“The first sweep of Bwindi 2018 census was well organized both logistically and technically. Irrespective of the challenges we encountered like the steep rugged terrain, flooded rivers, the rains and biting coldness and the slippery ground in some areas we still found our way. To say the least, it was a difficult task but the commitment of the teams helped a lot in overcoming these challenges” says Eustrate Uzabaho, Assistant Field Officer, IGCP.
After nine consecutive weeks of surveys in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, the census teams successfully concluded the first sweep of the Bwindi – Sarambwe 2018 Mountain Gorilla Census. Conducted in four phases the field teams surveyed approximately 340 sq-km, destroyed 39 snares, heard, saw or observed fresh elephant and chimpanzee signs and collected fecal samples from gorilla nests to be used for genetic and pathogen analyses. The teams also recorded signs of illegal tree cutting in the forest.
Among others the extraordinary partnership, collaboration and coordination of the more than 10 participating organizations played a pivotal role in the success of sweep one of the Bwindi census. Great thanks particularly go to Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation (ITFC) which worked around the clock to ensure that the teams are well equipped and supported through the entire process, this kept the teams motivated. “The communication and coordination of the participating institutions was great; ITFC did a superb job in ensuring that all logistics and related needs are timely addressed, besides, the communication at the park level and among the organizing institutions, field staff, porters were all great too,” notes Christopher Byaruhanga, one of the team leads in the census.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is extraordinarily tough; it has a unique rugged terrain, extensively deep drainage system with sporadically large flooding rivers, slippery ground in some areas, thick and thorny vegetation, biting insects, poisonous snakes and unpredictable torrential rainfall with hailstorms. For nine weeks the teams of about 75 staff alternating after every two weeks camped and worked in this very place. Clearly it takes a brave, curious and committed heart to endure the census process.
Irakoze Emmanuel a tracker and ranger with Rwanda Development Board reveals that he always wanted to know why Bwindi is called impenetrable and participating in this year’s census gave him the answers he needed. “Bwindi Census is the most difficult census because of the steep and rugged terrain. Unlike Virunga where there are some flat or less steep areas that don’t require hiking, in Bwindi it is hiking both to and from the park through very thick and thorny vegetation. I got to appreciate why it is called impenetrable! Nonetheless it is our job to watch out for the mountain gorillas, so we enjoy doing it even amidst all these challenges.”
Adding on to this, Uzabaho reveals that curiosity to know what is happening or living in the other areas of the park and his love for mountain gorillas kept him interested in conducting the census while Ignace Hatangimana says without teamwork completing the census would have been very difficult. “Having a great team breaks the ice and keeps one encouraged and motivated. We help each other out in every difficulty. We chat and laugh together especially in the evenings around the camp fire. This gives confidence that you are not alone and the assurance that together you will complete the task and we eventually do” Hatangimana notes.
Commenting on team work still, Tumugabirwe Lawrence, Field Assistant with ITFC and team lead in the census recognises a special category, the porters and cooks! “Everybody played their roles well. I am particularly grateful to the porters and cooks in the camps that laboured to always serve our meals on time, and also balance the diet enough to keep us strong and able to hike the rugged impenetrable Bwindi every day.” Lawrence also acknowledges that the allowances paid to them served as a big motivation to hang on and complete this task. Thanks to Fauna & Flora International, WWF, and Partners in Conservation at the Columbus Zoo & Aquarium for funding the census.
Asked what they think about the completed sweep one of the census, Jena Hickey (PHD), IGCP Conservation Scientist, says, “I think it was great and the teams did an incredible job. We look forward to sweep two in Sept – Nov 2018” while Pontius Ezuma the Chief Park Warden BMCA notes “we are particularly grateful to the funders of the census, to the field teams and to all the organisers plus participating institutions. We hope the survey will indicate an increase in the numbers of mountain gorillas in Bwindi and also point out key conservation concerns to UWA.”
The 2018 Bwindi-Sarambwe population surveys of mountain gorillas, large mammals, and illegal activities are being conducted by the Protected Area Authorities in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (Uganda Wildlife Authority and l’Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature) under the transboundary framework of the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration. The census is supported by the Rwanda Development Board, International Gorilla Conservation Programme (a coalition of Fauna & Flora International and WWF), Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation, Gorilla Doctors, Conservation Through Public Health, Wildlife Conservation Society, WWF Uganda Country Office, and Bwindi Mgahinga Conservation Trust. The census was funded by Fauna & Flora International, WWF, and Partners in Conservation at the Columbus Zoo & Aquarium.