Tag Archives: field notes

Field notes from Uganda 4: Are the elephants following me?

It seems that I’m an elephant magnet. Yesterday I encountered a herd while walking alone in the forest. As one of the local researchers put it, everyone wants to see the elephants, until they do. Actually I would have been quite happy not to see them at all. Instead I’ve now run into them twice in two days.

Following a morning spent accompanying my student research groups in the field, I decided to take off on my own for the afternoon and explore the infilled savannah on the far side of the swamp. The Land Rover dropped me at the swamp and left, but I didn’t get far. About a kilometre further on I came across a large, very fresh pile of elephant dung in the middle of the trail. A few beetles had found it and were enthusiastically burrowing but there was still plenty to go round. The only question was whether the elephants were ahead of me or — worse — behind.

That was soon answered by a loud bellow from around 30 m ahead, accompanied by the sound of several large animals turning round and the crashing of bushes. I didn’t stop to take a closer look; I was off. Meeting elephants at close quarters is not an opportunity for a selfie.

Everyone has their own recommendation as to what to do if you meet an elephant (as, in boreal fieldwork, I’ve heard a thousand ways to escape a grizzly bear). Most of these are likely untested by experience. Mine is to head into thick woody vegetation, preferably downhill, on the basis that a medium-bodied primate is faster than a bulky elephant under such conditions. Machete in hand I put a rapid hundred metres between myself and the herd, checked that I wasn’t being followed, then tracked back to the trail lower down. There were many nervous glances over my shoulder all the way home.


This morning I headed out again, accompanying one of the local PhD students, who is studying parasitoid wasps. He has a set of Malaise traps collecting ichneumonids and braconids, and having already collected many hundreds of species, he’s estimating a total species richness in the thousands. A high proportion will be undescribed; these are not groups about which much is known and even the basic taxonomy is lacking.

We joked about my elephant escape, especially in light of his own experience a week ago. He accidentally stumbled into the herd while they were asleep and ended up climbing a tree to escape. He was stuck there for three hours. Luckily mobile phone coverage in the forest is pretty reliable, especially if you can get high up, so he was able to text friends back at camp and summon help.

As we were wandering along one of the main trails — what are the chances — the elephants appeared just in front of us. This time it was a relatively open area, and his field assistant counted seven adults with five juveniles. One mock charged so we didn’t wait around but luckily they didn’t seem in the mood to follow us.

Tomorrow I’m planning to go for a walk in the complete opposite direction. What can go wrong?


In a previous post I was concerned that the baboons were up to something. They finally struck. They’ve eaten my soap and run away with my toilet paper. This means war.

Field notes from Uganda 3: How do you solve a problem like savannah?

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Savannah in Queen Elizabeth National Park

We’ve just returned from a four-day trip to Queen Elizabeth National Park, one of Uganda’s flagship tourist destinations. It’s an extensive tract of savannah where one can readily see buffalo, elephants, hippos, and, if you’re lucky, lions or leopards.

What you won’t see are giraffes or zebra. Put aside for now that these glaring omissions are the result of staggering levels of poaching during the civil war. Their continued absence is a deliberate policy on the part of Uganda Wildlife Authority, who maintain the parks such that no single site contains the full complement of large animals. The rationale is that tourists will then travel around more and spread their largesse across the country. The obvious question is why would a wildlife tourist choose to come to Uganda when they could go on safari in Kenya or Tanzania and see all the big game in the same place?

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My curtains in QENP, which are the only place in the park to find giraffes and zebra.

Whatever one makes of this policy, it strikes at the heart of one of the most contentious debates in African conservation — how should savannahs be managed? Should it be to maximise the revenue from tourists, the enjoyment of local visitors, to minimise conflict with communities in and around the park, or to create systems as close to ‘natural’ as possible, whatever that is assumed to mean?

The problem is threefold. Firstly, there are a complex set of processes which act to create and maintain savannahs. While landscapes composed of scattered trees surrounded by grass form spontaneously in semi-arid areas with a pronounced dry season, there are large parts of the world where several types of vegetation are possible. They could turn into grasslands, savannahs, scrub or even closed-canopy dry forest. Multiple outcomes are possible.

Which one is found at any given site depends not solely on the climate but on the densities of large herbivores and the fire regime. Herds of species such as buffalo favour grasses, which are tolerant of grazing, and prevent woody seedlings from establishing. Larger animals like elephants feed on and break up woody vegetation. Grasses are also highly tolerant of fire, whereas tree seedlings are vulnerable, which means that regular fires hold back the trees and maintain open areas.

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Fires keep trees in check and promote grasses.

The twofold problem in the modern era is a dramatic reduction of the densities of large herbivores, and increased control of burning. This has led to shrub encroachment, widely believed to be a management problem. But this points towards the second issue, which is that there is no clear baseline to work towards.

Photographic records from a century ago show clearly that woody vegetation has expanded at the expense of open grasslands. Yet even when these photos were taken, they represented the state of savannah systems following several centuries of colonial game hunting and land management. This built on thousands of years of occupation by hunter-gatherers and native herdsmen, who were at the time being driven from the land. A general shortage of reliable palynological evidence (long-term pollen records) only further confounds the issue. We have no accurate means of determining what savannahs ‘should’ look like, or what that even means. Change is constant, from the scale of seasons to alterations in the balance between woody plants and grasses throughout the ice ages.

Savannahs are really a dynamic mosaic in which the shifting fortunes of trees and grasses are determined by changes in the climate, the populations of large animals, and the frequency of fire. The concept of ‘climax’ vegetation is of no use here. In a wet tropical rain forest it’s clear what state the system will default to once left alone. In a savannah we can only wait and see, or manage for what we prefer.

The final problem is that two other notable and crucial species are missing from these savannahs. The first is a tragic indictment of the greed and stupidity of humans — rhinos. The landscape in QENP is dominated by large Euphorbia candelabrum, which are practically inedible to all the local species, but are greatly favoured by rhinos. How different would this park look if the rhinos returned? Right now it’s a rhino buffet. If only we could guarantee their safety, and an end to their pointless exploitation for the sake of a medical myth, the landscape would appear very different.

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These large Euphorbia are delicious for rhinos, but ignored by everything else (elephant for scale). Would they be so abundant if rhinos were still here to eat them?

The last species that’s missing is easily forgotten because no-one realises that they’re threatened. It’s a keystone species, crucial as an ecosystem engineer, seed disperser and top predator. It’s also a charismatic primate averaging 60 kg in size, with fascinating behaviour and cascading impacts across savannah ecosystems. Does this ring any bells?

Modern humans evolved in Africa around 150 000 years ago from an ancestor which was also a savannah ape. For thousands of years they have managed these landscapes, particularly through fire. Burning was a tool not only to drive out game but to maintain open areas where hunting was easier and grassy plains where prey were abundant. More recently domesticated cattle spread across Africa, and all this long before the depredations of the modern era. These days we tend to assert that the only way to protect natural systems is to exclude people. But what if people are part of the system? Would it be reasonable to reintroduce the rhino but not the hunter-gatherer?

Field Notes from Uganda 2: An unwanted frog and a gift from the baboons

Dr Rose Badaza, a pteridophyte taxonomist, was leading a group of students to learn basic fern identification. Despite her short stature she’s a formidable personality with an air of command.

It’s often difficult to engage students in plants when their primary interest is animals; they’re so easily distracted. At one point one of the students picked up a frog, eliciting the usual cooing from the group, who all clustered round. Rose was unimpressed. Her eyes swelled and her lip trembled in mock apoplexy. “Put that frog down!”, she declared, turning heads within a five mile radius. “We are botanists. The frog is our enemy.” Duly chastened, the student gently released his prize.

The students present their tributes to Rose for inspection.

The students present their trophies to Rose for inspection.


With some downtime this afternoon I took a stroll through the home gardens in the village adjacent to the forest reserve. As I rambled along, familar small shapes darted through the bananas just out of sight, calling out “Msungu! Msungu!” and the occasional “How are you!”, though too shy to wait for a response.

As I turned to head back, one bolder child stepped out and beckoned me to follow. Approaching a hut just off the trail, a gaggle of children emerged, and all became clear. They had run home to smear their faces with white chalk, and were now excitedly dancing up and down, pointing at themselves and chanting “Msungu! Msungu!” with broad smiles on their faces. These days blacking up is considered terribly offensive. But whiting up? I’m fine with that.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.


One of the great nuisances here at the field station are the olive baboons, which prowl the compound in amongst the chalets, waiting to seize any chance to break in and help themselves to whatever foodstuffs they can find. The windows are barred but constant vigilance is essential. We have been warned of many occasions when they have discovered an overlooked entry point and wreaked havoc within.

Returning to my chalet this evening I found, carefully deposited on my doorstep, a partly-gnawed avocado, while a cluster of baboons sat at some remove watching my response. How should I treat this — as a peace offering? A gift? Is reciprocal altruism expected? I stepped over the abandoned fruit, then closed and bolted the door behind me. The avocado has since vanished along with the baboons. I fear that my insult will not go unpunished.


Butterfly ecologist Dr Perpetra Akite demonstrates her unusual collecting technique.

Butterfly ecologist Dr Perpetra Akite demonstrates her unusual collecting technique.


Field Notes from Uganda 1

I’m in Uganda this August teaching on a Tropical Biology Association field course. The idea is to bring together an international group of graduate students, an equal mix of Africans and (mostly) Europeans, which creates a real melting pot of backgrounds. Over intermittent blog posts I’ll be recording observations as we go along *.


On arrival in Entebbe I went for a wander in amongst the homesteads by Lake Victoria. With a longstanding interest in agroforestry, I’m always intrigued to see what people are growing. Down near the shore, goats were being harried amongst cassava, sago and other familiar crops. It’s always reassuring to see the same types of cultivation all across the tropics. As I turned one corner a man pushing a bike arraigned me. “Ah!” he exclaimed, apropos of nothing, “Finally you’re here!”. I responded gnomically in kind and continued.

A little further on I spotted some more interesting plants — indian rubber, a few Cecropias, exotic figs — and decided to investigate. The track widened and suddenly I found myself in an area with a diverse range of large, widely-spaced trees, and trimmed lawns between them. Puzzled but distracted by the trees I passed a nursery and headed inside to look around. There was a fantastic jumble of plants of all forms packed into overflowing shadehouses. I introduced myself to the women working there and discussed what they were growing.

After a little while I asked one of them what this place was. She looked at me with benevolent disdain. “It is a nursery”. I made a more expansive gesture, indicating the wider area. Her expression became more quizzical. “What do you mean? You don’t know?” I pulled my best baffled msungu look and waited. There was an animated conversation in swahili and much laughter. Finally she turned back to me and said “It is the botanical gardens!”


It’s not many years since there were bombings in Kampala, which means a robust security presence everywhere, even if their attentions are not necessarily strict. In the wake of the Nairobi shootings, shopping centres are seen as a potential target, and everyone is checked on entry. Mirrors are held under vehicles to check for bombs, while large signs demand that shoppers surrender their weapons at the gate.

My collegue Johan, a large animal ecologist, went to the local supermarket to collect a few essentials. On entry his bag was given the usual inspection, a little less cursory than usual as it contained several intriguing items of field equipment. One of the guards took particular interest in the binoculars, removing them and staring through them intently. “Are you checking that they’re really binoculars?” Johan asked, a little impatiently.

“No” replied the distracted guard, still pressing them to his face. “I want to look at that girl over there.”


A road sign: ‘Dangerous School Ahead’.


Driving across Uganda from Entebbe to Kibale provided an opportunity to get a measure of the country. Not so much from a landscape perspective, since everything near a major highway tends to be badly degraded, but a more nebulous feel for the prevailing mood. We all have our own points of reference though, which dictate our experience of a new country.

A colleague from Zimbabwe was particularly impressed with the general level of activity. The shops along the roadside are full of goods and a healthy commercial bustle. The roads are busy with well-kept vehicles. There was no sign of the groups of listless, loitering men that are a symptom of economic stagnation. Everyone had an industrious air and a sense of purpose. Moreover, he noted how healthy everyone looked, and rightly so. This was not only true in the suburbs of Kampala, where one might expect a thriving urban population, but out into the rural areas. This is not to blithely suggest that Uganda has no health problems, but rather that the visible signs are of a thriving populace.

My impressions differed somewhat because my comparator is elsewhere. I can’t help but contrast it with Southeast Asia, and what struck me is how similar everything looks to the way Malaysia and Indonesia were about 15 years ago. I was delighted by the hand-painted advertisements on the sides of houses, now a rare sight in SEA. The densely packed, road-facing lines of shops are also increasingly being replaced by centralised commercial districts. All this I say not as a critique, but in a spirit of optimism. I’ve witnessed the rapid transformation in SEA this century and there is every sign that Uganda is travelling in the same direction. What this will mean for the forests — that’s another story.


* No photos I’m afraid. The internet is far too weak. I might add pictures at a later date.