Behind Budongo

Emma Gregg examines the ecosystem and conservation projects of this biodiverse forest reserve, one of Africa’s best places to track chimpanzees. She also discusses the work of Professor Vernon Reynolds, founder of the Budongo Conservation Field Station

Sometimes, as you drive through the southern reaches of Uganda’s Murchison Falls Conservation Area, between the Kichumbanyobo Gate and the Victoria Nile, you’ll hear a volley of hoots and screams reverberating through the trees. The locals call the racket a kelele. This region is called Budongo Forest Reserve, and it’s chimpanzee country. It may not be as well known as Kibale (also in Uganda) or Mahale and Gombe Stream in Tanzania, but nonetheless, it’s one of the best places in Africa for a chimp-tracking expedition.

Like many of the best primate-watching destinations, Budongo is a place where ecotourism, field research and education intertwine. Its beautiful tropical rainforest was a centre of scientific research long before part of it opened up to tourism. British anthropologist and chimpanzee expert Professor Vernon Reynolds and his wife Frankie conducted a pioneering study of Budongo’s chimps in 1962, when they were in their twenties, an experience that Professor Reynolds described in his first book, Budongo: A Forest and its Chimpanzees: “We spent the best part of a year in the Busingiro area of the forest, going in from our little rest house every day, watching the chimps if we could find them and recording what they were eating and doing,” he recalls in his diaries. “There were no trails in those days, so we had a tough time of it. Several times, we got lost, a terrifying business. After we left Uganda, we were invited to California to write a chapter in a book, the first ever on primate field studies.”

When his assignment came to an end, he returned to Britain and took up the study of human behaviour, human ecology and biological anthropology at the University of Bristol and later at Oxford University. Meanwhile, others conducted their own scientific studies in Budongo Forest. In the late 1960s, one researcher, Akira Suzuki, became the first primatologist ever to see, describe and photograph a fully grown male chimpanzee killing and eating a chimpanzee baby. “So, by the early 1970s, the Budongo chimpanzees were quite well known within primatology,” Professor Reynolds says.

He longed to return to Uganda, but was prevented by the civil wars that ravaged the country from 1971 to 1986. At last, in 1989, the time seemed right. “One big spur to action was the news that baby chimps were being caught in Budongo and taken to Entebbe airport for onward shipment to pet collectors and others in richer countries. That had to be stopped,” he says. “I felt I had to act. It was a sort of possessiveness — I still felt these were our chimps. If they were getting shot and taken for experiments and circuses and who knows what else, I had to go back. So all through the autumn and into the winter of 1989, I sat at my desk and wrote letter after letter, asking for advice and seeking funding. I must have written several hundred, each different, each tailored to the specific agency or person.” With the creation of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in the pipeline, most of the funds available for primate conservation in Uganda were being allocated to mountain gorillas.

At last, in 1990, Professor Reynolds made it back to Uganda, where he quickly discovered that the human population around Budongo had expanded enormously with influxes of people from the politically unstable regions to the north, and across Lake Albert from Zaire (now DRC). Although Uganda had banned hunting in protected areas, mammals were being poached in forests such as Budongo, for food and for sale. The government had no funds to tackle the problem, but in the Kibale Forest, the presence of a field project appeared to be keeping poaching in check. The stage was set for a new research and education programme in Budongo.

Professor Reynolds travelled to the forest to scope out the possibilities. “We were accompanied by Manueri, my old tracker who had led us in the forest throughout the 1962 project. He was still living in the area though an old man now. He was as delighted to see me as I was to see him — I’d been looking forward to it for a year.” On the first afternoon, they heard chimps calling around half a mile away. “This was the first time I’d heard wild chimpanzees in 28 years and I was tremendously excited,” he says. Two days later, he got his first glimpse. “A chimpanzee mother and infant approached us silently, climbing into a tree. The baby suckled while the mother sat in the tree watching us. She was wholly exposed to our view for a few minutes, and it occurred to me that a poacher, alas, could easily have shot her. It was a thought that never once occurred to either Frankie or me in eight months of chimp-watching in 1962.”

At the end of that month-long trip, the professor switched back into fundraising mode, securing a grant from the Jane Goodall Institute, with which he hired Ugandan graduate zoology student Christopher Bakuneeta to set up the Budongo Forest Project. For the next 10 years, Professor Reynolds would visit Budongo twice a year, whenever his academic duties at Oxford allowed. Their initial objectives were to combine research into chimpanzee ecology with the effects of logging both on the forest and the chimps, and to stamp out poaching.

Christopher chose to base the project a few miles east of Busingiro on the site of the old Sonso Sawmill, once one of the largest in East Africa. Much of the mahogany and ironwood exported to Europe in the 1950s and ’60s came out of Budongo Forest — the floor of the Royal Festival Hall in London is Budongo ironwood. But the trees that had once provided Uganda with its richest source of foreign revenue had now largely gone. Six local trail-cutters were tasked with making a grid of transects, and six field assistants were recruited to go into the forest each day, find chimpanzees and attempt to follow them, taking care to win their confidence and not to alarm them.

Within the first year, Uganda’s game and forest departments broached the idea of setting up a tourism project in the north-east corner of Budongo Forest at Kaniyo Pabidi, around 25km from Sonso. “This was part of the new thinking,” says Professor Reynolds. “As yet, few tourists had returned to Uganda after the civil wars of the ’70s and ’80s, and until the roads were improved, few could be expected. But perhaps chimpanzees would attract them; thanks to Jane Goodall, chimpanzees were now of tremendous interest to people worldwide. Could chimp tourism be an income earner, perhaps a bigger one than timber had ever been? The Forest Department had already considered the issue in the Kibale Forest, and decided to support the construction of a tourist site there.”

The professor’s own field research restarted in July 1991. Recalling his first morning in the forest, he says: “I awoke to hear black-and-white colobus monkeys engaging in a dawn chorus of deep, throaty gurgling roars. I got out of bed, dressed by torchlight, and was on the verandah as dawn was breaking. There were blue monkeys and baboons right by the house. And immediately, I heard chimps calling from two different directions. Everything was here, all around us, welcoming us to the forest!”

At that stage, most of Budongo’s chimpanzees were still terrified of humans. It would be a painstaking process to habituate them. If the day began with colobus calls and a distant sighting of chimps, the team would abandon thoughts of breakfast and set off in search. But before long, the field assistants managed to get to know five of the Sonso chimps well enough to name them. “Our objective was to recognise all our chimps individually, but it would be a very long time before we could do that,” says Professor Reynolds. “Not only were the chimps very good at keeping to themselves, but I had certain qualms about making them too confident in the presence of human beings, for poachers could too easily cash in on this. We would need to go slowly and with caution, and we’d need to get a conservation and education programme going too. If it could be linked with tourism, there was a real chance that the Forest Department would back it.”

Gradually, the idea for an education centre and low-impact forest lodge took shape. Built among the trees at Kaniyo Pabidi with input from the field researchers and assistance from the European Community and the Jane Goodall Institute, it was to be a place where Ugandans and tourists could learn about the forest, trees and wildlife, and go on chimp-tracking hikes. In 1992, transect-cutters began the laborious process of creating around 40km of research transects and hiking trails, while field assistants set about habituating the local chimp community. Soon after the project launched in 1993, Budongo became the first Ugandan wildlife area to employ a female ranger, Sauda Birungi. Over the following years Kaniyo Pabidi’s chimps slowly grew accustomed to visitors.

Meanwhile, the field researchers continued their studies at Sonso, making some interesting observations, not only of chimpanzee behaviour but also of other primates, from black-and-white colobus monkeys bluff-charging chimps to male blue monkeys that were newly dominant within their troop killing and eating infants fathered by other males. They knew that Budongo’s chimps occasionally hunted and ate monkeys, since monkey remains had been found in their faeces, and in August 1994, they witnessed a male chimp called Duane eating a juvenile black-and-white colobus, the first scientists to do so in Budongo since Akira Suzuki in 1968. By 1995, the number of chimps the team could recognise had risen to 50.

Professor Reynolds retired from his Oxford professorship in 2001, but he remains an Emeritus Fellow of Biological Anthropology at Magdalen College and visits Budongo to continue his fieldwork whenever he can. Renamed the Budongo Conservation Field Station, the project that he and Christopher founded in 1990 became a Ugandan NGO in 2007. It continues to this day as a centre of excellence for primate research and forest conservation under the leadership of Dr Fred Babweteera.

Fifty-five years on from his earliest studies, Professor Reynolds and his colleagues’ most recent findings have focused on the changing sources of minerals in the diet of the Budongo chimpanzees. Chimps are well known for their ability to self-medicate, a skill of interest to human medical science. These individuals used to obtain salt and minerals to aid digestion from decaying forest palm tree pith. However, forest palms have become rare in Budongo, due to farmers using their leaf stems to tie tobacco for curing, so now, the chimps use leaf sponges to drink water containing mineral-rich clay from waterholes under trees instead. They have also been observed eating termite mound soil, which has been found to be rich in iron and aluminium. All the evidence suggests that this very special forest still has many more secrets to reveal.

Safari planner
• Getting there  Several airlines fly to Entebbe International Airport. The writer flew with Ethiopian Airlines and booked her trip through Gane & Marshall. Kaniyo Pabidi, the centre for chimpanzee tracking in Budongo Forest Reserve, lies some 300km north of Entebbe, which is about a four-hour drive. It is often visited en route to Murchison Falls National Park.
• Where to stay  There are no accommodation or facilities for tourists at the Budongo Conservation Field Station itself. However, you can stay at Budongo Eco Lodge at Kaniyo Pabidi, from where it is possible to go chimp tracking.
• When to go  Straddling the equator, Uganda has a moderately warm climate all year round. The wetter seasons are March to May and lighter rains are from November to December, but usually there’s some sunshine each day.
• Further information  Footprint’s Uganda Handbook (2nd edition) by Lizzie Williams; or visit the website of Budongo Conservation Field Station at

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