2 June 2014: Foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains, west of Kasese
After a long drive from Kampala through terraced agricultural hills, we entered a winding road with dizzying sharp turns that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. We passed an entire village engaged in the process of excavating rocks from crude quarries in the hillsides, and everyone from small children to elderly women were moving large basketfuls of rock down a steep slope to the side of the road. At that point teenaged boys incessantly hammered the larger boulders into smaller, sellable fragments. In Africa, one makes a living however one can, and at least this occupation seemed to have a minimal effect on the environment.
A few more turns later, we descended to a less meandering road and were treated to the beautiful spectacle of Lake Bunyonyi. Placid dark blue water was surrounded by steep green hills, many of which were dotted with small fishing villages and hotels for the growing number of foreign tourists. The scene seemed surreal to me, because in Congo I never run into foreign tourists, but in Uganda, they are quite common. I was astonished to see a young European boy, perhaps 12, walking down the road with his younger sister and their golden retriever mix. Later, I saw these children with the rest of their family, including an infant. Such a scene would be unthinkable in many other parts of Central Africa, but I was beginning to realize that things are much safer and relaxed in Uganda. That said, I don’t know how wise it is to bring an infant to Central Africa. The chaos of Congo is not here, but deadly tropical diseases such as malaria are everywhere. Many African children die of malaria every year, and without the benefit of some genetic resistance to the disease, western children could easily die if they were to become infected.
We had come to Bunyonyi because it was the type locality, or the exact place where a new species is described, for a poorly known frog species called Amietia lubrica. Based on the available information, the species is only known from Bunyonyi, but I suspected it is much more widespread, at least in this part of the Albertine Rift. We had enough time to look for it for only one night before heading on to a herpetology meeting in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park the following day, so we were in a rush to find a place to stay when we reached Bunyonyi in the late afternoon. We passed a beautiful hotel called the Birdsnest, so called for its prominent position on a hill overlooking the lake. Dismissing it as likely too expensive, we checked a few lodges, but on a whim, decided to double back to inquire about the price for a night. The initial pricetag was way out of my range, but because it was the off season for tourists, the manager negotiated with me, and we found ourselves enjoying rooms with spectacular views of the lake. Given the poor internet connection and somewhat odd “open concept” bathrooms, I’m not sure I will return to pay the exorbitant prices during the tourist season in the future, but for one night, it was close to paradise.
I chatted with the hotel’s owner, a European man named Pablo, over our dinner. He told us that it took him three years to renovate the place, an impressive endeavor in a region where logistics are a great challenge. Danny and Mathias ordered crayfish, which were conveniently introduced to the lake some time ago. I wondered about the ecological impact of these invasive species on the natural flora and fauna of the lake, and hoped that the frog population would be healthy. After a somewhat salty but satisfying dinner, we headed out to look for frogs along the edge of the hotel’s property along the lakeshore. We heard and found a few treefrogs, but there was no sign of the Amietia river frog we were really after. I was beginning to think that luck was not on our side, when I decided to wander past the hotel’s pool, which seemed to be circulating water from the lake instead of the more typical self-contained chlorine water most of us expect at a high-end hotel. There was a small rectangular area adjacent to the pool, also flooded with lake water, which had a small arrangement of aquatic and ornamental plants. My headlamp instinctively stopped on a frog, which I immediately recognized as the Amietia we were looking for. I yelled for Mathias and Danny to come see, but before they could get a glance, the weary frog darted into the water and was gone. For the next 20 minutes, we checked in and around the pool, and found a handful of individuals. Danny even used a 10-foot long pool net to collect one individual who avoided us by swimming to the bottom of the pool. I joked that it would be his first and last time collecting a frog with a pool net in Africa.
Mission accomplished, we left Bunyonyi the next morning after enjoying a spectacular “birdseye” view of the sunrise over the lake. Within a few hours, we were approaching Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, where I would lead a workshop on amphibians, and give a couple lectures about amphibians in Central Africa. Mathias would present a summary of amphibian knowledge in Uganda, and Danny would give a talk about his preliminary work with dwarf chameleons (a small concession was made for him to talk about reptiles at an amphibian conference). It was the 16th African Amphibian Working Group meeting, and we looked forward to seeing old friends and chatting with colleagues. I was also excited to see the park, because Bwindi boasts an incredible diversity of animals, including many species of mammals (including half the world’s mountain gorillas), birds, butterflies, and of course amphibians and reptiles. According to my tourist guide for Uganda (Briggs and Roberts, 2013), legend has it that Bwindi received its name a century ago when a family migrating north reached the “impenetrable” Mubwindi Swamp. When the parents asked the swamp spirits for help, they were told that they would have to sacrifice their beautiful daughter to continue. Apparently they REALLY didn’t want to return to the place they had come from, because the girl was soon pitched into the swamp to drown, and the remaining family was able to find its way through. However, the swamp is said to be haunted by the murdered girl’s spirit, and many local people still avoid it as a consequence.
After passing a scenic view that included three of the inactive Virunga volcanic cones, we suddenly saw the stark border of the park, which can be seen in the photo below. On one side, we saw endless hills of terraced agricultural crops and agroforestry, and on the other, nearly pristine, broccoli-like montane forest (see photo).
Because tourism has recently taken off in Uganda, the national parks are raking in lots of money, which benefits many Ugandans, including the people living around the parks. As a result, the warden at Bwindi told me later, poaching has decreased, the animal populations are on the rise, and demand for gorilla trekking is increasing. In conservation circles, this is called a “win-win,” and it gives me hope that at least some of the world’s natural areas will survive into an uncertain future with an exploding human population. Of course war or some other sudden catastrophic event could erase all of this in a relative instant, but for now, nobody wants to kill the goose (the forest and its animals) that is laying the golden eggs (enormous tourism revenue). If only such ecotourism were possible in neighboring Congo!
Everyone had a great time during the workshop and conference, and we even found time to look for some interesting frogs and reptiles. On one particularly good night, we drove down to a lower elevation from our main site at Ruhija (ca. 2200 meters) to a place called “The Neck” (ca. 1500 meters) near the Ihihizo River. Along the way, we spotted two civet cats, an enormous eagle owl, and two startled black-tailed jackals ran in front of our truck for at least a kilometer before darting into the bush. Once we reached the swamp at The Neck, Danny and I collected a few frogs, and some emerald green Dipsadoboa snakes, which I had found only once before on the other side of the rift in Congo. A day or so later, Danny and I were interrupted from our specimen work by a troop of L’Hoest’s monkeys, which might have been attracted to our forest guest house by the music I was playing on my iphone. Who knew monkeys liked Rage Against the Machine? See photo below.
We also spent some time with a South African chameleon expert named Krystal Tolley, who showed us how to effectively spot chameleons when they are sleeping at night. Thanks to Krystal’s advice, Danny was able to find a ton of chameleons for his dissertation work, and below we provide a photo of one of them. This one shouldn’t be too difficult to identify for the cybertaxonomy project, so I provide a more challenging one a bit further below.
You might be thinking at this point that this is all wonderful, and indeed it is. But alas, this is Africa, and one is frequently reminded of the unique and sometimes dangerously unpredictable nature of the continent. This rather negative reminder occurred in the middle of the night while I was sharing the guest house with two other workshop organizers. I heard a commotion and a lot of running around in the livingroom, but too exhausted from all the work, I didn’t bother to get out of bed to investigate. Probably for the best, as I learned the following morning from the victim. One of my housemates got up in the middle of the night to visit the “loo” (that’s bathroom for non-Brits), and she was immediately attacked by a column of thousands of army ants that had invaded the house through the chimney! The legions of voracious predators bit her legs badly, and the commotion we heard was her scampering about the house trying to get away from them. To her credit, she never screamed and she refused to cancel her appointment for gorilla trekking the following morning at dawn—what a tough lady! If the ants had wandered into my bedroom, my colleague and I might have been attacked savagely as we slept in our beds, but perhaps because we remained there, we avoided stumbling into the column in the livingroom. Needless to say, I felt paranoid sleeping in that house for several days afterwards, especially after my colleagues left me alone, but thankfully, the ants never returned.
When we left Bwindi a few days ago, I knew it would be a long drive to reach Rwenzori National Park on the western border with Congo, but I didn’t realize that we would actually drive through the heart of Queen Elizabeth National Park in the wickedly hot rift valley. In a couple hours I ended up seeing more wildlife than I had in 7 years of working in Congo. Why? Effective enforcement and political will to maintain the park’s integrity that is comparatively weaker in Congo. Once again, the economic benefit of ecotourism has been a boon for Uganda’s people and its wildlife. In a scene reminiscent of the big African game parks that many of us have seen on TV, vast rolling plains of grasslands were dotted with acacia trees. Large herds of baboon, vervet monkeys, Uganda kob (antelope), buffalo, elephant, topi, and other wild animals were seen every few minutes. I told Danny he was getting spoiled from all the good luck. Below is a photo of some buffalo that stared at us in the rain as we reached the edge of the park near Kasese.
With limited time hastening our opportunities at Rwenzori, I was hoping that we could spend a couple of days sampling the lower elevations of the foothills around the massif, which has glaciers in the uppermost reaches of the mountains at about 5000 meters elevation. Below is a photo of the massif at dawn as seen from our hotel at about 1800 meters.
Danny needed more chameleons, and I was hoping to find a skink that is known from only a single specimen that was collected many decades ago. Luck was on our side again. In one 24 hour period, we managed to find the skink, five species of chameleons, three snakes, an endemic frog, and a handful of other interesting lizards. One of the snakes seems to be quite interesting and possibly a very rare find, and as an extra challenging puzzle for the cybertaxonomy project, I provide information and a photo below. My Ph.D. student Frank Portillo will be most interested in this one since it is in the Atractaspidinae, the focus of his dissertation. Good luck with this one!
The mystery snake is 790 mm snout-vent length, and 43 mm tail length, and the gender is male. As you may see from the photo, it has a grayish black dorsum, but the venter is white except for a dark grayish bit on the anterior side of the chin in the first few infralabials and chin shields. The critter has: 7 supralabials (3-4 enter the eye), 7 infralabials, 1 preocular, no loreal (perhaps it is fused to the preocular), 2 small postoculars, temporal formula 1+1, ventrals 253, divided anal, 18 subcaudals, dorsal scales smooth in 15-15-15 rows. There were two small fangs in the front of the mouth, but they are not the super long lateral ones that are typical in the genus Atractaspis.
We plan on leaving for Murchison Falls National Park tomorrow, which will be a very long drive, but we hope to spend at least one good day there before heading into Congo on the 5th of June. There is a biodiversity conference in Kisangani that starts the following day (we might be a little late), and my Congolese colleague Chifundera is giving a talk on the 8th. There is a block of herpetology talks on that date, and Danny and I are repeating our Bwindi talks then. After that, we head north to explore the forests near the Uele River. Will post more updates when time and electricity permit!
Briggs, P., and A. Roberts. 2013. Uganda: The Bradt Travel Guide. 7th Edition. Bradt Travel Guides Ltd., United Kingdom.
UPDATE: Hi guys, yes you are right the chameleon is Trioceros johnstoni, nice job on that one. Micrelaps is warm for the snake, but that genus doesn’t occur anywhere near the Albertine Rift. Frank eliminated several related genera based on scale counts and color pattern, but he was too hasty. Try again- I think Laurent’s opus on this group of snakes will be helpful.