Uganda Travel News

Twice she was able to climb a Hagenia tree and watch as the buffalo stood for an interminably long time starting in her direction before finally slipping away. Others have not been so fortunate and Karisoke guides and researchers have been injured by irate buffalo. The rich wet meadows that occupy all saddle areas may help explain why this savanna denizen is so plentiful in the high elevation Virunga rain forest. What is certain is that the presence of Cape buffalo adds an element of excitement to any walk through the woods.

One morning around seven, Amy returned almost breathless to camp. And he had just run all the way back from first hill, where she had left group 5 late on the previous day. Instead of picking up a fresh gorilla trail, however, she entered a vast tangle of uprooted and twisted vegetation that covered the entire eastern flank of the small crater. Elephants! Looking around, Amy soon detected a trunk waving like an entranced cobra over some small nearby trees. Next a solitary eye appeared. Then a swishing tail. After months of seeing only their sign, Amy was surrounded by live elephants. She ran to share the news with bill, which had stayed behind to work in camp. Together we ran back up the hill. We saw no elephants but young trees cracked around us. Finally another trunk appeared above some tall shrubs and we realized that we were now upwind of this alfactory periscope. The forest turned silent for a few minutes and we decided to seek higher ground. Just as we arrived on a slight knoll, all hell broke loose thirty seven individuals and even remembered to snap a dozen pictures. The photos showed a line of smallish heads, ears and tusks that resembled those of the low land forest elephant. Later analyses would indicate that the Virunga elephant was possibly an intermediary between the forest and savanna races. At the time, we were rewarded with a kaleidoscope of fast –moving body parts and what felt like an earth quake as the herd rumbled past. And an indelible memory.

Despite the wide spread presence of Cape buffalo, not to mention elephants and leopards, our only injuries in the Virunga came from falls in the difficult habitat and on two exceptional occasions from the gorillas themselves. The first of these injuries occurred when Amy found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time. On the Southside of first Hill, late one afternoon, Beethoven cough grunted and rushed to displace Effie at a juicy black berry bush. Amy had been sitting by Effie taking notes and was shoved aside by the on rushing Beethoven. The push itself was harmless, but her foot was wedged against the base of a tree stump and her knee twisted as she fell awkwardly to the side. The contest was typically brief, with a few screams and perhaps a bite before Effie fled the scene. Amy rose unsteadily to her feet, and then felt a sharp pain when she placed any weight on her right leg. So she cyst a young hypericum to make a staff and hobbled slowly back to camp. As night fell, Bill set out to search for her, only to find her as she approached camp stream. Fortunately the knee healed quickly and Amy was back with the group in a few days.

AMY’S TIME WITH GROUP 5 also provided greater insights into gorilla behavior and group dynamics, especially the importance of learning. Gorilla mothers nurse their young for at least three years. During the first six months, the infants depend almost entirely on the natural richness of maternal m ilk. But even before they eat solid food, Amy noted, infants receive their first maternal lessons in what to eat from the Virunga smorgasbord. Clinging to their mother’s hair, gorilla’s babies not only see what their mother is eating but also are covered with a steady rain of edible remains. Mouthing these morsels without swallowing gives a first taste of what lays beyond their mother’s breasts. By the age of six months, most babies begin to experiment with solid foods. Mothers still provide their primary instruction in what is edible and even more important in a world with its share of poisonous plants what is not, by confiscating in appropriate items. Still social influence from others is strong at an early age. If Muraha saw Pablo or puck chewing on a piece of decomposing wood, the same type of item was likely to end up in her mouth, too. Amy’s research showed that young infants were the most likely to imitate the eating habits of those around them.

Learning is the foundation for the mountain gorilla’s intimate knowledge of their complex habitat. The home range of group 5 covered five square miles with an altitudinal range of more than four thousand feet. Sectors of two major volcanoes, several smaller cones, dozens of ravines, two large streams, a broad saddle region and an extended edge of contact with human settlements made up this range. Each of its distinctive characteristics had to be learned. Beethovens beelines to the clay cave and subalpine food sources were almost certainly part of a mental map, committed to memory as he followed his father through the forest many years before. So ,too, were his pin point approaches to Bonde ya Daraja, or bridge ravine, where the groups would cross in stately procession across a fallen Hagenia tree (while we usually took the low road about twenty feet below).Beethoven generally led on longer treks between two points, yet adult females seemed to have equally detailed knowledge of where to locate food once they were at a particular site. ZIz, Puck, Tuck, Pablo, Poppy, Shinda, and Murara were certainly storing all this information for the benefit of the next generation as they otherwise ate and played their way through their youthful years.

BY MAY OF 1979, Amy had finished several months more than her goal period of vegetation sampling. Knowledge of what the gorillas selected and rejected from the forests bounty would make sense only in comparison with an assessment of overall food resource distribution and abundance. This information would come from thirty sample plots 250 meter by 250 meter quadrangles that Amy had evenly located across group 5’s home range. Working together, we could complete an assessment of one quad in five or six hours plus walking time to and from the site. The almost thirty days we spent on vegetation sampling provided a rare opportunity to spend time together in the field after fifteen months of demanding parallel work schedules. It allowed us to revisit many places and rekindle memories from earlier time with the gorillas. It was also work that neither of us has ever felt any desire to do again.

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