This post comes many months after I returned from Uganda, and as such it is a strange post to write. I want to put up the last few of my photos, but this amazing, magical place I went to visit last year really feels like another world. It’s strange to think that not so long ago, I found myself in a place where elephants roamed, that I saw lions and zebras up close in the wild, and even that biggest of adventures – that I saw the mountain gorillas.
There are a lot of stories I meant to tell, and this feels like my last chance to do so, before more life overwrites them and pushes them out of my mind. I felt much indebted to the people who guided me – Sadiq who was our host at Kampala International University, Kim who guided me around Entebbe, and my tour guide Robert from Pearl of Africa, who shared his extensive knowledge of the wildlife and the country with me.
I love nature and wildlife, so the chance to visit a number of Uganda’s national parks was a true privilege for me. From the savannahs to the misty rainforests, I visited places that had previously been just faraway lands on a screen and parts of my imagination. So I saw the things I’d learnt about as a child – the lions camouflaged in the high grass of the savannah, and the cobs that had to sooner or later go to the watering hole where the predators wait.
I encountered some new and unexpected creatures as well. I found warthogs remarkably endearing in a somewhat comedy way. While the other creatures of the savannah are often very clever and work well in groups, warthogs are not amongst these. When they encounter danger, their instinct is to just leave everyone else behind and run away. The concession they make is to raise their tail to signal danger, so you often see a bobbing warthog tail in the high grass. However, unfortunately for the warthog, they also have extremely short-term memory. This means that the predator just needs to wait a while in the same place, as the warthog will quickly forget what it was running away from, and return to feed.
One thing that really struck me when watching the animals, is how far removed my usual way of thinking about them is from reality. Rather than being cute and gentle, all that stuff about selfish genes and “nature red in tooth and claw” really struck me. I mean, there is the occasional species that’s kind of adorable, vegetarian and mates for life, but more often than not, males will try and eat their own male children so that they have less competition with the females of the group. This was the case remarkably often across quite a range of species. Interestingly, it also accounts for there being relatively few lions – the lioness goes off on her own with the young at a vulnerable time in their lives, in order to protect them from the adult males.
Of course this isn’t the case across the board – for example, elephants are incredibly protective of their young. We saw a tiny baby elephant from a distance at one point, in the middle and protected by the entire herd. But it’s quite common for some sort of trade-off to be in place. For example, monkeys tend to guard the female babies very carefully, and shield them as they carry them, while they put much less care into protecting the male babies. Monkeys carrying babies is an adorable thing overall though – and they groom and enjoy cuddles too.
Overall, nature certainly isn’t gentle. And it did nudge my nature/nurture position towards nature again a little bit (it’s one of those ongoing debates with no final answer). But at the same time, there’s a certain beauty and dignity to it. I did find that seeing animals in the wild and in their natural habitat increased my belief that this is the right way the world should be, and that animals in captivity do suffer. I’m with the Born Free Foundation there.
As I write about Uganda, my thoughts can’t help but drift across the border into the DRC, where Emmanuel de Merode, the chief warden of Virunga National Park, was recently shot in an ambush. Thankfully he survived and is recovering. Being a ranger in a national park is a dangerous job, but nowhere more so than the DRC, and the rangers put their lives on the line every day to keep the peace and keep the parks safe. His TED talk, “A story of conflict, renewal and hope”, talks about gorilla conservation within a war zone, and is well worth listening. One of the things he brings up is the importance of the national parks, not just for their natural treasures, but also for the economic prosperity, stability and long term future of the region. Uganda and Rwanda are both very stable and safe, and have a large income from tourism. It is hoped that the DRC will also benefit from this in the future. After all, the mountain gorillas are waiting for a visit.
I don’t know what else to finish with, other than just saying what a privilege and wonderful experience it has been to visit Uganda. It’s a beautiful and incredibly interesting country, and I felt welcomed and safe throughout my time there. I hope to return. I warmly recommend that you visit if you can. And in the meantime, it will remain in my thoughts and dreams as just the most amazing experience.
- The magical, magnificent mountain gorillas
- Adventures in mountain genetics