Over the course of the month Ive been asking a lot of questions and heres what I know!
Obviously this park was just forest for a long long time. It used to be much larger than todays 128 sq miles. It borders the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, but now there are smaller parts of this once large park. The Virunga National Park is in Rwanda, and the Bwindi park is in Uganda all part of this Bwindi Forest. In 1932, the British blocked off two forest reserves from the Bwindi forest that were called the Crown Forest reserves. Later they were both combined in 1942 and called the Impenetrable Crown Forest Reserve.
Why Impenetrable? The forest has this amazing ability to regenerate even after the vegetation has been disturbed.
Even before 1932 the forest was used by the local people who usually lived on the borders of the forest. They used it to get food, and medicinal plants. They used the big palm tree leaves to make baskets, mats. Mostly they did a lot of logging and usually they liked to take Mahagony. They would fell a large tree, and then build a pit underneath it so that one person was under the tree, and another on top of the tree while they used a large saw to make planks. Because they took so many of the mature trees, it allowed for a lot of other trees that represented 5% to overgrow and now represent 20 or 30%. This makes it hard for those original trees to grow back because there isnt enough room. You dont see that many Mahagony trees in the park anymore because of this.
From 1966-1986 there was a lot of political turmoil in Uganda and therefore no one was looking out for the park. There was a lot of wildlife hunting: leopards for their skin, elephants for their ivory tusks, and gorillas for their bush meat just to name a few. People were smuggling things through the forest. They were grazing their farm animals in the forest. From the years 1954-1990 almost 30% of the Bwindi forest was cut down. That means a huge loss of habitat for the animals.
In 1991 the Bwindi forest finally got a National park status and they began to habituate gorillas. What does that mean? Well gorillas prior to this only had memories of hunters laying traps, and snares to catch gorillas. Habituating animals means getting them used to the presence of humans, it does not mean they sit and play and eat and touch humans, it just means they know that if a human is 15 feet away, that it wont harm the gorilla. And I know some of you might think this is bad, that its not natural. But the thing is, every conservation project needs money. So in 1993 the first group started receiving tourists. Where does your money go? A small portion of it goes back to the communities that surround the forest. Why? At first these people were unhappy, because they werent allowed in the park any more, they werent allowed to graze their animals there, or take plants or trees out of the forest. So this money goes into a fund where the community decides what to do with it, roads, schools, business. Another smaller portion is kept for when the gorillas come out of the park, and eat peoples crops, or ruin their houses. This does happen sometimes and the local people were getting very angry because the gorillas were ruining their hard work. Only if you can prove the gorillas came and did this to your land, will you get the money though. The rest of the fee to see the gorillas, goes to the park: rangers pay. What do rangers do? They patrol the park to this day. Somewhere in the park right now is a small group of rangers camping out. They record information on animals, plants, trees, people. They make sure that the locals arent setting fires in the park to scare animals out, or that people arent setting traps for little bush pigs or antelopes. (No one has tried to catch a gorilla in years but sometimes they get caught in a snare set for something else) These rangers all take turns doing this work. Another reason why I think its ok that you pay to see the gorillas, is that you only see them for about an hour. One hour of their day is disturbed by humans, humans that they are used to by now.
But humans were bad. There is now no natural predator in bwindi other than humans. The leopards and buffalo have been hunted to extinction. There are however over 200 species of butterflies, and 300 species of birds in the park along with many monkeys, bush pigs, small civets (cats), and antelopes.
In 1994 the park was named a National World Heritage Site.
What are the challenges the park is facing now?
The gorillas move. Sometimes they move out of the forest and into the community where they need to be ‘pushed’ back in. There is a group of volunteers who basically are called to stand in the gorillas way and then the gorillas usually turn back.
Sometimes the local people still go into the park to hunt bush pigs, or let their animals graze in the park. The forest provides a good water source for animals. If they continue to graze their animals after being told not to, they can be arrested or their animals taken from them. (doesnt usually happen)
In the last 10 years the gorillas have increased by about 100 (rough estimate). There are about 408 gorillas in Bwindi, and a total about 850 in the world. So should you see them? YES. Is it worth it? YES. Every week that I go see them to get my samples, there is something new and exciting to report. I love them. All of you who know me, know I love children and the young gorillas just melt my heart the same way. I have seen a lot of wild animals now, but these guys will have a special place in my memory.
In other news: I was having a rough last few days because I have been very tired feeling, and now I think I have allergies which is funny because Ive been in Uganda for a month and now Im allergic to something. So I was feeling very sad and homesick because no one ever wants to be sick away from home! Even at 24! But somehow I rally. And Im not sure where it comes from but I think I have this determined nature about me that has brought me this far. Also maybe I hear grandpa and uncle Dennis in my ear “no blood, no tears!” And with that, I am going to take a nap in Uganda.