Trip to Kisoro, The Batwa Trail Launch.

Another early day began at the UWA headquarters. I started out the morning June 6th having tea with warden Sunday before jumping in a UWA truck heading to Kisoro. There were about 10 of us in the back squeezed in like sardines. I was glad to see Olivia the community conservation warden as well as Joan, the office administrator. The journey was about five hours long on treacherous Ugandan roads through the mountains. Most of the land was for “digging” or agriculture but there were also a lot of pine trees. In Uganda they grow a lot of pine and eucalyptus for logging. The roadside sometimes reminds me of Northern California. It was a fun ride but I could see it being very difficult to take often since it is so bumpy and windy. We had some close calls on the steep and thin roads. We saw people trying to pull a truck with a rope back up the mountain. I thought this was ridiculous and that they should just remove it down to the lower part of the road. However, on our road trip back it was gone and the marks showed they must have actually pulled up of the side of the mountain!


Truck that was being pulled up the mountain side.

The journey is very high up and you can see the path the truck has taken with long dust trails. We stopped for lunch in Kabale and arrived in Kisoro before sun down. We ended up coincidentally staying in the same hotel as the other wardens.


Entering Kisoro on a market day.

We woke up the 7th to meet at 8:00am at the trailhead of Mgahinga National Park for The Batwa Trail Launch. There were many important people there like the honored guest of the day, the commissioner of tourism. The Minister of Tourism did not make it because he had just been swearing into office again the night before and it takes a whole day to travel from Kampala to Kisoro. The beginning of the hike we were greeted by many Batwa dancing.


At the trailhead with the Commissioner of Tourism and many officials.


Batwa welcoming us by dance at the beginning of the trail.

Press from Kampala filming Conservation Area Manager Pontious Ezuma, Batwa guide Steven, and other UWA staff.

There was always a UWA official translating and a lot of press throughout the day. I think most of the event was government officials, some NGO staff, researchers, and UWA staff. Our Batwa guide was Steven and he would periodically stop to give us breaks and discuss the life of the Batwa like the foods they ate and how they hunted. He pointed out a lot of medicinal plants like one similar to Viagra and a wild celery they eat just like the gorillas to alleviate diarrhea.


Wild celery that both Batwa and mountain gorillas use to alleviate diarrhea.


Steven stopping along the path to show us a plant commonly eaten by the Batwa. When someone asked to see the root he said it is too young to pull from the ground. His clothing is made of goat skin.

The Batwa showed us how they cook fish within these bamboo stalks over open fire within their straw huts.

They showed us where they sleep, worship, and forts their children would sleep in. They would keep their babies in a fort up away from predators with older children when they hunted. We saw a lot of buffalo feces. Mgahinga National Park has wild buffalo unlike Bwindi. Towards the end of the hike we were taken to the Batwa caves. The caves were great. We saw where the king sat and where boys were taught to fight.


More dancing taking place in Garama cave. In this large cave they would do much more than hide their kings.

Finally we came out from the trail at the UWA headquarters. We had lunch at Volcanoes resort and then attended the ceremony with the Batwa, Kisoro locals, UWA staff, and invited guests.



Beautiful view of our hike from Volcanoes Lodge.

The ceremony was wonderful with Batwa performances between speakers. We had dinner just before it poured down raining. I was disappointed that it rained because Anna from the International Gorilla Conservation Program in Kigali was unable to screen a video for the children. It reminded me of GAFI Great Ape Films Initiative.


Local children of Kisoro waiting for the ceremony to begin.


Children anxiously awaiting the film screening following the ceremony.

We then headed home and I squeezed in a truck with Dr. Benjamin and about 20 plus screaming Batwa. They are a lively bunch, very friendly and very loud. It was really fun and I have to say sharing a truck with them was just as much as the cultural experience as the day’s activities. I am so glad that I was invited to this event. It was such a great opportunity and very special. And I didn’t have to pay. They will be charging tourists 80 USD, 40 USD to UWA and 40 USD going directly to the Batwa people. It goes to the 34 guides and musicians and the larger Batwa community numbering about 1,500 people in Kisoro District. The Batwa Trail Launch was quite an experience filled with song and dance and signing of formal agreements to this not only being a successful tourism product but also a conservation and socioeconomic project that will raise awareness of the struggles of the Batwa people. The Batwa were evicted from their lands when national parks were gazetted, parks used for tourism.  This trail will be the first of its kind in Uganda to host cultural tourism within a national park.  Officials and NGO staff hope it will elevate Batwa opportunities both locally and regionally.

The next day I got to sleep in a little later to 9:00am then we slowly made our way back to Buhoma. We made several stops in addition to lunch in Kabale again. We bought tons of vegetables on the side of the road. I ate my first passion fruit which surprised me. So many times have I had the drink or a smoothie but today I learned the proper way to eat a passion fruit.

The trip was wonderful and a healthy break away from my study in Bwindi. It is not only important to soak up the natural sights and wildlife of Uganda but the people and cultures.

Hard work does pay off.

June 4th 2011

This past week has been difficult. I have not been getting any samples and the early morning trekking is exhausting. I usually get to the gorillas a half hour before the tourists arrive and it varies what they do but when the tourists get there they usually stop foraging. They like to nap or play during the tourist visit, sometimes I think they are showing off because of the way their behavior change. Another problem with collecting samples is that they eat leaves whole or they drop the fruits and sit next to that fruit for so long that it is not fresh or it is dried up by the time it is safe for us to grab the specimen.


Trying to snooze between a morning and afternoon trek outside the UWA headquarters.

Also, the roof of the tent I was in that almost collapsed on me is now undergoing construction about 10 feet from my new tent. This in the early mornings combined with the music on the corner at night has left me sleep deprived and irritable.

Remains of my old tent “Duiker”, I’m now living in “Genet.”

I was becoming extremely frustrated with things and disappointed in the sampling aspect of my project. I was beginning to doubt the method and its outcome in the laboratory. People probably have never done this because, well, it is really hard!

However, this morning I trekked the Rushegura group and was able to get two very good samples.

Early morning photo of myself waiting for the gorillas to come down from one of their favorite fig trees.

The night before I had met a few doctors and microbiologists. One of these ladies happened to be on the tourist trek and she saw me collect my sample. She approved it completely emphasizing I was getting plenty of DNA and that I only need a small amount of DNA to run PCR despite how much plant debris is in the sample. Phew! I was at a point where I needed some reassurance. I was glowing when we returned from the hike. It is so great to meet such knowledgeable people when I travel. I’ve noticed here in Bwindi travelers are very well educated and successful probably because one this is Africa and two it is an expensive tourist attraction. I have met so many interesting people on this trip.


Microbiologist Monica inspecting my sampling technique.

Just when things were looking pretty bad and people were saying perhaps you are failing, I kept going and I was rewarded for my persistence. Hard work can pay off! I am now at six gorilla samples. I am happy with this number considering how short a time I get with the gorillas per day. I have never heard of this sampling technique ever being done before on primates so six samples would be something in itself.


Swabbing Ruterana fig fruit sample.

Adult female Ruterana fig fruit in plastic bag and sample #5 in hand.

Adult female Kafuruka sample #6 from fig fruit.

The gorillas were also putting on quite a show today which was nice to see. It was one of the best tourist viewings I had ever seen. The whole group was there and very active. The babies and adolescents were playing a lot. We saw the silverback mating with a female. There were some climbing the trees near us and one almost urinated on me while I was busy collecting a sample. There was a lot going on. Unfortunately, the same gorilla that had hugged my leg on a previous trek, the “friendly one”, came up to two separate tourists on two separate occasions in this viewing to give two gentle squeezes to their boots/calves. This gorilla is really playful and has done this a few times. He does it while he is playing and often spinning like a top, and then out of nowhere comes to play with us. It is not a good thing but hard to control and very quick. The guides easily resolve the matter by giving them a stern look and how one guide described to me “I give them a serious look as their supervisor that this is not good” and it works.

Yes, so today was a good day that I really needed to keep my spirits and determination going. I think that Albert is good luck; I always get samples with him. Both him and Gard are great to go with, the most proactive trackers and guides so far helping me with my samples. I really appreciate their help. I am considering training a few of them when I get more vials in the post from the Netherlands laboratory.


Photo with ranger tracker Albert and guide Gard in the background.

So things are looking up. I have a total of six samples now and feel more confident in my sampling technique. I am making progress. Hopefully we will see some bands! Today I also was invited to attend the Batwa Tourism Trail Launch in Kisoro. I was planning to go see the Batwa and saw the advertisement for this trail but this will be a better opportunity to meet all the people involved in the project.

Today I also joined the foreign doctors for a visit to Bwindi Community Hospital across the street from CTPH. I was very impressed by the facility, programs, and how the hospital was started to care for the Batwa that had been evicted from Bwindi Impenetrable National Park when it was gazetted in 1932. I was able to meet the communications manager Okello and Dr. Richard Kazibwe. I have asked Dr. Kazibwe if I can return and inquire about Bwindi illness statistics for my study and he said absolutely. He tells me there is a University of Pennsylvania student there and other people have recommended I go there to meet some good people so I hope to make the time.

One of their educational signs outside their oldest building.

Okello and Dr. Kazibwe posing for a photo.

Malaria is the number one cause of death in the areas they work, especially among children.


Gorilla veterinary technician?

June 3rd 2011

It is definitely valuable that I have veterinary experience while I am out daily with the habituated gorillas. There should always be extra eyes from different backgrounds looking after the gorillas whenever the opportunity. The trackers and guides know these animals more than anyone and after each trek I know the guides (not sure trackers) write a report and it includes noteworthy health observations. I have started doing the same in my notebook especially after there was some concern about a pink coloration on the gorillas’ lips and coughing in the Rushegura group. My Nikon D5000 that I finally mustered up enough money to buy last year and the zoom I got in the mail two days before I flew to Uganda have come in very handy. It is my most important research tool that clearly tells my story and remembers details. In fact, I regularly use the zoom lens to help me see something too far in the distance! When I come back from treks I often see things in the photos that I didn’t that day such as nasal discharge or cuts on the gorillas. It is such a useful investment and the guides were recently given cameras and trained by CTPH to take photographs for this very reason.


May 20th 2011 blackback of Rushegura group Kabukojo with nasal discharge.

My basic health monitoring consists of checking individuals for wounds, coloration changes on the skin, hair loss, limping, coughing, sneezing, weepy eyes, weakness and lethargy, decreased interactions with other gorillas, nasal discharge, abnormal breathing, abnormal feces, abnormal behaviors, and anything I think is important. I identify individuals I see and take many photos and videos. I try to label photos and footage in detail that same day with the trackers and guides. I also carry fecal containers in case I see any abnormal droppings, which can then be properly screened at the Gorilla Research Clinic at Conservation Through Public Health.


May 20th 2011 our advanced team finds night nests of the Rushegura gorilla family group at about 7:30am. The tracker in the background is looking down at the silverback’s nest.


Rushegura silverback hair of Mwirima shows us which nest he slept in the night before. All nests were on the ground.


May 29th 2011 mother Buzinza with coral coloration on her lips concerned some staff but we later confirmed it was the maranthas fruits the animals range nearby.

Very ripe maranthas fruit found on trek to Mubare gorilla family group on June 2nd 2011.

May 29th 2011 adult female Nyampazi of Rushegura group lying down. She was lethargic with heavy breathing and dried nasal discharge on her right nostril. The following day I found her very active, alert, and without any of the same signs. Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka believes her symptoms were probably an allergic reaction to the fig sap that they eat.

I continue to closely monitor the animals and return to groups that have individuals with any symptoms or concerns. The only one that still concerns me is Kabukojo’s cough. He coughs louder and more frequently than any other gorilla in Rushegura group. Coughing is common in gorillas that are eating on Ficus fig plants. Figs and other fruits contain a gum sap that irritate their throats and cause them to cough. He is also a fairly lean blackback and trackers have expressed concern about his inactiveness at times. He is closely watched and I like to check on him regularly to make sure nothing worsens. Gorilla veterinary procedures are tricky because you can only intervene if it is a life or death situation or human-induced such as a snare. Good news is that I have gotten a saliva sample from Kabukojo so he will be screened for respiratory diseases. The fact that the infants of Rushegura group are healthy and playful leads us to believe there is no infectious disease being passed around. With serious infectious diseases infants and babies get very sick quickly and often die. I make sure to communicate any news with wildlife staff and doctors. Doctors also come to check on the gorillas even if they suspect it is merely an allergic reaction as a precaution. In general, the more eyes the better to catch anything abnormal quickly and at the early stages in order to protect the health of these Critically Endangered apes.