Gorillas in Uganda: “Landscape Architects” of the White Nile River Headwaters

NWNL is excited to share ranger-guide Gad Kanyangyeyo’s photo of a 1-day old gorilla sent to NWNL this week, confirming Wildlife Conservation Society’s news six months ago that Bwindi Impenetrable NP’s gorilla population has grown by 33% since 2006.

Uganda, Nile River Basin, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, gorilla trek, baby gorilla with mother, photo by Gad Kanyangyeyo
Uganda, Nile River Basin, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, one-day-old baby gorilla with mother, photo by Gad Kanyangyeyo

This 25,000-year-old montane rainforest, with elevations from 3800 to 5553 feet, is in southwest Uganda’s western edge of the Great Rift Valley.   One of the most biologically diverse areas on Earth, this forest is a faucet for the White Nile River Basin and also supplies 80% of the water supply of the contiguous country of Rwanda.  Worldwide, Bwindi is renowned for having more than half of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas.

In 2010 Gad led our gorilla trek in this UNESCO World Heritage Site. On our 12-hour journey on foot through Bwindi’s 128-sq-miles of thick jungle and steep ravines, he explained that it is the presence of the gorillas as a human tourist attraction that has saved these forests of over 160 species of trees from becoming fields for crops.  Eons ago the forest apparently covered much of western Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and eastern Congo, but now it is only a small oasis in a dense rural area with more than 350 people per square kilometer.  Fortunately, because the endangered gorillas bring tourism dollars, Bwindi was set aside as a National Park in 1991.  Supported by collective efforts of Ugandan park staff, Bwindi’s surrounding communities such as Gad’s, local government and NGOs, the gorillas have become the conservation heroes of this source of White Nile waters, often called “The Place of Darkness.”

(Click on these photos to enlarge.)

Gad showed us how the gorillas are also the landscape architects of Bwindi, pointing out clumps of vines and branches where every night each troupe of gorillas tear down more vegetation for their families’ new overnight nests.  The gorillas’ daily opening up space in the forest’s canopy encourages the new growth that keeps Bwindi’s forest healthy.  Comparing this watershed with other NWNL case-study watersheds, the gorillas’ role in saving this dripping sponge of a forest is similar to the wolves’ role in Yellowstone in stopping elk from browsing riverine vegetation – and the rhinos’ and elephants’ roles in maintaining the savannas of the Mara River Basin.

No gorillas – no forest – no water – no life!

Uganda, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, walk to Munyaga Falls, ranger-guide Gad Kanyangyeyo and Alison M. Jones with WINGS flag
Uganda, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, walk to Munyaga Falls, ranger-guide Gad Kanyangyeyo and Alison M. Jones with WINGS expedition flag (fiscal sponsor for NWNL)

A passionate conservationist, Gad heard the NWNL story and mission and asked to be a Ugandan representative for NWNL as he involves community neighbors in conservation. What a great NWNL partner!   He is exuberant about the great diversity of flora and fauna that make this primeval montane forest a perennial faucet for the Albertine Nile.  He taught us that ferns, underfoot each step in Bwindi, were among the first pioneer flora on earth.  He identified cabbage trees (Anthocleista grandiflora) and pointed out the red cherry-like fruit and yellow-latex bark of  Symphonia globuliferae in the canopy.

Having now been a Bwindi ranger for 16 years, Gad wrote us that his passion for sharing and conserving this rainforest and its flora and fauna stems from his childhood experiences in this forest.  He outlined his story for NWNL to share:

When I was young, I used to travel with my older brothers, crisscrossing the forest of Bwindi – before it was protected as a national park (1991).   While smuggling goats, coffee and cows across the borders of Congo and Uganda, I learned the beauty of the forest.  In the forest, there was also gold mining and logging of timber.  We used to walk through the forest on logging roads carrying timber, which we put on the main road.  With that all experience, I loved the nature.  I was very much enjoying the forest.

These experiences were good enough to prepare me for my job now. Tourism here began in 1993; and since 1996 I have been working with the mountain gorillas under the Uganda Wildlife Authority.  I have received conservation training and have been working with the mountain gorillas of Uganda for 13 years.  I am now a conservation educator in Uganda because I like very much both plants and animals.  I educate visitors who come to see the gorillas and educate the local people about conservation.

(Click on these photos to enlarge.)

And this is the Bwindi legend Gad learned from childhood in the local Mukiga community:

The park is called Bwindi.  Bwindi is one of the richest forests in East Africa.  There are 150 bird species, 310 butterfly species, 324 tree species and 120 animal species.  Bwindi also has almost half of the world’s critically endangered mountain gorillas.

But what is Bwindi generally?  Bwindi is a dense forest with a very interesting name that originated from a very beautiful lady.  Many years ago, people used to migrate from the south to the north of Uganda.  A family was crossing the forest.  They reached a big swamp and they weren’t able to cross it.  They spent two days waiting until a spirit told them to sacrifice one of their beautiful ladies.  Their beautiful lady was called BWINDI BWA NYINA MUKALI.  After the lady was sacrificed, the family got a chance to cross the swamp.  The tale about the sacrifice was spread all over the area about the NYINA MUKALI lady.  From that date the forest is called Bwindi.

NWNL thanks Gad for sharing his passionate love of plants and animals and stepping forward to become one of Uganda’s conservation educators working with the mountain gorillas of Uganda and the White Nile River Basin.

Read NWNL’s 2010 post from Bwindi and the rest of NWNL Uganda/White Nile Expedition blogs.

Honoring MOTHER EARTH – Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

A landscape of waste.
A landscape of waste.

April 22 is Earth Day:
The Ultimate Mother’s Day.

On the first Earth Day in 1970, Mother Earth had 3.7 billion children. Now we are 7 billion. Our thirst, appetites, wants and waste have doubled. Technology and conservation mitigate our collective footprint, but it’s not enough. To protect our global resources, we must address population growth.

• We’ve lost 50% of the planet’s original forest cover (which absorbs CO2 and retains water), mostly in the last 30 years.
• Agriculture consumes 75% of fresh water used.
• The grain in the ethanol that fills 1 SUV tank would feed 1 person for a year!
• If other nations consumed resources at U.S. rates, we’d need 6 planets to meet such a demand.

Consumption of our natural resources.
Consumption of our natural resources.

THE REALITY  More people will create a lack of water, rising food prices and high unemployment, all of which beget poverty, resource competition and social unrest.
No Water – No Food – No Peace.  We’re all hearing that the big issue is water.
But the big solution is to curb population growth.

WHERE TO BEGIN   Reduce your water footprint and material consumption.

THEN…  Let’s empower women so they can be part of deciding whether to have children, how many and when. All women deserve education, a voice and options. (There are many responsible forms of family planning other than forced sterility or abortion.) In almost all countries, the desired family size is lower than the actual family size; and almost 40% of U.S. pregnancies are unintended. *Per a 2012 U.S. CDC Report – www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhsr/nhsr055.pdf

Urban sprawl.
Urban sprawl.

WHAT TO THINK ABOUT  The majority of the world’s population today is under 28 years old, either at or near reproductive age. By 2050 these young people will increase global population to either 8 billion or a devastating 10.5 billion. What guidance do we give them? Family planning, if available, could reduce global population growth and consumption by almost a third.

the river as reminder…

Canada: British Columbia, Kootenay Rockies, Columbia River Basin, Kootenay National Park, Kootenay River

Flowing rivers always remind me to keep things moving. The speed and force aren’t as important as to just keep moving ahead. ~George Winston, American Pianist

Africa’s desert “fairy rings” become a story of water and life

Fairy circles in Namibia.
Fairy circles in Namibia.

New research explains that sand termites (Psammotermes allocerus) are the engineers of fairy circles which stipple deserts thru Angola, Namibia into South Africa. These circles can grow to up to 40 feet across. For years, the origins of these circular, barren areas have baffled scientists and visiting tourists. The local Himba tribal people believe that they are footprints of their god,”Mukuru.” Others blame a mythical dragon’s poisonous breath for killing these circles of vegetation.

Taking some of the fun out of this up-til-now-unsolved mystery, a German scientist has just claimed that this clandestine and underground species of termites munch at grass roots, clearing patches of vegetation. Thus the soil becomes more porous and better able to absorb and retain the regions much needed rainfall.  In what has become a fascinating NWNL / Sherlock Holmes-type of investigation, scientists now think the water collects underground nourishing surrounding perennial grasses, forming a ring and providing food for the termites as well as attracting other organisms.

According to this current wild desert theory, termites turn “predominantly ephemeral life into landscapes dominated by species-rich perennial grassland,” an example of fauna allowing flora to absorb water even in the most arid, drought conditions. (See recent articles on this in National Geographic and The NY Times.)

This scientific explanation of the “fairy ring’s” phenomenon is one of nature’s most extreme examples of  “no water – no life” – and perhaps even more intriguing than ancient tribal explanations about a dragon’s breath.

Namibia: Kaokoland, Himba Tribe woman weaving w/ children