Although it’s what I’ve been waiting to hear, the otherworldly screams echoing through the thick jungle send goosebumps of unease down my spine. I look across at my fellow adventurers and see my trepidation mirrored on their sweat-drenched faces. By the proximity of the chilling noise, we are very soon about to encounter our closest relative: the chimpanzee.
The reaction is totally opposite to the smiles of delight that surrounded me when we heard the grunts of a family of mountain gorillas the very same group of explorers had been taken to see at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest a couple of days earlier (see Laura Kammermeier’s spellbinding account here). The chimpanzee calls were edged with menace, while the grunts and sighs (and, it has to be said, the loud toots!) of the gorillas suggested a more docile beast.
Our local guide aped the apes to reassure them we meant no harm. We got our first glimpse when a single chimp walked down a forest path in front of us. Unlike the gorillas, this chimp bolted up a tree as soon as it saw us. And there was that blood-curdling noise again as it threw a small branch at us and walked up the towering trunk. It somehow managed to hide in the canopy while eight keen-eyed nature observers failed to spot it again!
Soon, we would bask in the scene of three calm chimps feeding in front of us. One nonchalantly brushed past one of the tour group without a hint of aggression, much as a gorilla had done in another forest two days ago. Their acceptance of we hominids was surprising but still felt tenuous. Anxiety hung in the air, quite unlike our meeting with the gentle Oruzogo mountain gorilla family at Bwindi. As we scurried along to keep pace with this family, the chilling footage of chimps hunting down colobus monkeys and tearing them to shreds, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, invaded my mind.
I am in Uganda as part of an International Press Trip to cover the African Birding Expo 2016. The fact that this West African country is one of the best places in which to see birds and mammals is a bonus akin to winning the National Lottery! Birds, mammals, butterflies and seemingly every other creature can be found anywhere and everywhere in this wildlife-rich country.
During our 13-day tour, the group saw more than 400 bird species, including a mind-blowing 196 by my small band of fellow travellers: IN ONE DAY! However, I am going to focus on the 42 species of mammals we notched up on the same trip.
Mountain gorillas and chimpanzees are the simian highlights, though the forests of Uganda are home to many more species of primate. Some are easier to see than others. Olive baboons roam the forest tracks like gangs of street kids, with a permanent look of mischief on their faces. I admit to not taking to these creatures on previous trips to Africa but my time in Uganda gave me the opportunity to study their behaviour and I learned to love their quirky ways. And, let’s face it, once you’ve witnessed a mean-looking male baboon have its butt tick-cleaned by an ‘inferior’ family member in the middle of a road, its menace – and some would say dignity – is somewhat removed along with its parasitic visitors.
Olive baboons are seemingly along every forest track and it is important to remember to close all doors and windows should you leave your vehicle for a stroll!
Baboons are by far the most obvious primate to be seen in Uganda but you will need a sharp-eyed guide to spot some of the others. Fortunately, our guys were so keen-eyed they could probably tell you the tick species the animals were having removed in the mutual grooming sessions before the rest of us had even spotted the monkey!
Black-and-white colobus monkeys are gentle, easy-to-see tree-dwellers. Small groups can be seen hanging about in trees in the forest, their hairy tails dangling lazily down from branches. Some authorities split the Ugandan species of guereza colobus from black-and-white colobus. Nerds may wish to note that ‘colobus’ derives from the Greek for ‘docked’ because of the stump-like thumb, which is perhaps why one never sees a colobus monkey hitchhiking.
Possibly the next easiest primate to observe in Uganda is the vervet monkey. I saw several vervets – a small, agile beast similar to the New World spider monkeys – during this trip to Uganda. The male’s vivid sky blue genitals certainly made an impression on my travelling companions, as a troupe ambled their way across a track in Mburo National Park with tails raised!
Perhaps the rarest sighting of all came on a long trek in the Mgahinga National Park on the slopes of the Virunga Volcanoes. As we scouted for Albertine rift endemic birds (including the much sought-after Rwenzori Turaco), our guide caught sight of a golden monkey sitting unobtrusively on a moss-covered branch before us.
The golden monkey is listed as an endangered species due to its restricted range and habitat loss. It has recently been split from blue monkey by taxonomists. Our relaxed individual looked as though taxonomy and deforestation was the last think on its mind, so I can only hope greedy humankind doesn’t betray our relative by trashing its home!
LAZING ABOUT ON THE RIVER
Uganda is far from being all about primates, of course, though my group managed to tick off eleven or twelve species (depending on your taxonomic leanings) during the thirteen day trip. We were lucky enough to encounter many large mammal species while driving round the various National Parks, though by far the best views we had were from boats. Uganda is a hot country, so mammals have to drink at regular intervals and many species submerge themselves in water to cool down.
Several watery excursions were laid on for us, notably on the Kazinga Channel in the Queen Elizabeth National Park and along the mighty River Nile to Murchison Falls (with a further option at Mburo NP). Animals and birds do not see boats as a threat and nonchalantly go about their daily lives while agog tourists drift lazily by with a cold drink in one hand and a camera in the other.
Hippopotamuses (though I prefer the more pedantic hippopotami) are the most dangerous large mammal in Africa; their unpredictable moods and ginormous razor-sharp teeth making for a lethal combination. However, apart from an evocative deep grunting noise now and again, the hippos paid us little attention and close views were had from the deck of our cruiser. Just remember not to get too close: they spread their sloppy dung in all directions with swift flicks of the tail!
African elephants are simply enormous beasts; truly awesome animals. They have to drink about fifty gallons of water a day, so anyone wanting to see one should stick close to a river or watering hole. A large-ish boat may even get close enough for you to hear the water being squirted from trunk to belly: elephants do not have the ability to swallow. The noise really does sound like a large bucket being filled by a hose pipe! One of the smaller boats of our flotilla managed to head off into a shallower channel to get up-close-and-personal with a massive tusker – a male – majestically wading across the water up to its knees. If I had tried the same feat, I would have been about six feet underwater!
Cape buffalo is another large, unpredictable mammal that loves to wallow in mud holes on riversides and is present in good numbers, though never quite as popular with wildlife watchers as elephants, hippos and The Big Cats. This is a shame, as they have a character all of their own but should always be treated with respect.
Ugly but comical warthogs scamper across riverbanks, always on the alert for Lions (these Big Cats love a bit of free-range pork for dinner!), as well as antelope species such as Uganda kobs, defassa waterbucks, topis, Lelwel (or Jackson’s) hartebeests, impala, and small deer species called dik-diks and duikers.
River banks are also covered with impressive Nile crocodiles – not a mammal, of course, but large and fierce enough to be granted the status of ‘honorary mammals’ by this writer – and many species of birds to make a boat trip or two essential adventures while in this amazing country.
BIG CAT DIARY
You cannot travel to Uganda without getting excited about seeing at least a couple of the Big Cats and hopefully one or two of their smaller cousins. While driving through the Ishasha section of the Queen Elizabeth NP, you may come across a lion lazing up a tree. You may or may not be familiar with the advice when being chased by a lion: climb a tree. Well not in Ishasha, my friends! I wasn’t fortunate to witness this unique behaviour but the lions of Ishasha have learned to climb Acacia trees, so be very careful when breaking your safari for a ‘bush stop’!
While I didn’t see any lions in trees, I did see a male and female getting fruity in full view of our safari vans! The male swished his tail at the female a few times, eyed with a hint of boredom by his lady friend. He finally won her over with his leonine charm and hopefully there are some cute cubs on the way for the happy couple to nurture. Another van saw lion cubs blocking a park track while on the same morning a different van saw a hunt developing.
Another chance encounter came as we were about to leave Queen Elizabeth NP. We came across a van watching something in the tall grass. This proved to be a concealed leopard, everything hidden apart from its two white-tipped ears. The distant hartebeests and impalas suddenly became aware of the danger and the leopard emerged from cover, realizing it had been rumbled. It wandered down the hill in full view of the antelopes with its banded tail raised high, looking for all the world like a rather large lemur! Apparently, leopards do this to indicate they are not in hunting mode, which is pretty sporting of them when you think about it.
We also saw two other leopards while we were out on a night drive in the Murchison Falls NP. Eye-shine from various species of antelopes – including oribis, a delightful, diminutive antelope species – could be seen in our spotlight not far from this stealthy cat and it gave us a sense of what it was like to be a prey species in a black night full of predators. It was kind of creepy, to be honest: death was lurking all around us.
HOME, HOME ON THE PLAINS
As a wildlife enthusiast, if you haven’t experienced the Big Skies of an African savannah, dotted with trees, bushes, water holes, roaming herds of animals, brightly-coloured and little brown birds and endless clouds then you simply must. And Uganda offers all of this and much more.
Overwhelming experiences abounded on this trip and it is difficult to pick out any outstanding ones from any other, though one has to go some to beat mountain gorilla trekking in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest! However, the bright morning we set off along the trails of the Queen Elizabeth NP was quintessential Africa.
For starters, there was the bright orange glowing sunrise that greeted us as we drew to a halt just yards from the lodge to admire a majestic Martial Eagle sunning itself atop a tree. Birds, antelopes, butterflies, zebras, olive baboons and Big Game came and went until we drove round a corner to find the track blocked. The safari van at the front of the queue couldn’t go any further thanks to several Rothschild’s giraffes loping down the middle of the trail.
While trying to get better views of our ridiculous-looking roadblock – imagine being the first westerner to ever lay eyes on such an animal, not to mention rhinoceros, elephant and hippo! – we then noticed we were surrounded by them. Dozens of giraffes peeked over tall thorn bushes and then disappeared out of view again. We spent the next half an hour watching them feed, walk across the track, rub necks (this is a sensitive giraffe mating ritual, but one which is inadvertently spreading a harmful fungus from animal to animal) and generally look very serene and completely at home in their environment.
We eventually continued our journey, where the bush opened out to plains. It was wall-to-wall giraffes as far as the eye could see; small groups dotted about the savannah, moving effortlessly through the long grass. The odd elephant, Uganda kob, warthog and Lelwel hartebeest added to the sense that we were witnessing the ‘real deal’: this was not a zoo, this was the genuine thing; something to immerse oneself in, enjoy and store in the memory banks to ease frayed nerves and forget the stresses and strains in our mad world.
This was the heart of Africa and it was an experience among many experiences that lovers of wildlife really have to witness for themselves.
Neil Glenn would like to thank the Uganda Tourism Board and Nature Travel Network for the opportunity to discover and report upon Uganda.