Featured Park: Arusha National Park, Tanzania

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Thousands of flamingoes dot Big Momella Lake in Arusha National Park. Photo taken on a 2013 Ujuzi safari.

The closest national park to Arusha, northern Tanzania’s safari capital, Arusha National Park is a multi-faceted jewel, offering the opportunity to explore a diversity of habitats within a few hours through game drives, hikes and canoeing.

The entrance gate leads into shadowy montane forest inhabited by inquisitive blue monkeys and colorful turaco and trogons. It is the only place on the northern safari circuit where the acrobatic black and white colobus monkeys are easily seen. In the midst of the forest stands the spectacular Ngurdoto Crater, whose steep, rocky cliffs enclose a wide, marshy floor dotted with herds of buffalo and warthog.

Read moreFeatured Park: Arusha National Park, Tanzania

Featured Park: Lake Nakuru, Kenya

One of the highlights of my last trip to Kenya was Lake Nakuru. It is world famous for its birdlife, which is a beacon for leading ornithologists, scientists and wildlife filmmakers. Even though I wasn’t visiting at the height of the bird season, I saw a nice variety. Greater and lesser flamingo dotted the shores pink and were complemented by pelicans, hammerkops, snowy egrets, multiple heron species, sacred ibises, and more.

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The park spans an attractive range of wooded and bush grassland around the lake, offering wide ecological diversity, from lakewater and woodland, to the rocky escarpment and ridges where rock hyraxes, klipspringers and baboons make their homes.

This is one of the few places in the world where lions have adapted to climbing trees. It’s quite an astounding sight to look up in the canopy and find a king of the forest looking down at you!

Other notable game within the lake include hippos and clawless otters. White rhinos, waterbucks, Bohor’s reedbucks, zebras, cape buffalo, impalas, elands and Thomson gazelles roam the shores. Deep in the forest, shy black rhinos can occasionally be spotted as they browse among the undergrowth. I was lucky enough to spot one, as well as to view white rhinos on the lakeshore.

I also enjoyed the large social groups of baboons and vervet monkeys that could be observed throughout the forests.

Lake Nakuru is just one of many wildlife-rich parks throughout Kenya. Learn more about Kenya’s parks.

Featured Lodge: Mihingo Lodge, Uganda

Mihingo Lodge is a peaceful and luxurious retreat adjacent to Lake Mburo National Park in Uganda. Situated on privately owned land, it features 10 permanent tents on raised wooden platforms and covered by a thatched roof. Each spacious and comfortable tent includes an en-suite bathrooms with hot and cold running water, showers, and flush toilet. Each room is nested into a private spot and has a great view.

There is so much to do at Mihingo, from walking safaris and horse rides to game drives and boat trips on Lake Mburo. Guests can go on a cultural walk, ride a bike to a fishing village or visit the local primary school.

Guests at Uganda's Mahingo Lodge go mountain biking among the zebras. Photo by Ralph Schenk of Mahingo Lodge.

The main dining area is a large thatched structure built from rocks, the wood of dead olive trees found on the land, and native grasses. Below the dining area, an infinity swimming pool stretches out from the rocks and seems to disappear into the vast landscape beyond.

Infinity swimming pool at Mahingo Lodge, Uganda. Photo by Ralph Schenk of Mahingo Lodge, Uganda.

Next to the dining area is a lovely round sitting room where people can sit and relax, have a drink and watch the animals at the water hole.

Upstairs is another room with breathtaking panoramic views of Lake Kacheera and the park. This is the perfect place to chill out with a book, have a nap or play a game of backgammon or chess.

Photo by Ralph Schenk of Mahingo Lodge, Uganda.

And don’t forget the bushbaby platform – a wonderful place for cocktails and of course the best place to see Mahingo’s family of resident bushbabies up close.

Bushbaby (Otolemur crassicaudatus). Photo by Ralph Schenk of Mahingo Lodge, Uganda.
Bushbaby (Otolemur crassicaudatus). Photo by Ralph Schenk of Mahingo Lodge, Uganda.

In appreciation of its fragile surroundings, Mihingo Lodge is an environmentally friendly accommodation. All electricity, hot water and water pumps are powered by solar panels and there is a natural water catchment system to take advantage of the rains.

Make a point to visit Mihingo Lodge and Lake Mburo National Park on your next visit to Uganda!  Both are a great stop before or after trekking to see the mountain gorillas.

Rwandan mountain gorilla makes a tool for catching food

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Lisanga gets ready to catch ants with her new tool. Photo by the Gorilla Doctors.

For the first time, scientists have seen a mountain gorilla use a tool to get and eat food in the wild.

A clever young female named Lisanga watched a silverback from her group get stung by the ants he wanted to snack on when he reached into an ant hole. He ran off hungry. But Lisanga came up with a solution, grabbing a stick from the ground and placing it into the hole. When she lifted it out, ants covered the stick and she licked them off without getting stung. It was the first time a wild mountain gorilla has been observed using a tool.

Two veterinarians from the nonprofit group Gorilla Doctors reported the incident in the American Journal of Primatology. It took place in Virunga National Park, Rwanda, where Ujuzi often leads gorilla tracking excursions.

This new observation attests to something we’ve long known: mountain gorillas have amazing levels of intelligence and creativity, and are well worth the efforts to preserve and learn from them.

Virunga Highlights Plights of Mountain Gorillas & Humans

I’ve been waiting with  anticipation ever since it was announced a few months ago that Netflix had acquired Virunga, a documentary about Africa’s first national park. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Virunga is one of the last remaining homes of the world’s mountain gorillas, but it’s been threatened by war and oil exploration. It’s just across the border from Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, where Ujuzi often leads gorilla tracking excursions.

I got a chance to watch Virunga last night and highly recommend it. It offers incredible insight into the intelligence and emotional lives of the gorillas, and the commitment of park rangers, scientists and local residents who work to protect their habitat.

Some of the film’s most touching moments take place in the park’s mountain gorilla orphanage. Poachers killed these mountain gorillas’ parents – not for meat, but in hopes that they could sell the babies on the black market. On at least one occasion, poachers massacred almost an entire gorilla clan as part of an effort to drive the gorillas to extinction. Their thinking is that if there are no more mountain gorillas, the park will open up for mining and other ventures.

The orphanage offers safety to four young mountain gorillas, as well as an opportunity for them to grow up healthy and strong. You can see the great amount of love among the gorillas and their human handlers. But the handlers are aware of a bitter paradox. The baby gorillas needed human helpers in order to survive, but now they have learned not to see humans as a threat. What does this mean for their possible re-release into the wild?

It was also heartbreaking to witness the funeral of one of the park’s rangers, and to hear rangers talk pragmatically about the possibility of death. Rangers are often injured or killed in conflicts with poachers or with armed groups that want to claim park land. But many of those in the film echoed the assessment of Andre Bauma, who heads the gorilla orphanage: “You must justify why you are on this earth – gorillas justify why I am here, they are my life. So if it is about dying, I will die for the gorillas.”

Veterinarians Help Mountain Gorillas Survive

This month, a new documentary about the Gorilla Doctors – a nonprofit group of veterinarians in Rwanda who treat sick and injured mountain gorillas to ward off extinction – was released in Canada. The film is not available in the United States yet,  but you can listen to a fascinating interview with the filmmakers and the Gorilla Doctors’ head veterinarian about the risks and rewards of these efforts.

Gorilla Tourism Helps Rwandans Thrive

Ellen Wilson took this amazing photo of a young gorilla while traveling with Ujuzi in Rwanda.
Ellen Wilson took this amazing photo of a young gorilla while traveling with Ujuzi in Rwanda.

Do you ever wonder the effect that protecting wildlife has on local communities? On Sunday, the Guardian newspaper published an outstanding article on how Rwanda’s gorilla conservation program has benefited local residents. It profiles Console Nyirabatangana, a widow with five children who lives near Virunga National Park, where the country’s mountain gorilla families live. She used to earn less than $2 a day and struggled to feed her family one daily meal. Today, she has a three-bedroom house, a flourishing vegetable garden, and a good income. Her younger children all go to school, and her oldest daughter is now a teacher in a village near the park.

The change is thanks in large part to Rwanda’s tourism revenue-sharing program, which invests 5 percent of income from national parks in local communities.  Some of these funds go toward helping residents establish small businesses, such as beekeeping and crafting.

An article in National Geographic explained how efforts at boosting the mountain gorilla population have benefitted human health. Since many illnesses can pass between different species, doctors and veterinarians work to protect the health of all—from offering health screenings for people who come into close contact with apes to vaccinating domestic animals for rabies.

Would you like to visit the mountain gorillas and see some of the community benefits in person? Ujuzi is offering a mountain gorilla and migration safari with Zoo Atlanta gorilla specialist Jodi Carrigan in February 2015. Participants will have the opportunity to track mountain gorillas on up to three separate days—a rare treat, as most group safaris limit gorilla visits to just one day. Time is running out, so please download the full itinerary and reserve your spot right away! Contact me with any questions.

Can Vaccines Save Wild Apes?

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Last month I wrote about Conservation Through Public Health, a Ugandan non-profit organization that works to decrease the spread of disease between humans and endangered mountain gorillas. While much of its work focuses on preventing human disease outbreaks that could spread to gorillas, the organization also provides life-saving veterinary treatment when infectious diseases strike the mountain gorillas directly — staving off epidemics that could wipe out their population.

Some conservationists would like to go a step further by using vaccines to protect endangered apes. In his Not Exactly Rocket Science blog for National Geographic, science writer Ed Yong recently wrote about a group of University of Cambridge scientists working to develop a chimp vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus. Scientists are also working to develop vaccines to protect chimpanzees from human respiratory syncytial virus (an illness that is usually harmless in humans but can be deadly in chimps) and simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV, which causes a syndrome similar to AIDS in chimps).

But not everyone is in favor of this approach. The vaccines have to be tested on captive chimps first, which raises its own ethical issues. Yong outlines the arguments on both sides in his excellent blog post.

What do you think? How can we best protect the future of our ape cousins?

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