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

April 26, 2013

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.

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