostel gate. We started walking, and after about 10 minutes never found it. We returned to asked the guard at the gate, who told us the nearest ATM was about 3km away in the other direction. Hmm. And out of the seven other people on the trip, almost everyone had the same problem, so clearly there was a communication problem with this woman. These communication problems continued when we were informed meals would not be covered in the general fee we were quoted, which zero out of the twelve of us had realized. I was disappointed to find out this marketer would be accompanying us on the trip.

Our first stop was the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, a tract of land that offers protection for 12 white rhinos currently. The sanctuary hopes the rhino population in the sanctuary will continue to grow, allowing them to reintroduce rhinos to Ugandan parks—white rhinos have been extinct in the wild in Uganda since being hunted out in 1983. Although it was fantastic to see the rhinos so close (we got within 10 meters or so) in a semi-wild habitat,

Obama, one of the rhinos that has been born inside the sanctuary

it was a conflicted activity for me; since I started my post-graduate international travels, I’ve gotten used to exploring where I want, seeing what I want, and at my own pace. I felt very much contained in our group of twelve, being shepherded through the savanna towards the rhinos.

The middle segment of Karuma Falls on the Victoria Nile.

I also got very frustrated with the other tourists and, for example, the lengths they would go to avoid walking in a small stretch of mud. I was worried my impatience would be a problem the rest of the trip, which it certainly was at our next stop, Karuma Falls. After a short 5 minute hike down to the falls (which we were told would take about 55 minutes), we only had a chance to take in the magnificent falls for about 15 minutes before we were told to hurry up, the five of us we were holding up the rest of the group. From doing what? From driving to our camp that night, where there was apparently a big rush to get to dinner. The falls were beautiful, though, and it was the first time I had ever seen the Nile. Interestingly, out of all the precautions we were warned to follow (another frustrating occurrence for me, being warned to stay far away from dangerous baboons, for example, when I get within a few feet of them almost every day outside my duplex) they didn’t mention that elephants share the trail we took down to the falls. We didn’t meet any, but there were plenty of signs, and it’s ironic that a genuine potentially dangerous situation wasn’t directly brought to everyone’s attention. Oh, and the dinner that was so urgent to rush to at camp wasn’t even ready until an hour and a half after we arrived.

On the drive to our camp, it became clear that this marketing woman had never been to the park before, yet assumed an arrogant omniscient air that grew quite irritating.  She also put the rest of us in awkward situations, when she acted the part of ‘insensitive tourist’ more than anyone else. The most severe case of this was when we passed a refugee camp from villagers relocated from the tumultuous region of northern Uganda, and she had our driver stop several times so she could take pictures.

The next morning was our game drive through Murchison Falls National Park. After establishing that yes, this would be a five-hour game drive as was noted on our itinerary, not the 2-3 hour drive as was believed our marketer, we found that the company failed to procure us a guide—this put us at an automatic disadvantage, since the guides know where we are more likely to see rarer animals. But, even though the weather was overcast and drizzly, we still had a nice drive, seeing lots of hartebeest, oribi (both kinds of antelope), and giraffes. A couple of us were allowed to sit on top of the van, which was great for the unobstructed views but made balancing while taking pictures a bit more difficult. After the drive, we took our boat trip up the river towards Murchison Falls. We saw many pods of hippos, lots of birds, and a few Nile crocodiles.

Murchison Falls, viewed from our boat right before we were dropped off to hike to the top.

After about an hour and a half of chugging against a mild current, we reached swift water that led to the falls a few hundred meters away, and the boat pulled alongside the bank to allow us off and start the 45-minute hike up to the top of the falls. Apparently, we were all supposed to grow bored with the majestic views after about 10 minutes, since that’s how long we spent at the top before being called away. We did luck out with the tsetse flies, though—I didn’t get bit once on the hike, and on the drive out of the park, we could see the van in front of us was absolutely swarming with them.

That night we drove to the Budongo Forest Reserve, where most of the group would be tracking chimps the next day. We decided to opt out of the chimp tracking, and had booked a fishing trip on the Nile instead. This is where we really got a lot of grief from the tour company. We wanted to use our van to drive back to the park, and they informed us that we’d have to pay extra (we’d get back to Kampala a day later than those who’d gone chimp tracking).  That was reasonable enough, so we agreed to pay, but that night I was told they expected additional payment for the fuel we’d require. We argued about this for a while, and we seemed to settle on waiting until our return to Kampala to pay, when we could discuss it with the manager at the hostel. Then, a few minutes later, the marketer decided that wouldn’t work, since there wasn’t enough cash on hand to pay for the extra fuel: they needed all the money up front, or else they would just take off the next day for Kampala and leave us at Budongo. It seemed we didn’t have a choice and we paid them, which put everyone in a foul mood. On top of all of this, the rest of our group was having tremendous trouble of their own, as the tour company had failed to reserve their chimp tracking permits for the next day. I think everyone on our trip did make it into the forest by persuading other tourists to give up their permits, although I’m not sure how everything transpired.

The day of our fishing trip was overcast and drizzly again, but the trip was fantastic. I had been excited to come here specifically, not only because I love fishing and would go anywhere, but if any of you are familiar with Discovery Channel’s “River Monsters,” it was right downstream of Murchison Falls that Jeremy Wade caught his monster Nile Perch. It was a much different experience cruising the Nile on a small motorboat, which put us at eye-level with all the hippos and crocodiles we passed. Knowing that hippos are responsible for more deaths in Africa than any other animal, our proximity was thrilling.  A few times, our guide dropped a couple of us off to fish from the shore, which was in itself an incredible experience: having a pod of hippos poking their heads out of the water 50 meters away, then one pops up 10 meters closer, then 10 meters closer…  Our guide (who was off fishing for bait) said we were safe enough, and in his six years of guiding clients he’s only had one problem with an over-aggressive hippo, so instead of worrying about this curious advancer I just thought about how cool it was to be fishing alongside hippos. And, although I wasn’t lucky enough to reel either of them in, we did catch two fish on the trip. Neither were Nile Perch, the big game fish we were after, but both were sizable Semutundu catfish. Our guide estimated the larger one to be about 12 kilos, making it the biggest fish I’ve ever seen caught, by far.

The next day we drove back to Kampala, and we had a long discussion with the tour manager about what went wrong with our trip. We spent awhile arguing about the extra fuel costs we were charged for, and it turns out that the marketer had carried emergency cash with her so covering the fuel payment would not have been a problem. It seems they just wanted to secure our money since arguing to get it back is more difficult once the transaction has already been carried out. We did end up getting a bit of our money back, although the whole process made that small reward very underwhelming. To anyone interested in visiting Murchison Falls in Uganda, I would certainly not recommend organizing it through the Backpackers Hostel in Kampala. Overall, though, it was a great park to visit, and I’m glad I got the chance to visit. I put a new link up with a collection of pictures.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment