23 May 2014: Kampala Uganda.
Two nights ago my Ph.D. student Danny Hughes and I arrived at Entebbe Airport, and after filing a report for a missing piece of luggage, we traveled to a steep hill in Kampala to find our hotel, the charming New Hotel Madagascar. Jet lagged and exhausted from the journey, I was only half surprised to wake up at 5 AM after only three hours of sleep, but as I looked out my balcony window to the east, I began to see an orange glow glistening on the water of Lake Victoria in the distance. Within an hour, the sun had illuminated the lake well enough to take a photo (see below) and a veritable riot of tropical birds heralded the new day. It was an appropriate return to the stunning natural beauty of Africa.
Years ago I recall flying over Victoria and seeing nothing but water on the horizon. At over 26,000 square miles, Victoria is the largest tropical lake in the world. It was named after Queen Victoria by British explorer John Hanning Speke, who first saw the lake in 1858 on an expedition to find the source of the Nile River, a fanatical obsession in geography at that time. Because of limited supplies and time, and perhaps because of Speke’s inexperience with geographical observations, he could not convince his colleagues in Britain that Victoria was indeed the source of the Nile. Recently discovered documents also suggest Speke’s more charismatic and famous traveling companion Richard Burton (who was too ill to walk when Speke explored Victoria) had a significant role in dismissing Speke’s accomplishments and tarnishing his reputation. The open feud between the two made headlines in the British newspapers, and Speke was suggested to be self-absorbed, prudish, and possibly even a homosexual. However, the new research revealed he was hopelessly in love with an 18-year old African woman named Méri, who broke his heart by telling him that she wanted to be with him because he was rich. Before a well-publicized debate about Victoria’s geographical importance to the Nile could occur between Speke and Burton in Bath, the former explorer died of an accidental gunshot during a hunting trip. Unfortunately, Burton continued to denigrate Speke long after his death, and historians have largely embraced Burton’s portrayal of him (Alberge, 2011). Many years later, Victoria was confirmed as the main source of the Nile, posthumously vindicating Speke.
Victoria played a prominent role as a source of fish for humans for thousands of years (if not more), but when the British took over in the colonial era, they introduced a voracious predator called the Nile Perch (Lates niloticus) to the lake. Known as the “water elephant” by one African tribe, the Nile Perch can reach 6 feet in length and weigh over 440 lbs. Gobbling up anything it can catch, the fish is directly responsible for the extinction of hundreds of native fish species, and the negative ecological impacts to the lake’s food web have also devastated local fishers. The perch is widely cited as one of the worst examples of the devastating effects of so-called invasive species, which are introduced to places either deliberately or accidentally by humans. After habitat destruction, invasive species are the cause of the largest number of extinctions of species worldwide.
Luckily for me, the effects of the perch on Victoria’s herpetofauna have been minimal compared to the native fish, and last night Danny and I joined Ugandan herpetologist Mathias Behangana to explore the flooded grasslands at the edge of the lake. We reached the edge of the lake and its swampy vegetation just after 9 in the evening, and were greeted by a cloud of annoying insects that were attracted by our headlamps. But the frog choruses were in full swing, and within minutes we had found nearly 10 species happily calling for mates in the water. At one point Danny lost his balance on a floating mat of vegetation and actually fell into the lake, but his sense of humor kept him in good spirits as he poured the water out of his boots.
As we were heading back to the car, I spotted a small black snake in the grass, and realizing it wasn’t venomous, grabbed it with a quick scoop. I am providing a photo below for the cybertaxonomy project, where students have an opportunity to identify the species. The animal was 26.3 cm snout-vent length, 3.5 cm tail length, with 174 ventrals. As one can see in the photo, and this is key, the pupil is elliptical. Give it a shot and have fun!
We hope to head to Lake Bunyonyi tomorrow before going on to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park for the African Amphibian Working Group meeting. I am leading a workshop on preservation of herps, and will be giving the plenary talk on Congo Basin toads. From there, we hope to go on to Ruwenzori National Park to look for chameleons for Danny. Look for another post in about a week or so. Below is the cited article for history buffs that want to read more.
Alberge, D. 2011. How feud wrecked the reputation of explorer who discovered Nile's source. The Observer. Accessible at: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/sep/11/burton-speke-african-exploration-nile