Stu the ranger’s trip to Uganda – Day 3

After a couple of quiet days, things are starting to happen.

More unforgiving temperatures in Entebbe coupled with Dutch and Irish tourists checking into my guest house and chatting into the small hours combine to make it another endless night.

I forgo breakfast, check out and head down to Lake Victoria to catch a boat to Chimp Island – Ngamba, a sanctuary for orphaned chimps ( Lake Victoria is one of the largest in the world at 210 x 160 miles and the coastline is shared by Kenya (12 percent), Tanzania (50 percent) and Uganda (38 percent). It is home to over 3000 islands, some of which are the subject to territorial disputes and I’m heading to one 45 mins out from Uganda, on a fast boat with Bruce, one of the chimp’s care-givers and Ronnie. Its an exhilarating ride over the choppy waters at speed, leaping off the crest of the waves and belly flopping back down. The pilot kills the engines about 30 minutes in to journey to point out the equator and we are off again, I look back and Kampala and any sign of land has disappeared over the horizon.

Ahead is our destination, to the left a cluster of islands, some are inhabited, the evidence are the patches of beige amongst the green, fishing villages with the men drifting through the surrounding waters in two man canoes. There are strict quotas on how much fishing you they can do and where the can land their catch. The women don’t fish but since the creation of the chimp sanctuary they have sold their crafts on the island. There is a weekly game of football between the islands, unfortunately (or perhaps on purpose) the sanctuary lose “always by 3 goals or more”. Also each Sunday the people of the islands are entitled to visit the chimps for free to encourage cooperation. It is tempting for the fishermen to fish within the waters of Chimp Island but it very dangerous, for example 2 fishermen paddled close to the island and one of the chimps managed to get the boat. Knowing that chimps are 5 times stronger than humans and aggressive when threatened they jumped into the water. This is the best thing you can do because chimps cannot swim due to their low body fat, muscle mass and high bone density (just like me really!). The canoe continued to drift with the chimp, out into the lake when fortunately 2 of the care-givers on their way back from a routine trip to the mainland questioned what they were seeing. Now the fishermen always look for this chimp when they visit the sanctuary.

We land at the beautiful island covered in thick rainforest just 5% of the 100 acres devoted to visitors and staff. This area is comprised of bandas (round, thatched buildings), luxury tents looking out onto the lake and named after the chimps, staff quarters and the gigantic steel cage the chimps sleep in at night. We are told a bit of the history of the island and the chimps. All but one of them are orphaned, some from Uganda and the rest from the surrounding countries, either rescued from lives in entertainment or as pets or from troubled areas.

The island is run by a charity and has many sponsors and trustees. I was pleased to see that the Ugandan Wildlife Authority is a trustee and our partner, Great Primate Handshake are a sponsor. It was very interesting to learn how Joseph, the keeper, got involved in conservation. He was always a member of his school’s wildlife club and this gave him the motivation and knowledge to know that he wanted to work in conservation no matter what. Having been to schools and interacted with pupils in their club’s I know how passionate these kids are about conserving their environment.

Chimps can live to 50 in the wild and if lucky, another 10 years in captivity and this is a young group of 47, with all the elders under 30. They have social structures like humans and you can consider them to use a combination democratic and military styles to choose an alpha male. Currently they are operating without an alpha, because he was discovered dead, in the forest, cause of death unknown. Tests have been completed in Uganda, German and the UK, and their best guess is that he fell from a height. Miki was a very respected leader was very politically smart. He came to power when another big chimp who liked to disrupt the group challenged the previous alpha. He sided with this chimp and waited until he took power and after three weeks of chaos he stepped in and his friend allowed him to become the alpha. Now he has left a vacuum it is time for a new leader and initially there were 10 candidates, now they have just two left that have the power to win. First they use democracy to find out how everyone in the group will vote, doing favours, forging alliances and forgetting rivalries then the military action where they challenge the opponent. If they have done the first bit right then their backers will follow them into the fight.

To introduce a new member the zoo keepers pick the most accepting and social females from the existing group. It is their job to spend time close to the new member but in separate cages and based on the reactions, the team can work out if they will be compatible with the larger group. All the females are given implanted contraception and this stops them breeding. Unfortunately, just as with human contraception, this can fail and they have a small female called Surprise, born to Kate. It will be the job of a sub group of females with maternal instincts to help raise her. Some bully her so she has formed a friendship with another and won’t go anywhere without her new guardian.

Their day starts in the cage where they sleep in hammocks 20 ft off the ground. They rarely sleep in the same one twice in row and the big guys get first pick. Then it is time to queue up to get into the rainforest. They come back to the edge of the forest for their meals and have a vegetarian diet on the island, slightly different from the wild where they would take some monkeys, birds etc but they only take meat when they feel they are low on protein and in the sanctuary they get boiled eggs once a week to correct this.

There are plans to reintroduce some of the chimp back into the wild, a virgin forest in Uganda. Each of the keepers have put together a list of the 10 chimps they think would be best suited. These lists are then merged by the management and the programme to prepare them will being.

While we are taking our complementary tea Ronnie has spotted two nile monitor lizards and a number of species of birds. Then in the background we hear the calls of the chimps that signifies they are back in town for their lunch. Joseph, the keeper, takes us past the quantine area where three chimps are waiting for illness to leave them and on to the viewing platform for the feeding area. On front of us is a tall fence with power running through it, which the chimps know but they check it in the morning (looking for sparks). They are making a lot of noise and sitting spread out over about 200 metres on the end edge of the trees, one female always sits to the extreme left of the group as she has learned that she will be guaranteed food without competition from the others. Some look like wise old men with thick square heads and grey head hair, some have pink faces but most have black, some are socialising or play fighting, one of two are up trees and the rest are patiently waiting for their reward.

Three members of staff come forward and start through food through the fence. Near the front a big male stands up in a star pose, with his head back looking to receive. A couple of hands go up but most wait for the food to come their way. Some fruit falls short, no doubt on purpose, giving two of the females the opportunity to show their ability to use tools. They quickly find a long branch and with more skill than the keeper they hook the fruit and draw it towards their side of the fence. As it is nearly there a juvenile male sits on the female’s lap waiting for the fruit to reach striking distance, so tries to reposition him but he braves the electricity and runs off with his prize. Joseph went through the names of the chimps and Ronnie was impressed to find one of them was his namesake (“Second Born”) which is odd because all the chimps are orphans.

All too soon the unit move off into the forest again and it is time to jump back on the boat. This time, true to Twinning Project luck, one of the two big outboard motors fails halfway back from the island. We had a tight schedule to pickup the rest of the team from the airport at 1.15pm so there were a few tense moments watching the pilot swapping fuel cables around. Then it came back from the dead and he started thumping the water hard again as we sped across. The only casualty was Ronnie’s hat, an offering to the lake for allowing us to make progress again. I should mention that I have managed to Scottish tan myself on the boat trip – so that i have two nuclear arms, buzzing away.

We stop at the zoo to organise the booking – something that has been immeasurably more difficult that you would expect. It started when they hadn’t reserved them for the night we initially needed them, before the flight problems. Luckily we could have accommodation on the rescheduled date and I said I needed 2 bandas to sleep 5 people, 3 women and 2 men. I knew this wouldn’t be a problem as I have stayed there a few times. I was told i would need 3 bandas (60 dollars each). I said no and we went in circles for 30 minutes. They have changed the sleeping arrangements so there is a double bed in the rooms instead of two singles. They resisted my suggestion that the two men sleep in the same bed, some that is a sensitive subject in Uganda, There are another kind of accommodation, Side Rooms, which are nothing more than a dorm room with two single beds and a centralised shower and toilet block and one of these rooms is a third of the price of a bandas but fortunately I didn’t book these as I wasn’t sure the women would be comfortable with this arrangement and I was proved right. So I finally won and we got 2 bandas, each with a single and a double though Ronnie and I lose the battle for a discount for being a UWA-related project.

Off to the airport then right on time when we hit traffic on the way into the airport, where they take their security very seriously. One lane of the dual carriageway is at a standstill and the other is completely empty and Ronnie is driving past 20, 30, 40 vehicles when we realise they are checking every car through – removing the passengers and searching them. Our strategy works and we’ve cut through half the traffic and will be there almost perfectly on time, except the car park is full, probably related to the number of delayed flights from the emirates. While we were waiting a number of Asian businessmen came out looking for their driver (all holding up passenger names). The guy next to me had obviously copied his sheet of A4 from somewhere else and when his passenger came out he looked non-plussed for a moment then walked up to the African and took the sign from him and turned it around so it was the right way up. We knew it is going to take 20 mins for them to get through customs, so I was relieved when an hour into the wait I get a text to say they are getting their visas, strangely it still took another hour before they are finally on Ugandan soil. They looked very relieved but I will let them tell their own story.

We jammed all the luggage into the van, not easy and still minus my bags and went to the zoo to drop it off, went to town and got money and water then headed back to the zoo for a wander around the zoo where we saw crocodiles, chimps, lions (Ronnie asked if they have these in QE Country Park), ostriches (maya), buffalo (mbogo), elephants (njojo), Ugandan cob, sea eagles, cranes, monkeys and rhino. Tony was lucky enough to touch the rhino’s horn and can report back on the believe that it brings power to a man. We saved a lost kids

A quick meal at the restaurant with almost everyone trying the tilapia and Nile special (5.6 percent) and enjoying both. Especially impressed that the Nile Special cost less than bottled water or soft drinks.

Back to the bandas, where everyone had a bad nights sleep in the humid heat, the PA of a party, crickets, mozzies and lake fly buzzing your head and if you made the mistake of flushing the toilet, the hour it takes the water to trickle into the cistern.

We are driving along the Fort Portal Road at the moment so pictures and videos will have to wait until I have better access.

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1 Response to Stu the ranger’s trip to Uganda – Day 3

  1. aburford says:

    Thanks for the report of your trip so far. Chimp island sounds fascinating.

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