Uganda Wildlife Education Center - Entebbe, Uganda.
Enrichment for the animals at the zoo: I’ve received some witty little remarks on what this might mean … picking pockets and such. But no, enrichment is activities for the animals outside of their normal day-to-day lives that will challenge their sense of curiosity and intelligence and lend some playfulness to their lives. With such a small budget as the UWEC has, this is typically the first thing to be discarded from the budget when funds don’t meet the requests of each department (i.e. chimps, mammals, birds, hoofstock, etc.). If you subscribe to my blog (button on right) you’ve heard about some of the extremely low-budget methods we’ve used for the chimps. The keepers care about the intellectual health of the animals, but the funds simply don’t exist.
With the kind donations I’ve received from readers to support the UWEC, one of the things I bought was some clothes for the chimpanzees. It’s known that primates in zoos/centers are entertained by this material. Steph, the other American volunteer, and I went to market and bought some used clothes. The vending ladies of course were trying to pick out outfits to our size, but we had to explain we were buying clothes for someone else who was very large … we felt a little bad that the ladies were going to the trouble to match shirts with the skirts, but we didn’t have the heart to tell them not to bother, that we were giving them to a bunch of chimpanzees. … So the chimps have some nice matching outfits to play with.
The introduction of the clothing was a particular hit with the two youngest chimps, Nepa and Onapa. My two favorites, as it happens. (Matoke, the alpha male, is also a fav.) They had a blast playing with them, and later other chimps took up the clothes. But Onapa in particular was quite hysterical to watch. We were in stitches over his antics. You know when you’re extremely stressed or sad or anxious and can’t deal well with things, you go to your “happy place …” well, my new happy place is remembering Onapa and his skirt. Some photos below, but it’s hard to capture the energy and vibrant curiosity. Onapa is such a character anyway. He loves to put the clothes over his face and then walk around. I don’t know if he can see through the clothing or not, or if he likes to be blind as he feels the world around.
So the clothes were a hit; I plan to buy some more to keep in the chimp house for the zookeepers to hand out occasionally over time, when the current ones finally get destroyed. There are still recognizable remnants now, a little over 2 weeks later.
I’ve returned (to the UWEC) from traveling around the country a bit, and yesterday I went to watch the chimps at their afternoon feeding. They were particularly rambunctious, as if putting on a show just for me. The other 2 keepers and I were just laughing and laughing. My heart was swelling with affection for these guys. What will I do without my daily dose of chimpanzee? Enjoy some shots from the clothing introduction.
Time to discuss this in committee.
After surviving my first public transportation ordeal with Robert to get to Fort Portal, I signed on to a couple of private full-day tours of the area. Very reasonably priced for a guide all to myself.
While hiking through the hills and banana fields in the “crater lakes” area near Fort Portal, my guide, Cletus, explained to me about the banana fields, which feel more like banana forests. In this area the locals grow very miniature bananas, different than the kind one eats. They use them to make a liquor with. After picking them while still green, the locals ripen them by steaming them over a smoldering fire covered in banana leaves. Then they mash them and add sorghum to ferment into the final product. I believe I tasted this or something very similar at the SAB brewery in South Africa, where they let us experience the traditional liquor; it smelled quite wretched but was surprisingly palatable … if one were terribly desperate. So my guide took me inside the house of someone who happened to be in his yard and was brewing this liquor. There were several drums of this stuff fermenting inside a mud hut, and it smelled exactly like the stuff in SAB. It was a purple chunky brew, bubbling away in some scavenged metal drums, which were uncovered -- to let the swarming flies add a little protein, I guess. The smell was very strong. My guide said that when a man comes to bring the bride price for a bride in this region, he must include along with livestock and other gifts, several large jerricans full of this liquor. It’s consumed in many traditional celebrations. Another day when I had a different guide, I asked him if he ever drank that liquor. He said yes, but it’s very strong, so he doesn’t drink much. “Do you like the flavor?” I asked. He shook his head and laughed. “No!”
Robert told me about some of the customs of his tribe, and a baby naming ceremony involves the simple act of dropping 3 drops of this liquor into the baby’s mouth then proclaim the name. Then all the villagers gathered around to drink themselves a party. A right of passage into manhood is also quite simple: a boy must carry a huge clay pot of the liquor to his father, who is seated some distance away from the “starting point,” and give him a drink, then carry the pot back. If you drop it then you are basically ridiculed, perhaps you will have another opportunity in the future.
A couple other random cultural components of his tribe: If a women gets pregnant out of wedlock, their custom is that this child is given to the grandparents to raise. My friend was raised according to this prescribed custom by an assortment of family members. His parents, who were married after he was conceived, were allowed to bring him up in infancy until the age of 5, but then he was given to his grandparents to raise, then circumstances gave him to an aunt and uncle for a few years, then he came back to his grandparents. A bit of a jumbled childhood. The prescription for two people being caught in the act of incest is for the villagers to lock them inside a thatched hut, pile grass all around it, light it on fire, then stand outside with canes to give the a beating when they finally run outside to escape the flames -- out of the fire and into the frying pan.
But anyway ... these banana forests lie in a region called the Crater Lakes, outside of Fort Portal. A series of lakes have filled in volcanic craters (hence the reasonable name of the region). The first photo below is the lake depicted on the 20 schilling note in Uganda. You can recognize the tall tree on the lower right on the bill. It's a very scenic area.
While Cletus and I were walking through the fields in a valley, where they were growing Irish potatoes and peanuts and onions, we came across a small flock of gray crowned cranes! I couldn't believe it, this amazing bird just hangs out in the village fields. I had presumed they existed only in national parks now. But here they were free as a ... well, a bird.
Look closely at the boat above, if you didn't notice what an ingenious little bodge-job it is. A wooden box on the metal canisters to make a pontoon boat. People around here are perpetually inventive with their limited resources.
My day with Cletus through the crater lakes and banana fields also included a hike to a nice waterfall. It was a lovely day, all in all, though (a) I was a bit ill to my stomach, and (b) while Cletus was a nice guy, he asked me every few minutes if I was OK ... "how are you?" "are you good?" "are you OK?" ... and by the end of the day I just couldn't answer him anymore. He wasn't asking this on account of my illness because I didn't tell him I was sick; he was just asking to ask. Amusing, but eventually tiresome. But a minor point in an otherwise awesome day.
Uganda Wildlife Education Center - Entebbe, Uganda.
So what all goes on at the UWEC? Here's a little tour around some of the activities.
Collecting grass from around the UWEC grounds to feed to some of the hoofed animals in various enclosures. Cutting up tons of fruits and veges for the critters and then delivering. Food and grass are put in the back of the tractor to make the rounds to the giraffes and ostriches who also share their space with eland and cow. First the giraffes emerge from the forest to follow the tractor. Then the ostriches come running in. The cow tries to nibble off the back of the tractor as we drive in. The giraffe is so gentle I can put beans in my mouth and he'll just pull them right out with his. Closest thing to kissing a giraffe.
This is me showing my impressive strength (ha) in hoisting up a bundle of grass with a pulley. Other critters to visit in the morning include the water buck. A young one currently in residence. Also the rhino. (this photos shows him just after we've let him back into his night enclosure as dusk).
If we've run out of fish to feed birds, we can throw a net into the moat around the chimp island and catch some. Once we caught a fish and when he looked in its mouth, the mouth was completely full of teensy-weensy baby fish. I'd never seen anything like that. We threw the mom back in the water. A variety of life lives in those waters, including the monitor lizard.
After the animals are fed, it's time to feed me. There is where I sit at the shore of Lake Victoria, my view as I eat, and the kitty who sits in my lap while I wait for food and then of course begs for food while I eat. He is being adopted by the other American volunteer; she completed shots and paperwork to take him home with her when she returns. After eating, I am all big and strong and read to slice and dice yet more food. ha ha. And also strong enough to shoo away the vervets that constantly try to steal my breakfast off my plate.
On the late shift, at about 6pm, the chimps are brought inside and fed some more porridge. As well, the big cats get a serving of raw meet and are put in their night enclosures.
Above, that's me laughing at the willpower I'm exerting not to step back and be intimidated by the lion, feeding her an appetizer as a distraction while the others are being let into their nighttime enclosures where they will eat their dinners. Each sleeps in a separate cage.
Shara eats dinner and goes to bed. Right now she has run out of time on the internet and must leave. So I end my day here.
Budongo National Forest, Uganda.
As with all animals one typically only spies at a zoo, it’s a different and more rewarding experience to find them in the wild in their natural habitat, the only real human impact on their behavior being their acquired indifference to us (such as one finds at any Big 5 game park in Africa). So despite working with chimpanzees everyday at the UWEC, it was a rewarding experience to track them in the Budongo reserve. Simply walking through the forest in Budongo is pleasant enough with its lush rainforest ecosystem, in which, it seems to me, thrive perhaps the most layers of various forms of life on the planet. That is to say, given say a square meter of forest floor, extended up to include the space above the floor, is the highest number of different species of plant and animal compared to the same space in another ecosystem. There is something quite marvelous about rain forests.
It didn’t take long for our guide to spot our first chimp high up in the trees. He pointed it out and it was easy enough to spot the dark mass. He told us it was a female with a small baby. I was slightly astounded at his perception, as I truly could discern only the dark lump. But after staring through the camera zoom lens for a few moments, sure enough, out popped a tiny head over the mom’s shoulder. Too tiny to capture in a photo, yet I was quite happy to have simply perceived it. I took a few photos of the dark lump in the trees, not knowing whether or not it would be the best view I would have of the chimps. For all I knew, this was going to be the look of my photo shoot with wild chimpanzees:
After standing quietly for a short while, I watched the tiny head disappear. Again, I wondered if that would be my moment of glory, that tiny head in a sky full of leaves. But soon enough, a little body leaped from the mother and wobbled down a tree branch. Soon, a precious little face peered down at us through the forest canopy.
Now my brief moment of glory was infinitely sweeter. Soon, our guide was spotting chimpanzee after chimpanzee, and we moved around a small area on the forest floor to spy above us what eventually counted as, I believe, 4 adult females and 7 infants and toddlers. My neck’s ability to remain tilted backward was severely tested as was the strength of my arm perpetually holding up my camera to look through the lens, finger on the button, ready to snap a shot anytime a face or body came into reasonable view. I know, I have a very small camera and lens; still, after an hour of this, it does become a bit of a trial.
We were able to watch the toddlers romp around through the tree branches, high above our heads, already exhibiting complete competency in balance and swinging skills as they chased one another down one tree limb, flew across open space to a neighboring tree’s limb, and continued pursuit across its woody arms.
Hard to describe the full impact on my emotions, on my personal view of where I came from in this ancient world, so I will leave the experience simply at this: Lovely.
Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda.
So this discussion has pretty much no relation to the animals we encountered on our game drive in Murchison Falls NP. But it’s what we talked about and I thought you might find it interesting, as I did. As far as the animals we encountered, most at very close range, the thrill hasn’t remotely left me after my experiences in South Africa. And a great triumph occurred, which is that I saw two leopards in a tree together. This was the one iconic animal I had very much wished to see in South Africa and did not. I felt very happy over this. They were quite far away and usually visible only in patches owing to the leaves of the tree branches on which they were residing. So my photos are hardly worth publishing here. Still, I was overjoyed to have seen them. Here is a brief recounting of some of the scenery and animals we met on our drive.