Monday, July 23, 2012

Nyungwe National Park

I spent the last week in the most diverse portion of Africa, in terms of flora and fauna. Nyungwe National Park, Rwanda is an afro-alpine jungle sitting at 7,500-9,000 feet elevation atop a mosaic of steep hills and mountains. Nyungwe is a part of the Albertine Rift and is one of the most well preserved forests in the world. It contains 13 species of primate, including chimpanzees, which accounts for 25% of all African primates. Additionally, Nyungwe is the forest where the Nile River begins. When I arrived, I had no idea how rich the jungle would be or how intriguing. It is an incredible place, a rare jewel in the center of Africa.

We stayed at the Kitabi College of Conservation in a guesthouse right at the edge of the forest. What a beautiful place. The row of houses sits on the crest of a hill terraced by bright green tea fields. The landscape beyond reveals a montage of majestic hills covered in dense jungle and shrouded by a thin blue mist. I counted 14 rows of hills that I could see from that hilltop.

Each day at Nyungwe was a different experience. Our first day there, we drove the steep and curvy road to the Uwinka Ranger Station. We tucked our pants into our socks due to danger of army ants and set out into the forest. Two guides led us down a precipitous dirt path through the jungle to a canopy walk 70 meters above the forest floor. The canopy walk is an aluminum structure composed of three different bridges about 1 foot wide stretched between 2 tall towers. We walked slowly along the walkway—a serious adrenaline rush looking down through the holes in the floor and seeing how far up we were. As we walked, the bridge began to shiver and dip with our weight. We stopped in the middle and you could see across the forest to the hills beyond. A spectacular view of a unique paradise untouched by humans. It looked so peaceful and so unknown. On our way back up the massive hill, we came across a troop of blue monkeys!

The canopy walk

For our second day in the forest, we trekked the largest troop of Black and White Colobus Monkeys in the world—a group of monkeys numbering more than 450 individuals! We bounced along on a dirt path in our truck for almost half an hour until the ranger who was with us told our driver to stop. I put on my binos and whipped out my little blue field journal. When I stepped out of the car, everyone was quiet. Someone nudged me and I looked straight up into the eucalyptus tree canopy. Balls of black and white fur stared down at us from every direction. We didn’t even have to chop through the jungle to reach the monkeys! It was surreal—hundreds of monkeys leaping through the trees with little regard to the group of us humans below. I was so excited seeing the monkeys it was hard to concentrate. I had never seen that many primates in one place and one time… They are kind of silly looking with white tufts of hair surrounding their black faces and they have no thumbs so they can swing swiftly through the trees. The babies of the Colobus were so cute with bright white natal coats. We spent two hours with the monkeys collecting data and observing behaviors.

Colobus monkey

After a day of lecture and visiting a cultural village to see how ancient Rwandans lived in the time of kings, we trekked into the jungle to see Grey-Cheeked Mangabeys. It was a six-hour excursion in some of the densest forest I have ever been in. I think we were on a path, although with the jungle encroaching all around us, it didn’t look like one. We tumbled down the steep hills, slipping on the leaf litter layer. It was so steep, you would be walking down and someone 50 meters in front of you would be just 2 meters below you. You had to duck down through the twigs and branches of the forest shrubs and walk sideways down the hill to avoid slipping all the way down. We were all clinging onto roots and trees to steady ourselves. I kept bursting out laughing it was so comical. When we stopped for lunch, it was so steep I couldn’t even sit down, so I ate standing up, bracing myself against a lichen-covered tree. After 3 hours of hiking, we finally found the Mangabeys. They were far up in the tree canopies and we watched the weird little monkeys for some time before marching back through the forest.
The steep hiking slopes of Nyungwe
Gray-cheaked Mangabey

The next day, I SAW WILD CHIMPS!!!!!!! Five of us woke up at 4:00, and you could still see the stars glistening in the dark night sky. After 3 hours of driving to the trailhead, our guide took us out of the car and we tucked our socks into our pants and began to climb. The path was steep. After less than a half hour we saw the chimp trackers. I looked into the trees to the left and saw A CHIMPANZEE. Stunned. Shocked. So excited. An exhilarating rush of adrenaline pulsed through me. The chimp was far off, but you could see his black body ambling through the branches of the tree. The way he moved was oddly human. Farther up the hill, three chimps were in the branches of the tree, feeding on the fig fruits. Not only were there chimps, but there were several Blue Monkeys and L’hoest’s monkeys and a large hornbill partaking in the fig feast. You could hear the loud chimp vocalizations from the rest of the group off in the jungle below. The trackers led us back down the hill, across the base of the hill, and back up the slope. I felt like Jane Goodall, tracking Chimpanzees in Africa and listening to their loud calls. We came to a large fig tree rising 70 meters above the ground. At least 16 chimps were high in the tree canopy. They kept making loud calls, which we were told were calls of excitement telling other chimps about the abundance of figs in the tree. Looking at those chimps was so different than the gorillas. They seemed so intelligent and so cunning it was almost eerie. A couple mothers with their little ones remained in the trees eating the figs while the rest of the family bolted off into the jungle. I wish I could see them again. I really love chimpanzees.  
L'Hoest's Monkey

King, Queen and Guard

Chimp eating figs

A blue monkey

The last two days in the Nyungwe forest were rest days consisting mostly of laundry, catching up on journal entries, and watching movies. Right now, I am in Ruhengeri again at the base of the Virungas. This week will be focused on studying the mountain gorillas and golden monkeys! Additionally, we get to hike to the original Karisoke Research camp on Mount Bisoke where Dian Fossey is buried. What an adventure this is turning out to be!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Akagera National Park

An African sunset

This last week I have spent in the national park Akagera. I don’t think I have the capability to describe everything that happened and how incredible it all was. I was able to be a primatologist in the wild for the first time! What a spectacular feeling. I loved watching the monkeys, I don’t think I could ever get bored of it.

All 11 of us (eight students, two professors, and their son) spent six days camping in the wilderness on top of an escarpment overlooking a lake on the Tanzanian border. Akagera is similar to what you would think of as a “safari” land: acacia woodlands and savanna grasslands. It is a beautiful place. However, when the war hit the park went virtually unmanaged and poached killed many of the animals to local extinction. Currently, park managers are trying to rebuild the park’s ecosystem and tourism industry.
Baboon family

For the majority of the days we were there, we spent hours observing baboons and vervet monkeys. We would wake up early in the morning to a lovely breakfast including an omelet station prepared by the five-star chef we had hired. Then, we would go off to find the primates, seeing buffalo, waterbuck, and bushbuck grazing in the savanna along the way. Sometimes it took us quite some time to find a suitable troop of monkeys to follow and observe without them running away. The easiest groups were those closest to the villages within the park, as they have been habituated to humans. Observing primates in the wild for the first time was perfect. Within the first ten minutes of collecting data on baboons, I knew this is exactly what I want to do with my life. I couldn’t be happier. Both professors taught us so much in Akagera: how to collect demographics, GPS, individual identification, and various methods of data collection. My research theme for the trip is social systems with my partner, Maya. Maya and I decided to study how differing primate socioecology affects male and female relationships. We came up with a data collection system that involved three different methods and we were able to get some good observation time in to start the procedures. I am intrigued to see what results we will get at the end of the 30 days.
A couple of the nights once it was dark out, we would go galago hunting. We would drive slowly through the trees, shining our flashlights on the branches searching for pairs of golden eyes. A couple times we even got out of the vehicle to creep along the road (maybe not the most safe thing to do, but we survived!).

Our last morning in Akagera, we went on a boat ride around the lake. We saw blue monkeys for the first time through the papyrus stand on the lake shore, monitor lizards, and copious bird species. When our boat ride was up, we went to the park headquarters and I touched a little monkey for the first time: a young vervet named Jess! This adventure has been magical so far, and I know there is more to come!

The students

An African sunrise

Topi and Zebra

We spent one afternoon at the lodge pool


Primatologist in training!

Baby vervets playing

On the boat
Petting the vervet!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Primate Studies Field School has finally begun!!!!! Led by Dieter and Netzin Steklis through the University of Arizona, this month-long program is focused on primate research throughout the country of Rwanda. I could not be more impressed with my professors. They both have worked at Karisoke Research Center studying mountain gorillas in Rwanda and with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. I am so excited for this adventure!

The group!
On July 1st, all the students arrived-- 8 young women. While we waited for everyone's flights to arrive, those of us who were here went to an orphanage for street boys in Kigali called Les Enfants de Dieu. When we arrived, the boys congregated in the small dining hall all sat with eager eyes as we introduced ourselves. There are 106 boys currently at the center, all of whom are originally street boys. Whether they lost their family in the genocide or were orphaned from AIDS or simply lost contact with their families, they all have found a new home at Les Enfants De Dieu. The head boy introduced some of the projects that several of the boys are in charge of (e.g.- sports, health, environment, education, etc.). It was wonderful to see that the orphanage is giving leadership opportunities to these kids.

We split into three teams to spend time with the boys: a drawing group, a sports group, and a team for the younger children. I went off with some of the younger boys to play with beach balls and bubbles. These boys had more attitude than the orphanages I have been to before… some wore the backwards hats and bro tanks. They weren’t necessarily spoiled…I just think that the time they spent on the street has made a permanent mark on them. Their energy was extraordinary and they were so eager to interact with us. I opened up the beach balls and within five minutes of them playing with them, they both had popped and were destroyed. The bubbles I had were used up within a similar amount of time. I liked playing with them and talking to some of the ones who spoke better English. It was eye-opening to hear some of the hardships that these young men have been through. I can scarcely imagine. 

Once the rest of the students had arrived by July 2nd, we began the field school with 4.5 hours of lecture at 8:30 AM. First, Dieter and Netzin did a short orientation. We will be here for the whole month of July, travelling around the country in three national parks- Akagera (an open savanna with baboons and vervet monkeys and galagos), Nyungwe (a deep jungle with chimpanzees and many other small monkeys like colobus, mangabey, mona monkeys), and Volcanoes (the Virunga mountains with mountain gorillas and golden monkeys). We are a research team, not a tourist group, they emphasized. Then, all eight of us students presented 20 minute presentations on aspects of Rwandan culture. Our presentations included a short activity as well. I presented on Rwandan crafts and taught the group how to weave pipe-cleaner baskets. Some topics were: Kinyarwandan, Religion, family, women, Volcanoes National Park, Human-wildlife conflict, and geography. Katie had us do a short celebration dance and Maya had us play mancala. The presentations ended up taking a total of 4 and a half hours! Normally I would get bored after that long of class, but I really enjoyed it.

That afternoon, we all piled into a minibus and went to the Genocide Memorial. The Memorial was very well done, and extremely heartbreaking. We saw the massed graves where more than 250,000 bodies or remains of bodies are buried, with more being added every year. There was a wall of names near the tombs, listing thousands who had died in the genocide. The vast majority of the people who were slaughtered are not even listed because no one was left in their family to record their deaths. The interior of the museum mostly documented the entire events of the genocide in detail through words and pictures. It was interesting to read about how it really happened. It was obvious that it had been coming and there were many warning signs, but no one listened. When the president’s plane was shot down in 1994, the country erupted and more than 1 million people were slaughtered in 100 days. Not only that, people who were not brutally killed were raped, mutilated, and tortured. They had walls full of pictures of people who died and cases filled with skulls and bones… The rooms that told the stories of children who died and how they died was the worst. I can never understand why people would murder their own countrymen simply because of racial differences. The upstairs to the museum had memorials to other genocides, such as Armenia, Cambodia, the Holocaust, the Balkans, and many more. I was completely floored by how recurrent genocides have been over the past century and about how little we hear of them in school. 

The Hotel Des Mille Collines (Hotel Rwanda)
After the Memorial, we went to the Milles Collines-- the hotel that is the subject of the film Hotel Rwanda. Dieter and Netzin told us all stories about their experience with the genocide (they had been studying gorillas at the time). It was intriguing to hear an inside perspective. What a moving day!

On July 3rd, we had another morning filled with lecture. Each of us again had prepared 15 minute presentations on one of the primates we will encounter in the country. I presented on the galagos, or bushbabies. How exhilarating to know we may see and study 12 different species during our time here!!! That afternoon, we went to a craft market to shop and then a cloth market later in the evening. The city was bustling at night. 

Today, we are traveling to Akagera National Park to begin our research. We will be camping in the park for 6 days and studying baboons and vervet monkeys during the day, and galagos at night. I could not be more excited!