Investigating Threats to Chimps in Uganda

By Earthwatch Expedition Advisor Dustin Colson and Field Team Leader Geoffrey Muhanguzi

As food supplies in Uganda’s Budongo Forest Reserve decline, chimpanzees and other primate species that call it home are increasingly raiding nearby farms, where they come into conflict with the farmers who depend on these crops. Earthwatch teams are investigating what is causing the mysterious decline in fruiting tree productivity in this gently rolling forest to ensure that conservation measures to support forest primates and local communities are put in place. Earthwatch Expedition Advisor Dustin Colson and Field Team Leader Geoffrey Muhanguzi share what it’s like to volunteer on Investigating Threats to Chimps in Uganda and explain the need for ongoing support.

Budongo Conservation Field Station, Uganda


A Chimp Encounter in Budongo
-Dustin Colson, Earthwatch Expedition Advisor

I wake with a start from an unfamiliar sound. The room is filled with hazy light streaming through a mosquito net.

“Where am I?” I wonder. I hear the sound again, the pant-hooting of a group of chimps just outside my window. “Ah, yes. Budongo.”

I’m in the midst of a lively biodiverse environment, the Budongo Forest Reserve — the jewel of northwestern Uganda. The chimps are calling to each other using sounds that start low and build to a climax of shrill screeches. I will have to move quickly if I’m to catch a glimpse of them. I throw on my clothes, upend my boots to check for spiders before slipping them on, and open the door to face the forest’s edge.

I’m not disappointed. A group of Sonso chimps are padding along the well-worn path leading into the lantana, their favorite mid-morning hang out spot. Not more than 20 feet ahead of me, a mother named Oakland and her unnamed infant clinging to her back pause, checking to see if the way is clear. Most adults will ignore you, but the baby chimp glances over her shoulder and makes eye contact with me. Perhaps I’m the first human she’s ever seen.

Oakland with her infant.

Oakland with her infant in the Budongo Forest Reserve.

As my arms rise to bring the camera closer to my face, as does the hair on the back of my neck. My mind and body are finally awakening to the realization that I am witnessing something very few people get to experience in a lifetime. I count myself lucky to be an Earthwatch volunteer stationed at the Budongo Conservation Field Station and snap a picture.

As much as these chimps left an impression on my life, it was good to know that volunteering in Budongo was positively changing their lives as well. Chimpanzees are an endangered species facing numerous anthropogenic threats. The 600 remaining chimps in the Budongo Forest Reserve are threatened by poaching, habitat fragmentation, and an unexplained reduction in the abundance of fruiting trees. Earthwatch scientist Dr. Fred Babweteera and his team of field assistants are conducting a long-term study to determine the underlying causes of the reduction in fruiting trees, while simultaneously providing relief from the threat of poachers and deforestation.

Earthwatch volunteers contribute to the research effort by walking forest transects collecting tree phenology data, conducting pollinator surveys, and observing monkey and chimpanzee foraging behavior. The expedition contribution cost also ensures that the conservation effort is well-funded and well-manned. The veterinary program, the snare patrol team, the transect cutters, and the farmer startup program all rely on a steady stream of charitable contributions from Earthwatch volunteers. As an Earthwatch employee I am aware that all Earthwatch projects work to create a sustainable environment, yet experiencing these programs first-hand was eye-opening.


Babweteera -Credit Dustin Colson9 (3) copy

The Importance of Volunteer Support
-Geoffrey Muhanguzi, Field Team Leader and Budongo Conservation Field Station’s Manager

While in the Budongo Forest Reserve, the volunteer researchers will help the Budongo Conservation Field Station (BCFS) team to investigate the threats to the survival of chimpanzees, including the changes in tree fruiting and flowering, as well as the abundance and distribution of pollinating insects. The team will explore how primates and other wild animals have coped with the changes in flowering and fruiting patterns. Do these animals change their foraging time and place? Do they raid peoples’ crops more often? This information will be useful in developing wildlife conservation strategies, such as human-wildlife conflict management.

Other threats to chimpanzee survival include illegal hunting. Guided by the BCFS snare patrol team, volunteers will participate in looking out for illegal traps (snares) placed in the reserve. Having detected the threats inside the reserve and the potential effects in the Budongo landscape, BCFS has piloted buffer crops with the potential for reducing crop-raiding incidences. Volunteers will conduct interviews with local farmers to assess the potential of buffer crops in reducing crop raids, mitigating human-wildlife conflict with the possibility of increasing chimpanzee survival close to cultivated fields.

We are always grateful for extra hands and eyes in collecting data. We thank those that intend to volunteer and those who have joined us in Budongo in the past.