April 23, 2021
UGANDA: MORE THAN SHOEBILLS AND MOUNTAIN GORILLAS
By Steve Hilty
When the Ugandan Tourism Bureau organized a “familiarization” trip for birding and natural history guides a little over two years ago, it seemed like a dream come true. I’d spent decades working in the Neotropics but had been to eastern Africa only once previously. I didn’t have delusions that this trip would qualify me to guide birding and natural history trips in Uganda–but it was a great opportunity to expand my limited experience in Africa. And besides, guiding our group would be none other than Herbert Byaruhanga, Uganda’s most distinguished birding guide, widely known as the father of Uganda tourism, and with him his keen-eyed son Davis.
So, what did I know about Uganda prior to this trip? I knew it was a small landlocked country called the “Pearl of Africa,” and it was shoehorned somewhere between the Serengeti plains to the east and equatorial forest to the west? Of course, Uganda was also the best place to see Shoebills and Mountain Gorillas, but even its topography was largely mysterious to me. And then there was its unfortunate history—Idi Amin’s brutal political regime of the 1970s and, after his downfall, the tragic wildlife slaughter in the northern part of the country in the early 1980s. Events like these, though long past, often linger in memories. But if scars of the past remained, they were not evident. So I arrived in Uganda with a little knowledge colored by past history, and not much else except a couple of books on the birds and mammals. Obviously, for me, a lot was about to change.
Eight of us walked single file, following a guide through tall lowland broadleaf forest in Kibale National Park in west central Uganda. The trail meandered up gentle slopes, then down into shallow valleys. A few birds called. Our guide occasionally paused to point out distant sounds, but mostly we maintained a steady pace for fifteen or twenty minutes. Suddenly he motioned for quiet. Everyone pressed forward, slowly. And there it was—our first wild Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii), barely three meters away, stretched out flat on his back and on the forest floor. A thin screen of vegetation partly obscured his large black form. I was puzzled. Was he asleep? Or injured? He appeared to be alone and unaware of our presence, but I found myself glancing around all the same. The forest was silent, interrupted only by camera shutters clicking and the distant tooting of a Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird.
Suddenly a distant cacophony of pant-hooting and howling screams broke the silence. Almost immediately the prone chimp raised its head slightly in the direction of the sound. And, still lying flat on the ground, legs and arms spread, he abruptly answered with a terrifying array of blood-curdling pant-hoots of his own, then leaped to his feet and continued screaming. His cavernous mouth exposed a chilling array of dagger-like teeth. The effect of screaming shrieks and pant-hoots at such close range was alarming and more than a little intimidating. My heart surely skipped a beat! Oh my God! Suddenly I felt both vulnerable and exhilarated.
Now standing, and fully alert, the chimp looked around, glanced at our huddled group as if we were too insignificant to warrant further attention, then began moving off up a long slope, his quadrupedal, knuckle-walking gait surprisingly rapid. We followed, cross-country, at times hard-pressed to maintain contact. Soon other chimps materialized from leafy undergrowth. They moved singly, in twos, or threes, some eventually coalescing into a group that moved steadily and mostly in single-file, along a trail now leading slightly downslope toward the source of the original distant pant-hooting sounds.
So began a morning of Chimpanzee tracking in Kibale National Forest. Before long we were in the midst of a large group of chimps that seemed to have paused, some foraging, others loafing. Our guide quickly picked out the alpha-male sitting on the ground near a large buttressed tree. Large and muscular, the alpha-male seemed to be at ease but was clearly alert, looking occasionally at our massed group, but mostly in other directions. Sitting upright on the ground, at one point he rolled over onto his side on the ground as if to rest. A few minutes later, he righted himself and grasped and chewed some leafy vegetation. Speaking quietly, our guide said, “Watch him closely now. He’s about to ‘buttress-drum.’ It’s a way of signaling his dominance and also his whereabouts to other groups that might be within earshot.”
Moments later, exactly as predicted, the alpha-male leaped over beside a large tree buttress and pounded a fist quickly and forcefully a few times against the large flanging buttress. It happened with startling speed. The low-pitched “thu’thump” sound was abrupt and surprisingly loud (apparently audible up to a kilometer away) but was not accompanied by simultaneous pant-hooting in the two instances we witnessed, although in some areas it often is. Sometime later, a smallish young male moved down the trail toward us in what seemed to me a threatening manner. The guide said quietly, “Ignore him. He won’t dare do anything with the alpha-male so close.”
Before the morning was over, we would encounter perhaps thirty animals, almost all of them on the ground and close, sometimes unsettlingly so—all apparently members of one of three or four groups in the park that are habituated to humans. Throughout the morning our guide pointed out behaviors and uncannily seemed to know in advance what the animals were about to do. There were momentary periods of inactivity, but throughout most of the morning, members of this loosely aligned group alternately foraged, rested, moved around, or spent time methodically grooming themselves or each other. Eventually most of them began moving away. There also were occasional hair-raising outbursts of noisy pant-hooting, yelling, and screaming. This was “wild” Africa—the sights, sounds, exhilaration, and even the occasional feeling of unease—all of which brought to mind scattered recollections of Jane Goodall’s famous chimp behavioral work in western Tanzania. Once, for a time, she had apparently been accepted into a Chimpanzee troop, albeit as the lowest-ranking member. By the end of the morning, I had gained an immense amount of respect for the knowledge of Chimpanzee behavior that she must have had, and that of our guide as well.
A few days earlier we’d spent a morning with Mountain Gorillas, and the contrast could hardly have been greater. We’d been prepped on how to conduct ourselves in the presence of these iconic animals. The gorillas, especially the silverback, were indeed immense and impressive in stature, but their behavior gentle, languid, and highly controlled. Their demeanor seemed a study in watchful inactivity, even lassitude, contrasting sharply (at least on that morning with us) with the much more mutable, noisy, and (to my untrained eyes) seemingly unpredictable activity of the chimps that we would encounter later. To be fair, a few adventurous gorilla youngsters in the group did practice “chest-beating,” climbed saplings, playfully tumbled over each other, and occasionally approached our group with naive curiosity before being gently prodded back toward their stoic mothers by our guide. Yet, despite their intimidating size and strength, our gorilla-tracking experience seemed dreamily relaxing. To sit in the presence of these magnificent creatures was a privilege and a thrill beyond imagination. And as we discovered here as well, the knowledge possessed by our local guides and their ability to interpret the behavior of these magnificent primates was almost beyond comprehension.
Traveling through Uganda, it doesn’t take long to realize that this country—its terrain, landscape, and wildlife—is remarkably unlike the vast Serengeti of Tanzania and Kenya, despite sharing their borders. When eastern Africa is mentioned, it is usually the Serengeti with its vast grasslands and acacia-dotted woodlands that comes to mind. These are premier safari destinations, home to colorful Maasai tribes, great wildebeest migrations, vast numbers of other ungulates, and the associated predators so often documented in televised productions. By contrast, Uganda has been aptly described as “Africa condensed,” a country where travelers can sample, on a smaller scale, a mosaic of the continent in a single trip. What Uganda lacks in “wildlife spectacles,” it excels in sheer diversity of habitats and unique wildlife experiences.
Uganda has ten national parks that contain seven of Africa’s major biogeographic regions, and the country ranks as one of the top ten most biodiverse countries on the planet. Uganda boasts the continent’s highest mountains, including snow-capped peaks, its largest lake (shared with Tanzania and Kenya), both lowland and high montane rainforest, and the fabled Nile River that passes through the country. It also counts over a thousand species of birds (fifty percent of Africa’s total). Four of Africa’s big five mammals (Lion, Leopard, Cape Buffalo, and African Elephant) can be found in various national parks. The fifth, the endangered Southern White Rhino, is making a slow recovery through re-introductions at the Ziwa Rhino Reserve. Equally important, Uganda has a lot of spectacular primates, and I was particularly taken with the Red-tailed Monkey and L’Hoest’s Monkey.
Our route was similar to that used on many birding and naturalist safaris—beginning in the eastern part of the country in the city of Entebbe, which borders the shores of Lake Victoria. A short walk from the hotel to Entebbe’s Botanic Gardens provides an excellent introduction to Uganda’s birds—Great Blue Turacos, Black-and-white Casqued Hornbills, and a half-dozen kinds of sunbirds and weavers. From Entebbe, we gradually inscribed a great circle, traveling south, then west through Lake Mburo National Park, and on to the mountains of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in the far southwest for gorilla tracking. From there we worked our way northward through the grasslands and woodlands of Queen Elizabeth National Park, the rainforests of Kibale National Park, and a sampling of Congo birdlife in Budongo Forest. And finally, there were game drives at Murchison Falls National Park, and a spectacular river excursion on the Victoria Nile. From there we followed a diagonal route cross-country to Entebbe, with a stop en route at the Ziwa Rhino Reserve. On our return to Entebbe, we were treated to the Uganda Bird Fair, held at the Uganda Wildlife Education Center. It was a great opportunity to exchange ideas with younger African birders and guides from Uganda, neighboring Kenya, and Rwanda—a large majority of whom were young women.
I was especially impressed with the diversity of habitats in Uganda—vast papyrus marshes, acacia scrub, humid lowland and montane forest, rolling grassland, gallery forest, and dry woodland. Lodges and tented camps were superb throughout, people everywhere were polite and friendly, and the number of visitors in parks far lower than those in neighboring Tanzania. Much of Uganda also is high enough in elevation (about 1,000 m) that despite its tropical latitude, temperatures are generally quite pleasant.
There was a dazzling variety of birds on this trip—some scarce, others widespread, most of them beautiful and easy to see. A sampling of what we saw included African Finfoot; many bee-eaters including Black, Red-throated, Swallow-tailed, and Northern Carmine; Abyssinian Roller; Black-headed Gonolek; African Blue-flycatcher; a dizzying array of confusingly-similar sunbirds; and more kinds of weavers than I can remember. I will never know the Uganda of decades long past, but today it certainly offers visitors a great African adventure, a surprising level of comfort, superb wildlife, and once-in-a-lifetime experiences with Mountain Gorillas, Chimpanzees, Shoebills, and many other mammals and birds.
On December 9, 2018, 6:15 pm, I wrote the following: My final evening in Uganda. The skies are overcast. As I sit on the steps of our hotel in Entebbe, a radio and TV compete for attention with the repetitive “weet, whip’pur’whéet!” of a Common Bulbul. Far in the distance I hear faint music, even feel the ultra-low reverberations of a sub-woofer, perhaps near the waterfront. A sunbird nervously inspects red flowers in the hotel garden immediately in front of me. I think it is a Red-chested Sunbird, but I’m never sure with sunbirds. Overhead, a Hadada Ibis utters a nasal “ha-da-da,” saying its name as it passes by with steady rowing wing beats. Beyond the hotel parking lot, an ungainly Marabou Stork balances precariously atop a tall slender palm, then departs as if in resignation, in search of more stable footing. To me, the stork seems curiously out-of-place here, although I know it isn’t. Palm Swifts twitter and zigzag through the gathering dusk.
6:47 pm. Three Marabou Storks arrive, now adorning treetops behind the parking lot. Several doves, the chitter of a Gray-headed Warbler, and other birds can be heard as they settle into shrubs for the night. A Woodland Kingfisher calls, the color of its splendid azure wings barely evident in fading light, and its descending trill almost lost in the darkness. Then all is quiet. Uganda, this endlessly fascinating and optimistic pearl in the heart of Africa, is at peace for the night.
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