Field Journal: Living the Bwindi Census

Blog | 27/10/11

In what may be our longest blog post ever, here we present in its near entirety the field journal for Charles KAYIJAMAHE (pictured, right, during the census training), a student finishing his studies at the National University of Rwanda in Zoology and Conservation.

The length is because it is impossible to cut out sections that include forging raging rivers, chimpanzees, red-tailed monkeys, and forest elephants. And that’s not to mention his need to at some point to ditch the trousers and walk the impenetrable forest in undershorts.

It was his first census of mountain gorillas and his first time in Bwindi, a job he eagerly volunteered for between September 24th and October 7th. The journal is in his own words and a reflection of what it is like to be in Bwindi for a period of 14 days.


We were transported to the point where we had to enter the forest heading to the camp to replace the existing teams. After 10 minutes, we reached where other team were waiting to be transported back from the field. Looking at them, I was excited to enter the forest and discover the whole forest and again it would be my first experience camping in the forest. On the other hand I was scared a bit since looking at those people, they were sweating as a result of hiking hills, so I knew it will be the same to me during the next 2 weeks I will be spending in that impenetrable forest. A little bit after entering the forest, we met chimpanzees, but unfortunately, we didn’t have an opportunity of watching them as they keep hiding since they are shy animals mainly when they are not habituated. We had a chance to be with Dr Fred from MGVP [Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project] as he was telling us some European history. He is a good reader and he entertained us all the way at the point that the journey became very short and less tiring. We reached the camp at 12 a.m and start to settle. After 15 minutes, the porters reached the camp. They were carrying food supplies, field materials and our luggage we had left at ITFC. The camp keepers started to cook lunch and waited for it discussing and planning for the work ahead us.


The team uses GPS to find their place on the map to lead them in the right direction (Charles, center).

The team uses GPS to find their place on the map to lead them in the right direction.

After 250 meters of walk, we heard a noise. We thought it was a gunshot and try to contact the nearing outpost to be informed about what happened and they told us that they did not hear it. We kept moving a while and suddenly heard a branch breaking down in the valley and we found out it was an elephant. We walked slowly and carefully avoiding to make some noise and disturb the elephant, but one team member assured us that elephant there are very shy and run away when they hear people but for precaution reason a bullet was put in chamber by a team member who had the gun in case of elephant attack, since they scare the noise of a gunshot.

The man was right because when we reached in the valley we found that the elephant had taken the opposite direction. We kept moving hiking sloppy hills and we were obliged to stop a bit to rest a bit and take some air. Along the way we were being confused by elephant trails thinking that they belong to gorillas but we had to check during a certain time to void to leave gorilla tracks behind. At 1 p.m, we stopped for 30 minute to have lunch which is made by peanut, chapatti and boiled eggs. After, we kept moving in the south-eastern direction. We found many chimps nests but no gorilla tracks. We were on our way back to the camp, after sloping a hill when we fell on gorilla trails. We checked very careful to be sure and we found they belong to the gorillas. We followed them down valleys and 3 hills, but no gorilla nests. We reached an area where we start to miss the trails and some of us to search the trails. After finding them, we realized that it was getting dark and we had to go back to the camp and come back to continue the searching at that point.

MONDAY, 26th September, 2011

Collecting fecal samples for genetic testing. From left to right, Sunday, Charles (author of this post), and Dr. Basabose.

Collecting fecal samples for genetic testing. From left to right, Sunday, Charles (author of this post), and Dr. Basabose.

We were surprised to find them [nests] in 50 meters from where we stopped yesterday. We start the sampling and after 1 hour, we were done and continue to follow the trails. We walked mountain and valleys following the trails until we lost trails. It was not normal that the gorilla group could have moved such distance we have covered. We thought we have left trails behind but not far. We sent some group members to check. After 30 minutes they came back but they had not found any sign. Suddenly we noticed some 2 confusing trails going up on the hill.

We divided into two and follow and them and after hiking that big hill, it was starting to get late and decided to go back to the camp and to start the searching at that point. We were almost on the main trail and we headed back to the camp. We reached the camp at 6:30 p.m. We had bath, then dinner accompanied with a bottle of beer given by Dr. Basabose.


We followed the tracks for about 2 hours when we lost completely the tracks. We sent some experienced trackers of our team to look around, but no sign. We start wondering why that gorilla group has moved longer distance than the normal as we had been tracking them since yesterday and we found that it is not normal and thought we had left nests behind yesterday, but on the other hand, the area they were using has not food and sometimes we missed their dungs on their trails as the main track. We were about to abandon the search and start another recce trail when one team member came and told us that he had smell something like gorillas down. We started arguing whether to follow it or to leave it as we had to have a direct contact with the group and it is not advised as the gorillas we were following were a wild group and the direct contact could be dangerous. We decided to follow it anyway with precaution as it was the only chance we had to follow their tracks back to where they came from in order to reach their fresh nests. After a while we fell in the tracks and follow them about 1 hour and suddenly we reached the fresh nests. We were very happy to find the nests, but when we started counting the nests, we found 9 instead of 4 nests of gorilla group we were following. We realized that we have found a new group.

We counted anyway as we had a chance of falling on new and fresh nests. I removed my raincoat to avoid contaminating the sample as the rain water would fall in the sampling tubes. I started to do the fecal sampling carefully following the given protocol while others were measuring the diameter of dungs. After 1 hour we were done with sampling. We found 13 gorillas including 4 infants as they had slept with their mothers in the same nest.


We did not find again gorillas, but instead we found old nests of almost over 1 week ago but we hope to find them tomorrow or in coming days as it was our main mission and we started to be impatient.

I have a great group as we get along very well and the way we take decision is a great one as it helped us very much in finishing our work.


We left the camp at 8:30 a.m. After 1 hour, we reached the river we have crossed yesterday. The other managed to cross using a small log which is crossing the river, but I decided to step in the river given that the log was fragile and shaking and I was a bit heavier and I thought it would break and I could not maintain the equilibrium on that log. When I stepped in the river, the water level was reaching on my knees and my gum boots were full of water and I had to remove them to remove water and dry a bit my socks. We reached the last point we had planned at 3. p.m, ate our lunch and quickly headed back to the way back to the camp as time was rushing. We reached the camp at 6. p.m.

We encountered neither gorillas nor their fresh trails. What we found was old nest sites old of over one week and we hope that we will find them in other sectors we will be working in coming days. We did not use much energy; we walked slowly and we were having funny conversations as we proceeded and that helped us to tighten the team bonds and working spirit. On the other hand it was a way of managing the team energy as we will not have a rest day for each team members as others do since we are now 4 instead of 5 members as the other team member left because he had knee problem and we miss him.


Today I saw for the first time the red-tailed monkey (Cercopithecus ascanius). We saw about 12 individuals. They are very cute and very social by the way moms were handling babies, but they very shy as they ran away when they saw us. It was a great experience.


Our job of today consisted of covering South-western 4 boxes as we were expected to shift the camp to ITANWA tomorrow. We planned to do work with remaining 3 northern boxes tomorrow before shifting the camp. We had worked about 3 hours when we started hearing some sounds in the down valley. First, we expected that they were of gorilla mating or fighting. We stopped about 5 minutes to analyze the sounds as the sounds were still coming out. We thought again that it was a gorilla who got trapped in the snare as other members of the group become furious and shouting. We were about to go there, but realized that it was dangerous as gorillas were very aggressive; also we were dealing with wild gorillas. Later, we realized it was not gorillas rather chimpanzees as we didn’t hear the silverback charging or beating his chest or any other aggression behavior. Chimpanzees were fighting probably for food. This was supported by the fact that we encountered many chimps fresh nest on our way. We kept moving and covered the remaining 2 boxes and then headed back to the camp.

I fell down many time during the last days and I am having some pain in my knee and also i am having allergic reaction against the trouser of my rain gears, but I hope I will be fine tomorrow as I don’t want to give up the work I have started.


Today we left the camp at 9 a.m. we had to cover only 2 remaining boxes in the north eastern of sector S. We have a new member in the team who came to replace the other one who had knee problem. He came to reinforce the team spirit and it will allow one team member to have a day off as it was not possible to send a team of only 3 members in the forest in case one would have taken a day off. We walked 30 minutes when we reached a furious river with strong current as it had rained the whole last night and it was impossible to step in the river. We cut one long tree and when it fell, it reached the other side of the river and we started crossing the river. When it came my turn, I got on the log and cross the river as riding the horse pulling my bottoms towards the other side of the river and it was not quite easy as the water current was pulling my legs which were completely in the water After reaching the other side of the river, we started hiking a very big and steep hill and we thought we would not finish it but fortunately after 30 minutes we were on the top and rest a bit as we were exhausted and then after we kept moving.

On our recce trail we found many snares as the area we were in was near the community land and we took time to destroy them. We reached the end point of our recce trail at 12:15 a.m, ate our lunch and then headed back to the camp using the same trail we had used coming. Suddenly, it started raining as usual but we kept moving though it was difficult as the whole place was slippery and my knee was very hurting mainly when hiking the hill. We reached the camp at 3.p.m and started to organize our stuff as we will shift the camp tomorrow.


Today was the day for shifting the camp from KASINGA to ITAMA. Kasinga camp was the ugly camp you could imagine. There was very much mud everywhere and tents were built on a hill with a little slope. Getting sleep was quite difficult as we kept slipping on mats and found ourselves at the down part of the tent and even in the morning all the body was hurting. Shifting the camp was relieving somehow. However we managed it as it was strategically, the best place to camp considering the sectors we were working in and it was near the river.

We are now satisfied with the works done as the new tents are built on flat place and we can now sleep safely for the 4 remaining days. We had our dinner at 7:30 p.m; talk a bit before going to bed. Tomorrow will be a hard day as we have a big area to cover before we get replaced by other teams this Saturday.


Today we woke up at 7 a.m and had the breakfast and start to plan with another team as we will be working in the same sector. After getting an agreement we left the camp. My team was to work in the eastern part of sector BB and another team in the western part. The part we had to cover was very big (7 boxes) and we thought we will not finish it on time. We were walking as faster as we could to avoid spending the night in the forest. We reached the end point at 1:15 p.m, had our lunch then headed back to the camp using a recce trail we had established from the south eastern to north eastern. On our way back to the camp, we encountered a trail which was confusing. First we thought it was for gorillas but as we were not very sure, we checked very well and we found later that it was for chimpanzees as they were feeding on ants since they were excavating in the tree roots in search of ants. I wish I could be there and watch them doing this. Chimps are very good at handling tools. They use small sticks to remove ants from the holes and eat them. This shows a high degree in evolution among other primate species. We kept moving until we reached the camp at 6 p.m.


Today we left the camp a bit late at 9 a.m. My team and the other had to cover the remaining part of sector BB. We went in the same way until we separate after 500 meters. We took the northern part and the other team took the southern part where they expected to meet the gorillas tracks as they had found something like tracks yesterday on their way back to the camp. We had moved 500 meters, when my trousers (rain gear) started to burn me again, but this time it was serious and very painful. I tried to endure and walk other 500 m when I felt I could not go far. I decided to remove the trousers and stay with a short. It was a bit funny to walk in the impenetrable forest with short at the point that my colleagues started laughing at me saying that it was like I wa going to the beach!!!! I was a dangerous risk to take as I could have been bitten by a poisonous snake other get injured by thorns, but the way I was feeling the pain, I could not walk anymore.

No gorillas were found today. Tomorrow is the last day of our stay and we will have a hard work as we will be covering the part of sector AA which is hilly.


Today was our last day of the census. We were all excited to finish the day and the idea of going back home as we need some rest after 14 days of a hard work in the forest. My team had to work in the difficult area of sector AA as the other team had worked in difficult areas during the last 2 days. The area we were working in is a small southern part of sector AA and we had to finish it since other teams to replace our teams will have to work in the all northern part.

We left the camp at 8:30 a.m. After 30 minutes of walk, we reached a big river, but according to the map we were not supposed t cross it. We argued a bit as the compass bearing showed us to cross it, but finally we decided to walk along the river bank and deviate a bit in the south after 1 hour of walk. When we reached almost in the middle of the journey, I started to feel strong pain in the muscles beneath the right knee, but I tried to ignore it as I thought it was a temporal pain and we had we had a long way ahead us till to the camp. We walked 1 km, when the pain started to increase mainly when we were hiking hills as the area we were working in was full of sloppy hills. We stopped a bit and my team mates helped me doing some massage with a pain reliever.

After that, we kept moving but unfortunately, the pain refused to disappear. I had no other choice, so I kept moving with other trying to keep up with other though I was trying to endure the pain and I told them to keep on the same speed and that I would tell them to slow down when I fell badly. I didn’t want to be some kind of luggage to them. We kept moving and after 2 hours, we hit the main big trail going to the camp. I felt happy to be back again and my hope to get back to the camp safely come again even if I could get back to the camp using my bottom, I was relieved that I would get there anyway. We reached the camp at 5 p.m, had a bath, after the dinner and started to make reports on maps, drawing the all the trails we have used during the whole 14 days and arranging datasheets.

I was very happy that I finished the work and it was well done. However, I felt sad I haven’t seen any gorilla with my eyes to compare with all experience I had with mountain gorillas from PNV as I have told that they are a bit different. Another thing is that we didn’t find many gorilla nest as the objective of the census, but I hope that the middle teams found many as all old nest found were pointing that gorillas were heading in that area.

This census was very beneficial and very instructive and has provided me with some professional experience, mainly using the compass, GPS and maps to find the orientation in the forest. I say sometimes that if I find myself in the middle of Amazon forest with the compass, GPS and the map, I can manage to find my direction out of the forest. For that I am very grateful to Dr Basabose for the initiation. Team working spirit and leadership qualities have been fostered during this census as I was leading the team and took some decisions in hard circumstances which produced good outcomes.

I hope that the results of this census will find an increase in the gorilla population of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. To prove the hard effort invested in the conservation of this charismatic primate species during the last 5 years.

The International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) currently consists of Conservation International, Fauna & Flora International and the World Wide Fund for Nature. We recognise that the earth's survival is dependent on humanity's ability to maintain a healthy and balanced environment that includes all species of wildlife.