Archive for June, 2008

I have a slight fascination with plants.  Botany had always been a side dream of mine.  Plants don’t judge; they don’t think: they just are. Each one is a fascinating in its own way, perfectly adapted to their environment.  You could spend lifetimes, and people have, studying the billions of different plants that have evolved to be in that place at that time.


That’s why, when I interviewed Aimable Nsanzurwimo who is the coordinator of the Botany Research Program at the Karisoke Research Center, I could hardly contain my glee.  The Albertine Rift has 1,034 plant species, 82 of which are endemic to the Albertine Rift, with more being discovered all the time.  Aimable is basically a kid in a candy store and I envy him.


Aimable Nsanzurwimo has been with the Karisoke Research Center since 2005 but, like most employees here, started as a student studying for his bachelors on bamboo.  Bamboo is very important vegetation to both the monkeys in the park and the gorillas as they provide a good source of food. By looking at species that are associated with bamboo growth, he could determine the positive and negative impact they had on its growth.


Of particular interest to him was whether or not gorillas knew to choose certain plants in order to medicate themselves.  Aimable looked at how the local population used plants for medication and then looked at what plants the gorillas eat.  The two corresponded.  Of the 110 plants used by the people for medicinal purposes, the gorillas shared 35.  This meant that there is a possibility that the gorillas were eating certain plants to help with minor illnesses, such as bowel troubles.


Some of the plants that gorillas eat include the secamone Africana, the gomphocarpus physocatpus, the pentarrhinum inspidum and, of course, bamboo which is shared by both gorillas and Golden Monkeys.



The vast amount of diversity at the park means that Aimable has a large amount of work ahead of him.  He has begun a plant database of all the plants in the park.  He has also reviewed the list of plants that the monkeys and gorillas eat.  Around 80 and 114 plants are eaten by them respectively.  So far, he has identified 162 plant species and discovered new species of moss, orchids and sponges.  Weather in North-Western Rwanda is varying; I was supposed to have missed the rainy season all together but instead the rain continued for another half a month.  In order to measure this change, Aimable has begun recording rainfall per month.



In the future, Aimable wants to continue his research on bamboo and orchids over a long term along with continued updates on the plant catalogue.  He also hopes to have a botanical garden for all the plants in the first two vegetation areas of the volcanoes.  The mere idea of having an area where one can be surrounded by and observe all the different plants of the Volcanoes National Park makes me drool.


However, Aimable’s set-up is still not up to par for the work he is trying to do now.  The sad fact is that he does not have enough resources: he is using newspapers to preserve plants.  Nevertheless, looking back to 2005 and how the Botany Program has so far grown, Aimable is very happy and believes the best is yet to come…


“If there are no plants, there are no gorillas!”

Photos provided by Aimable Nsanzurwimo


Read Full Post »

Golden Monkey Trek

Me and a Golden Monkey

Finally, I get to go in the field, as a tourist mind you but in the field all the same.  Today I went in the field with Deogratias Tuyisingize who is in charge of the Golden Monkey Reseach project to see his Golden Monkeys.  Despite going on a tourist permit, this is the same group of monkeys that are used for research and Deo is familiar with all the monkeys in the group.


I got at 5:30am this morning so I could take a proper shower.  I don’t what the point of me missing sleep for that was; it’s not like the monkeys cared.  Anyway, I met Deo at the office so we could drive to the tourism office so I could hand in my permit.  These permits are quite pricey, the golden Monkey being one of the cheapest at $100.  It is also the busy season for tourists and there are at least 50 or so milling about waiting for their briefing.  I am the only person going on the Golden Monkey trek today which is a relief.  The monkeys are hard to photograph and it proves to be even more difficult when jostling for room. 


Espoir Muramira


My guide for the trek is Espoir Muramira.  He is a friendly guy who seems to really like his job and talking with tourists.  After a quick review of very important facts about the Golden Monkeys, such as they have golden colouring to them, we headed off to Sabinyo Mountain.  The group of monkeys we were about to see is called the Kabatwa group and normally only has one male out of the group’s 80 members.


Golden Monkey on the park wall


I was surprised how easy it was to get to them.  We did an easy climb through farmers’ field until we hit the park border.  They motioned to me that we were at the Golden Monkeys.  I couldn’t believe it, there on the wall was a Golden Monkey.  The farmers and monkeys seem to be living right on top of each other! The park truly is too small for the animals it protects. I could stand outside, without a permit and watch the monkeys jump from tree to tree; then again, I wouldn’t get very good pictures.

 Deo trains the trackers

Deo catches a butterfly

There are already trackers at the site and they stop taking their data once they see me.  Because these monkeys are used for both tourism and research, every now and then, the poor trackers have to stop their job and wait for the eager Muzungus to take their photos.  The behaviour of the monkeys is affected by a stranger’s presence so even though I am only one person, they cannot use any data while I’m here.  These trackers are the only conservation group where there are both people from the Rwanda Office of National Parks and Tourism and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International.  As you can imagine, researchers and the tourist office often have different ideas about how the park should be managed.

Golden Monkey 


The monkeys live inside the bamboo zone of the park.  Barely much more is heard but the bamboo rustling and the sound of them breaking off new shoots to eat.  The monkeys are lively creatures and jump from tree to tree.  They are moving all around us and I have to move often to be able to see them.


Golden Monkey 

In order to get a good picture of the golden monkeys, you have to be patient.  The whole group travels from one place to another.  Often, the male will call his members back to him.  Once you find a spot where they have to jump from one tree to another, you stay there and wait.  Now this is not an easy thing to do with a puny camera like mine.  You really need to have a fast camera to get the real spectacular shots.


 Deo and a golden monkey


The only other time I’ve been surrounded by monkeys like this is by a bunch of howler monkeys. These two experiences are completely different.  The howler monkeys have this habit of… howling and can be heard from quite far off.  You expect to face with a horrible den of monsters.  This is not a very encouraging thing when you have just decided to walk off into the forest in the evening like I had decided to do.  They also did not enjoy my presence: they started to throw things. They also decided to try to pee on me: they succeeded.  Golden monkeys, on the other hand, could care less if I had been there or not.  They hardly made a peep and would go to the edge of the trees completely exposing themselves.  The only time they felt the need to hide was when they to sense I was about to take a picture of them.  I imagine them telling each other how they can fool the tourists: “Hey, Mary! Watch me go over to that branch and pose.  I’m going to mess with this girl.”  Then they would calmly climb out in the open.  As I reached for my camera, they would immediately jump back. They’re sneaky buggers.

Read Full Post »

A Trek through the Hills


Today, Simon Childs from DFGFI, Claire, Tierra, Mike Cranfield who is in charge over at the Mountain Gorilla Veterinarian Project, Dr Denise who is volunteering with the local clinic and me decided to trek up some of the many hills of Rwanda to see if we could find a waterfall that is renowned for being spectacular.


We started our journey by clamouring into the MGVP truck and setting off in the direction we hoped would get us to where we wanted to go.  Heaving from one side to another, we drove along the treacherous dirt roads that weaved along cliff edges.  After about an hour of driving, our truck just couldn’t go any further.  This was due to the 5 meter gap that barred the way.  This gap could only be crossed by a 2 meter wide wood bridge that didn’t look like it could hold the hefty load that was our truck.


Despite not remembering this obstacle the last time Mike saw the waterfall, we plough on by foot.  White people in town always attract attention; white people on a rural trail in the middle of nowhere attract a mob.  We were quickly surrounded with children and adults alike asking us the few phrases they know in English.  “What is… your name, the time, your job, your church?”


Mike, coming from the English part of Canada, often likes to make jabs at the fact that I come from the French side.  These jokes are harmless but the stuff that makes some French Canadians steam at the ears and go on tirades about the oppressive English.  However, on this occasion, he thought that perhaps my French may come in handy.  He instructs me to ask a few people if they might know anything about a waterfall nearby.  When I asked people if they speak French they almost always answered with an enthusiastic “Oui!” but only to receive blank stares when I asked about a waterfall.  I further explained that it was water that drips from the mountain with mike doing hand motions behind me that were meant to represent water falling down.  This inevitably got someone to start to show off his own dance moves once he saw Mike carrying on.  Hilltop farmers apparently do not feel the need to discuss about Descartes and croissants in French.


Despite not knowing where we were going, we happily trekked on through the mountain roads and enjoyed the scenery that being on a hill between two lakes provides.  As the sun begins to set, we were presented with a stunning view.  Tragically, as has always been my experience, photos just never do a landscape justice.  Obviously looking out of place, a very nice priest stops to ask us if we are lost.  His French is impeccable and he tells me very kindly that we have gone the wrong way to see the waterfall we seek.  After thanking him, we start to head back, not because we finally got confirmation of what we suspected to be true already but because the idea of a cold beer at this point was much too tempting.


When we get back to the truck after a gruelling uphill walk, we realize there is still one obstacle left on our journey: the trail we drove in on is only just wide enough to hold our truck.  At this point, kids are swarming around our truck and in an act of excitement; one kid completely breaks off our rear view mirror… on the driver’s side.  With a sigh, Mike takes the mirror and begins the difficult task of trying to navigate the rocky road in reverse.  We finally get to a fork in the road and turn the truck around.  After getting all the kids off our truck, we head off to the Virunga Lodge which sits atop the hill a little ways off.  The pricy lodge is absolutely stunning and the perfect place to have a beer and relax after a long day.  The price of the beer on the other hand is astronomical which is why everyone is relieved that Mike had offered to pay for all our drinks for leading us all in the wrong direction.  As the sun continues to set, we marvel at the view.  Mike, reflecting back on the day, tells us: “That waterfall is really beautiful though if you do get to see it.”  Waterfall or no, the day was really something in itself.


Read Full Post »

My days at the Karisoke Research Center have consisted of me getting up in the morning and coming to the office.  Once there, I pretend to write something while staring frustratingly at my rising pile of notes.  The amount of work I’ve been doing has risen dramatically since I arrived here.  I have at least 2 or 3 interviews planned for me per day at it leaves little time for my writing.  However, I am at the point where I have very few people left to interview and the articles are the only thing left for me to do.

During one of the staring-at-my-pile-of-notes session, Deogratias Tuyisingize came up and told me we were going to be having an interview later that day.  Many of my interviews seem to be organized in this impromptu way. I often come to the office only to find out I’m already late for an interview I was never told about.  I’ve taking up the habit of coming to the office first thing every morning just in case.

Deogratias giving a presentation

Every time I see Deo he seems to have a big smile on his face and is always eager to talk about his programs. His primary focus is the Golden Monkey program. He came to the Center 4 years ago to do his undergraduate work on the Golden Monkeys under the supervision of the Karisoke director Katie Fawcett.  He’s since become the program coordinator and has started two new programs on large mammals and butterflies. Every time Deo picks up a scientific paper, he gets an idea for another conservation project and wants to realize that idea: “I need everything to be known, not just in the Volcanoes National Park.”

Photo by Deo

The golden monkey, like the gorillas, is endemic to Albertine Rift which is the string of volcanoes I’m presently living next to in the North West part of Rwanda. The monkeys have a distinctive golden body and great bulbous cheeks.  The monkeys have been on the endangered species list since 1994 and Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International has been studying them since 2002.  The species can only be found here and the Gishwati Park to the south.

Photo by Deo

They focus on two groups of monkeys with around 80 to 90 monkeys per group. However, the groups like to live in a very small area in the bamboo zone and you cannot count them all at once. The only time a researcher can observe how many there are in a group is when the group crosses a clearing or a stream. The group will file out one by one across the stream and a tracker has to be quick to count them all as they cross.

Photo by Deo

Slain Golden MonkeysIn the long term study of the monkeys, Deo is looking at 8 behaviours: feeding, moving, resting, playing, grooming, vocalisation, fighting / aggression and copulation. The results of these studies may shed light on why the Ugandan side of the park has recorded a decline in the Golden Monkey groups at a whopping 40%!  Deo has many theories as to why this may be that he wants to test in the future.  He thinks the harvesting of bamboo and climate changes have contributed to loss of their habitat.  There is also a strange lack of babies in the groups despite the fact that there is no lack of copulation or females.



Herd of BuffaloDeogratias’ next project entails the study of large mammals in the Volcanoes National Park with the support from the Protected Area Biodiversity Project. Deo is focusing on the buffalo, antelopes, duikers and, sometimes on a rare occasion, elephants.  Large Mammals is a group that is the most heavily hunted for bush meat and it is a good index of the overall conservation status.  Tourists who come to see them are an added bonus as well.  The point of the conservation project is to maintain the current population, assess the importance of the different vegetation zones and compare findings to research done in 2003 and 1991.





Finally, Deo’s latest project is the Invertebrate Conservation Project with the butterfly as its model.  This project is still just a skeleton and will study the importance the conservation area provides for the invertebrates.  Hopefully, like the gorillas, the butterflies will become something tourists, as well, could be able to come to the Virungas to enjoy.


While Deogratias loves animals and works towards preserving them, it is very hard to find funds to train and staff people needed for project teams.  Insecurity in the Democratic Republic of Congo also makes it hard to find funding for that side of the park so animals are left helpless if they move across the border.  Deo’s enthusiasm for his projects is very energizing.  I know one thing for sure; he will always try to find new and exciting ways to save the animals he cares so deeply about.

 Photos by Deogratias, Antelopes photographed by Veronica Vecellio

Read Full Post »

Bisate School

“Muzungu! Muzingu!” all the children shouted as I arrived at the primary school in Bisate. My guide today, Joseph Karama, the manager of the Education Program for Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund international, turned to me and said, “Do you know what they mean? They are shouting: White person! White person!”  When travelling, most people resent the fact that locals will always treat them as an outsider and always will consider them as much  no matter how well they assimilate into the culture. I’ve felt this way many a time before but have come to accept the fact that my pale skin and blond hair makes me stick out like a sore thumb.

 Bisate kids

The kids swarmed us as we got out of the truck to meet the director of the school, Ndayambate Michel.  The school was split between several small buildings that housed the classrooms. It was built in 1972 by the ministry of education and provides schooling for 1,700 children, but until recently had few resources and poor sanitation.  There were only six toilets for the students and teachers to share, which meant there was one toilet for around 285 people.  The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International has since funded 25 more toilets, bringing the number of people sharing a toilet down to 55.  This number is still high and there are plans to add more in the future once enough funding can be secured.

 New toilets







Water Tank


In addition, the Fund installed two water tanks last year. Water is hard to acquire around this area and the conditions are therefore very unsanitary.  These tanks collect and store rain water. This is very useful, since the area gets a great deal of rain throughout the year.


Fifth Grade 

With help from Partners in Conservation, the Fund has provided writing materials, notebooks, geometry kits, science books, an atlas and the Hobe newsletter that is written specifically for kids up to the age of 6. The soccer teams also have new uniforms and the school has received a suitcase filled with puppets of all the local animals to teach conservation education. Joseph added that the Fund has just ordered bicycles for all the teachers. This resulted in big congratulations all around and lots of excitement.  Plans also in the works include new solar panels that will provide electricity for the school.  The roofs also need to be replaced since the ones that don’t collect rain water are still made with asbestos and can also be used for collection in the future.  There is also a need for new classrooms, since the secondary school is presently borrowing several of their classrooms.  The construction will cost $75,000 in total.



Director of the School

The director of the school is fairly new and was very happy to work for a school supported by the Fund: “When I first came here, I was pleased to hear that it is supported by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International.  The Karisoke Research Center has given over 12,000 books, which is an opportunity other schools don’t have.  This school will be excellent.”



Two Students


His hopes are high and he tells me that eventually he would like to see a computer lab built for the secondary school and to have a sheep cooperative for the teachers to improve their lives.  I too hope that these can become reality. It’s only a matter of money. It always is just a matter of money.

Read Full Post »

So I can’t really post anything about the programs here for now but I can (I think) post maybe about how well I’m being treated.  I’ve got to post something because I’ve noticed that the number of people reading this has dwindled from around 50 or so to about 5. I assume those 5 consist of my mom, my roomate, and the people at Karisoke who are interested to see if I posted anything about them yet.  If you’re really wondering what I’ve been up to or just plain hate to read or are a big fan of travel slideshow reels, you just need to look at my Flickr Page to see what pretty pictures I’ve taken recently. But then again, you wouldn’t be able to read any of my witty banter.

the researchers' houseAnyway, I’ve been living at one of the Karisoke houses that are the home to the non-rwandan part of the staff. For the moment, I live with Veronica Vecellio and Simon Childs. Veronica is the program coordinator of the gorilla research program and the house is essentially her home. She’s very kind to me and has been someone I look towards when I have a problem. Simon is a smart-alec British guy who’s in charge of the confiscated gorillas program. He pretty much hangs out with orphan gorillas all day. He’s the man to talk to if you want to go out and have a “night on the town” or else known as going to have a beer at the Muhabura hotel. Weekday nights are exciting here in Ruhengeri.

Karisoke Research Center

The rest of my time is spent at the office where I sit in the lobby with my computer or have interviews with the staff. You’ll hear all about them when the interviews are put up.

my office

Luckily enough there have been two other volunteers who are in Ruhengeri during the exact same time as me. Tierra and Clare are two Americans who are working with the Mountain Gorilla Veterinarian Project and they only live a block away.  Having people to share the experience who are both new as you are and the same age helps tremendously. Being the only young white girl around creates quite a stir and having other girls around certainly helps deflect at least some of the attention.

Clare sorting through years of MGVP gossip

However, my main source of company and who isn’t busy at any point in time is Miss. Goma, the house cat.  I’ve never met a lazier cat in my life but it suits me just fine because she does nothing else but lie around in my lap all day.


Well, now  you know how hard my life is. It’s been a struggle being taken care of so well but I think I’ll survive.

My backyard at night

Read Full Post »

I’m still alive!

Contrary to popular belief, I’m not dead. I have in fact been well and in good form but with way too much to do.  More articles will be appearing maybe in a few days about all the people I’ve been meeting and the programs that have been organized in Ruhengeri by DFGFI.  Why the gap you say?  Perhaps I’ll tell you all about it one of these days but for now it shall remain a mystery. Intriguing, no?

I’ll add some photos tomorrow to show you just how I’m roughing it over here.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »