Oakland Zoo Veterinarian, Dr. Andrea Goodnight, and volunteer veterinarian, Dr. Sharon Gottfried, are working with the Uganda Carnivore Program (UCP) in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda this February. They will be assisting UCP veterinarian, Dr. Ludwig Siefert, in his daily conservation activities, while also conducting a study to evaluate stress hormone levels in African lions in the park.
We left SFO on Thursday Feb 12 at 4pm, to arrive 15 hours later in Dubai on Friday Feb 13 at 7pm. The astute among you may wonder about my math…nope, it’s not wrong – we’re just time traveling! During the long layover we learned some history while viewing the highlights of Dubai: the Al-Faruk mosque, Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world at 1820 feet), lavish hotels (rooms from $500 – $35,000 per night), and finally stopped to dip our fingers in the Arabian Sea at Jumeirah Beach! Dubai is a city of lights – strings of lights engulf entire buildings, drip from palm trees, and dance on top of towers, leaving us to wonder if Dubai’s residents ever experience stars twinkling in the night sky…and how different Uganda’s nights are likely to be…
Still Getting There…
Back to the enormous, ultramodern Dubai International Airport for the second leg of the journey. Six hours later we arrive in a different world, complete with only one small paved airstrip, a simple airport terminal, and friendly Ugandan faces and voices. “You are most welcome!” we hear as we make our way through immigration. It is too late in the afternoon to drive to QENP, so we stay in Entebbe, a modern African city, for the night. Our guesthouse is comfortable and
Dr Gottfried with a village child.
welcoming, the back garden a mecca for multitudes of songbirds, geckos, and mosquitos!
Village children who climbed into the driver’s seat of our van and the chaos that ensued as they explored the van!
Day 4 begins before sunrise, as we meet our driver, Peter, to begin the 8-hour journey through the Ugandan countryside to QENP. Today is Sunday, and people are headed to church services, walking along the side of the road, the women wearing their finest dresses – the brightly colored fabrics are a sharp contrast to the general tan haze that hangs in the air. We pass villages with names such as Mbarara, Bushenyi, and Ruburizi, each consisting of dusty red dirt streets, homes, shops, and lots of people on motorbikes. I feel a long way from home…
Typical Ugandan village
We make a final stop in a village just outside the park gates where Dr. Siefert will meet us. As if they have specialized radar detection, the village children appear out of nowhere, tapping at the windows, holding our hands, and asking for sweets. They are infatuated with our pale skin, earrings, Dr. Gottfried’s tattoos, and my toenail polish! Lucky for us, Dr. Siefert soon arrives, the driver shoos the children away, and we are ready for a conservation adventure.
(Still) Day 4
After a quick check-in to our simple hostel accommodations, we sit down with Dr. Seifert and his research assistant, James, for a briefing about the current situation in the park: these are the real African conservation dilemmas.
QENP is located in the southwestern corner of Uganda, covering an area of approximately 764 square miles of the Rift Valley Floor, including Lakes George and Edward. Most of the parkland is grassland savannah, with stunning views of the Virunga and Rwenzori mountains (on clear days). Featuring one of the highest biodiversity ratings of the world’s national parks, QENP is home to approximately 100 mammal species and over 500 bird species. Sounds like paradise, right?
Unfortunately, this biodiversity is in severe distress. There is currently a drought in the park, huge sections of the park are burned, the lakes are overfished, and many of the apex predators have been poisoned by people in the surrounding villages.
We head out to track one specific lioness that needs her radio collar replaced. The changes in the park since I first saw it almost 4 years ago are shocking. The land is black underneath dry remains of grasses, with minimal new vegetation. A heavy gray haze hangs in the air – smoke from nearby fires. A few Uganda kob and gazelle stand amidst the charred area, quickly darting away when our research vehicle nears. Dr. Siefert remarks, “They never used to run away like that. They are more worried about us since the fires.”
We continue through the park, James, Dr. Gottfried and I on the top of the truck, antenna in hand, hoping to hear the lionesses’ signal. Ultimately this evening, we don’t find her, but we do see a few promising signs that not all is lost. A group of at least 20 elephants stops our progress down one section of road! Apparently, the elephant population has not been as affected as others by the changes in the park.
This first evening is a sobering reminder of why we are here. There is much work to be accomplished: change human actions, reverse the damage, and repopulate the park. As we debrief after tracking, Dr. Siefert reveals that these changes may be almost impossible to make in time to prevent complete extinction of many of the parks’ animals; however, he will continue the mission tomorrow – as long as tomorrows keep coming.
Tuesday Feb 17 (morning)
It’s another tomorrow…
Unfortunately, there’s very bad news this morning. A young male lion crossed the border from Tanzania yesterday afternoon and entered a village. The residents surrounded the lion and pelted it with stones. The lion retaliated and a villager was killed. At that point, the wildlife ranger had no choice but to euthanize the lion. Dr. Siefert had been called, but we simply could not get to the village in time to intervene and relocate the lion.
In a somber mood, Dr. Siefert, James, Dr. Gottfried and I must take some tourists on a morning game drive to track lions. We drive deep into the northeastern corner of the park. On the way, our mood lifts a little…I spot a creature with a distinctive loping gait far across the savannah. It’s a hyena, returning to its daytime resting spot after a night of hunting! Hyenas are so critically endangered in QENP that Dr. Siefert knows of only 1 female and 2 males left. Maybe this sighting is a good omen?
For the next several hours, we partially forget the conservation challenges and enjoy the natural beauty of the parklands and the animals. We visit 3 groups of lions. Sharon’s group usually consists of 10 animals, both females and cubs. Today we see 3 females, lounging in the grass. The Uganda kob call out alarms while we observe, clearly nervous about the lion presence. The second group contains the three large males: Papa, Omukama, and Rudi. While Rudi keeps out of sight in the brush, the others lay in the sun, bellies bulging from the kill they must have made overnight. Finally, we move into a wetland area and find another group of 8 females and cubs, hiding from the midday sun in the brush, waiting to ambush any stray kob that ventures too close. Lions on the savannah can be difficult to see: Dr. Seifert points out another cub in the tree that even James missed while radiotracking!
It’s midday and the sun is beating down, heating up the savannah. We must leave this amazing place for a while, but today there is more positive energy. Despite all the challenges, some animals are thriving. Now we must press on to our next engagement…convincing the locals that this mission is worthwhile.
Next installment: village visit and meeting with the Uganda Wildlife Authority!