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  Newsletter   read news and views from the forest online
May 2000 (Volume Three, Number One)
Read about the latest scientific studies at the Budongo Forest Project.
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Learning from the past, looking towards the future - Vernon Reynolds
Impressions from Budongo - Harriet Bennett
Feeding skills and the effect of injury - Emma Stokes
Interpratations from the Nyabyeya trading centre - Mikala Lauridsen
Events in the lives of the sonso community - Vernon Reynolds

Learning from the past, looking towards the future

by Vernon Reynolds

As we approach our 10th anniversary (in September 2000) now seems a good moment to review some of our achievements at Budongo and look forward to the next decade. I like to feel our project has now established itself as a focal point for high-quality research in the forestry and forest ecology sectors in Uganda. So, when the Forestry Faculty of Makerere University agreed to accept us as its de facto field station in 1999, that was a great moment, a defining one in every sense—for now we know who we belong to and what our future role is in Uganda.

We are first and foremost a university field station. Therefore, our primary roles must be twofold: education and research. We have already achieved much of the latter, but we must now sharpen up on the former. With the move of the Nyabyeya Forestry College (NFC) into the Ministry of Education we can now offer teaching to NFC as well as to our Makerere students, who continue to come to Budongo at the rate of two to four each year.

We must now address the question: how should the BFP educate the students who come our way? We have no teaching staff as such; we are not a University Department. What do we have to offer? Let me make a few suggestions.

First, we have a superb field site in the middle of Uganda's finest natural high forest. That means easy access to the trees, shrubs, herbs,climbers, epiphytes and wildlife of the forest; we are literally surrounded by the very things we need to study and understand.

Second, our camp is run by what has become a highly-skilled and dedicated staff. When I'm at Budongo, everyone seems happy and everything seems to run smoothly. But if I reflect, each action of every person is the result of years of trial and error. We have improved the way we do things every month and every year and now we all work together in harmony.

Yet we are not inflexible. If we have a student who wants to work by night we can accommodate this. If a staff member falls sick others come to the rescue. We work as a team. How have we achieved this? I think it must be a combination of goodwill by all staff and good leadership by the co-directors.

Now an important point: we must never take all this for granted. Things have gone wrong a couple of times in the past and I expect they will again in the future. But each time we pulled together as a team and regained our harmonious rhythm. Let's hope that will always be so.

My thanks to one and all, and last but not least to our funding agency NORAD, to the National Geographic Society, and to Conservation International, as well as the good people at Makerere whose confidence in us continues to make our project possible.

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Impressions from Budongo

by Harriet Bennett

For six months during 1996, I was lucky enough to live at Sonso while studying the behaviour of the Sonso chimpanzees. I was even able to count this fascinating expedition as part of my degree course.

Much to our joy, Edinburgh University sends undergraduates studying Social Anthropology to conduct fieldwork in locations ranging from the dusty nooks of ancient libraries to the far corners of the globe. For six months, undergraduates discover weird and wonderful facts about society and our selves.

While fellow students were back in Scotland wading through tomes of literature on the fourth floor of the air-conditioned library, I was studying from the forest floor in a Ugandan forest. I was a pioneer among Social Anthropology students at Edinburgh University as I had opted to carry out my fieldwork among a more distant society than usual, that of our closely related primate cousins. I had always been fascinated by instinctive behaviours, and this seemed the natural option for my dissertation. I was particularly interested in comparing the social relations in chimp and human society, focusing on descent, alliance, exogamy and incest avoidance.

I was overjoyed when I heard that Vernon Reynolds approved of my proposal. The moment I had been waiting for—to immerse myself in a forest and spend every waking moment surrounded by our closest living relatives—had arrived. With glee, I packed my binoculars and note-pads and headed off for Kampala.

Walking into the forest for the first time from Sonso, I was awe-struck by the towering bulk of the forest and the mass of life thriving within. Although television has given many young people an idea of what a tropical jungle looks like, nothing could have prepared me for the grand scale to which everything grows at Budongo, nor the diversity of life.

The first sight of flocks of beautifully marked butterflies, some bigger than the size of my hand, settling on my bright clothes was breathtaking. The forest was a shrill orchestra of hundred of species of birds that I had never seen before. Parrots whistled over the trees in the evening as they came in to roost from their daytime foraging outside the forest, and if you sat very still under a fruiting tree you could often see a spectacular blue turaco hopping about in the branches. Black and white colobus monkeys were constantly peering down from lookouts in the branches, with their long white pom-pom tails swinging beneath them. And all this even before I experienced the magic of the soko mutu, the Swahili term for the “man of the forest.”

One of the best characteristics of the chimpanzees is that they can be extremely elusive. Some days when you had been searching for hours, just as you had decided to give up and rest on a log for a while, they would sit on the track just in front of where you were sitting. You would then realise they had been close all along. Perhaps they found it amusing watching you, searching for them. They had the benefit of knowing all the trails in Budongo like the back of their long-fingered and nimble hands, unlike the ignoramuses like myself who attempted to find their way round Budongo while often getting hopelessly lost. In fact, it was par for the course for every researcher to get lost during their first few weeks, and only afterwards could you appreciate what a disorientating and infinitely huge place the forest was.

I can remember vividly the excitement of finding a new fruiting tree—the hairs on the back of my neck stood up as the chimpanzees communicated their ecstasy in screams of joy. These moments will stay with me for the rest of my life.

I learnt a huge amount about the way of life of the Sonso chimps while I was at Budongo. I spent hours lying on leaf litter under a fig tree, with my binoculars propped on my brow, listening to the steady drop of half-chewed fig pulp and the contented slurping of the chimps, or watching intently their gentle, intelligent and subtle interactions, along with their huge quarrels.

I learnt that the patrilineal groups seemed to form the core relationships between the chimps, although small matrilineal units were also in evidence. Robert Fox’s (1967) postulation that the combination of alliance and descent is unique among humans seemed to hold. The patrilines held together the chimp community over generations, but alliance, in the form of exchange of mating partners between groups, was not evident, although we must bear in mind that primate research is constantly uncovering new, fascinating and sometimes shocking facts. If it could be proved that females emigrate selectively to the same community as their sisters, analogous to the selective mating of rhesus monkeys with other matrilines, Fox’s postulation may no longer hold.

I concluded that there is a considerable degree of overlap at the biological level between primate and human lineages and the relationships within them but, in the human case, the biological relationships are simply overlaid with sets of jural rules. I discussed how humankind’s uniqueness may in fact depend on a single characteristic: our ability to use speech and language. Human kinship may be different only because it is characterised by a culturally articulated set of rules, although rules are not always considered the major determinant of social action (Good 1987).

Most importantly for me however, while studying chimp behaviour and formulating anthropological theories on the forest floor, was that I was touched with a magic that Budongo gives all who come to stay. I was instilled with a desire to fight for the preservation of such a primeval and unimaginably rich place, a place that is inconceivable to many people in Britain. I was given a glimpse of the precious life teeming in these wild places, especially our enlightening primate cousins. I am forever grateful for being given the opportunity to experience life in the forest, and for being given the chance to understand its miraculous ecology and witness its fragility. The dusty old sawmill next to Sonso is a sore reminder of how priorities can be misguided, and how such a cathedral of nature can misguidedly be raped and pillaged. I feel that anyone who has been to Budongo takes away a glimmer of the forest in their heart. Luckily, through Vernon’s hard work and perseverance and that of all the staff, many young, learned and interested people have been able to experience Budongo’s charm.

My experience at Budongo has left an indelible yearning, an inspiration and direction to my life. I know now that I must invest my knowledge in publicising and enthusing the world about the conservation of these wild places and our wildlife. I know I still have a huge amount to learn, and in the meantime I am continuing my studies at the University College of London, but I intend to spend the rest of my life campaigning for the preservation of the miraculous diversity of life harboured in many parts of our world. It is a complicated passion, because as I know only too well from my study of Anthropology, a maze of moral judgments must be considered in a world where no places exist without the influence of Homo sapiens, and where the world in which we live is a dynamic system where humans and nature depend on each other. We must strive for a world in which the give and take is levelled so a long-term balance of interests is achieved.

I hope that many more people will be able to visit Budongo in the future, and that the research centre continues to foster and cultivate the interests of those who visit. I have heard that funds have been secured for the future, and I have no doubt that the Budongo Forest Project will go from strength to strength in this new millennium.

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Feeding skills and the effect of injury on the Budongo Forest chimpanzees

by Emma Stokes

emma stokes

As at many sites, the Sonso community of chimpanzees at Budongo suffers from a high frequency of hand and limb injuries due to snares. This study at Budongo attempted to systematically investigate the effect of these injuries on feeding abilities, specifically in relation to foods that require significant manual processing. It was hypothesized that injured individuals are capable of re-structuring their behaviour so as to minimize the costs to feeding efficiency, and that this will enable these injured individuals to maintain reproductive fitness in the community.

The Sonso chimpanzees capitalize on an abundance of fruit—particularly figs. Following a detailed analysis of food preparation skills among the able-bodied population, the predominance of figs in the diet revealed two main effects. Firstly, food-processing costs are reduced to a minimum, as the chimpanzees’ feeding rate is designed to maximize their food intake. Secondly, observations were considerably biased towards arboreal food-processing, although its very nature limits the animal’s food-processing ability since one hand tends to be used in postural support.

In spite of these apparent constraints on further analysis, systematic data collection on these and other food types reveals a number of technical features. Such observations include the bimanual coordination and sequencing of actions in chimpanzees’ plant-feeding behaviour.

In particular, the processing of Broussenettia papyrifera leaves displays a highly stereotyped set of actions. The leaves are first stripped up and held parallel in a tight roll, whilst the fibrous stem and midrib are then removed with a single action.

To obtain the same food, injured individuals accommodate remarkably well. Through both novel actions and the reorganization of familiar actions to produce novel sequences, chimpanzees effectively deal with their injuries. The choice of strategy available is dependant upon both the nature and extent of injury. This was also revealed in a series of disability scales, which were constructed across a broad range of daily activities to provide a measure of functional limitation at a more general level.

This study aims to offer an insight into the cognitive underpinnings of chimpanzees’ feeding behaviour. In addition, it will be of use in assessing the extent of disability among the injured individuals and thus, the viability of the population as a whole. The study’s findings could bear a substantial role in the implementation of future conservation strategies within a region where snaring is a traditional community use of the forest.

chimp injuries This research was funded by a scholarship from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. Thanks must go to all the staff, management, and my fellow researchers at the Budongo Forest Project but, in particular, to my field assistant Kakura James for his abundant enthusiasm and limitless energy—long may it continue!

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Interpretations from the Nyabyeya Trading Center

by Mikala Lauridsen

mikala lauridsen

My fieldwork took place over an eight-month period during 1997. During this time, I lived in the Nyabyeya Trading Center, one of the local villages of the Nyabyeya Parish, which lies at the southern edge of the Budongo Forest Reserve (BFR). My intention was to concentrate on the local people’s interests and perceptions of the BFR, as well as socio-cultural differences in practice and knowledge of the forest. Information was mostly obtained from semi-structured interviews and observation.

I lived in the Trading Centre with my interpreter Helen Biroch, which gave me the added advantage of forming a closer relationship with my informants and having Helen nearby to interpret. My research questions focused mostly on the reasons people migrated to the area, diverse practices and knowledge of the forest, and local views of conservation, management, and the existing forest policy enforced by the Forest

In regard to forest practices, my results were similar to Kirstin Johnson’s (one of the first researchers for the BFP). The forest, in general, is used minimally by the local people in relation to most forest-people’s environments. Local interest in the forest is mostly seen in terms of economic opportunity, often from timber. There seems to also be confusion among locals in regard to the forest policy and the reasons behind having one.

I have now completed my M.Sc. thesis. It seems that the perception locals have of their forest environment relates to the past management of the BFR and the timber industry, of which many locals were formerly a part. This is a forest that has been seen as an industry. Work labourers were drawn to this area for the economic opportunities and desire for land. The local community is not made up of foresters or forest people; the majority came from non-forest environments. Their identity, therefore, has been shaped in regard to their past labour history with the forest as sawmill workers, yet also by the multi-ethnicity found in the community, which is a direct result of the economic and land opportunities still available in the area.

Ethnic identity in the Nyabyeya Parish today appears to be the framework for identification within the community. Ethnicity is a way of establishing differences within a multi-ethnic community, yet is also important in competing for local economic and land resources. Both the past labour history of the BFR and multi-ethnicity are factors which make this forest-people community quite different from others. These factors need to be taken into consideration during policy making. I am focusing on this area in the hopes of providing new insights for future conservation efforts and management in the BFR.

I want to thank the BFP for giving me the opportunity of working in Budongo, and for meeting other researchers who gave me lots of support during difficult times. I would also like to thank my interpreter Helen Biroch, for working so hard and allowing me to stay with her family. Finally, I’d like to thank the Forest Department, especially Steven Khauka, for taking the time to assist me with any questions I had.

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Events in the lives of the Sonso community

by Vernon Reynolds

Adult female Mukwano in a sunny spot in the forest

From time to time we will publish events that happen in the lives of our Sonso chimpanzees. These are mostly recorded in the Events Book kept at camp. Since the early days of our Project, field assistants, students and visiting scientists have recorded anything of outstanding interest they have seen and these records make fascinating reading.

One such event reached me in an email from Hugh Notman dated 28th December 1999. He wrote that Jambo, the adult male, was seen carrying a newborn infant on December 13th. He held on to it all of the following two days during which time it died. It was never recovered.

It is always an extraordinary thing to see an adult male with a baby. How did he get it? Whose infant was it?

Hugh suspected it might be Mukwano's firstborn. Poor Mukwano: after a good childhood and adolescence, she got a snare on her foot in mid-1999 and more recently suffered a sprained wrist. If indeed this was her baby, then 1999 was a terrible year for her. I recall seeing her in March 1999 and photographing her in a pool of sunlight in the forest. She was consorting with Duane, our dominant male. All seemed well. Since then the snare (which she still has), the sprained wrist, and now the loss of her baby.

The adult male Bwoya disappeared from the Sonso community on the 22nd of September 1999 and was feared lost. However, he re-appeared on the 26th of October 1999. Bwoya disappeared again on November 10th 1999. He reappeared on January 5th 2000 and has been seen regularly since.

One other recent event deserves a mention. Our chimps got a nasty chest infection in November. It started on November 11th 1999 with Nick coughing on his own. Over the next 2 weeks, the coughing spread to other members of the community. By November 24th, 68% of all the individuals seen were coughing. Gladys Kalema was called in and came accompanied by a second vet, Wayne Boardman, from UWEC. They diagnosed that this was a dry, mainly upper respiratory cough caused by a virus. Possibly it had reached the chimps from a human being. The lesson to all of us: don't go into the forest if you are unwell, and in particular don't go near the chimps. We were lucky this time, all the chimps recovered, but as we know from other study sites, chimps can easily die of diseases that we shake off without difficulty.

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© 1999 - 2006. The Budongo Forest Project