Saturday, March 29, 2008

Saturday 29th March

The students who came to Uganda in February did their presentation yesterday at noon. There was a great turn-out and lots of interest, not least from students in first, second, and third years of the DVM course who might be considering going on such a rotation in future years. Most of the students who had been to Africa could not make it to the talk, as they we heavily engaged in other segments of their final year work. Danica was monitoring a cat as it recovered from anaesthesia, Rebecca was scrubbed in to a lengthy surgery on a dog, and Nathan was off somewhere on a large dude ranch helping to castrate a bunch of horses.

It was obvious from the stories that Tyler and Sonja chose to relate, that the rotation had been a huge success and had made a profound impression on all of those who came with Jo and me. Without question the most emotional stories were about the children in the two primary schools that we visit each year in Queen Elizabeth National Park. We have supported them for six year now & the progress is palpable. I have almost a full chapter devoted to them in The Trouble With Lions (launch date now only 14 days away!)

It was also obvious that a major highlight had been the day we captured a male lion and replaced his collar, which had grown so weak that it was only transmitting a signal about 300 metres.

Tessa, our professional photographer had taken over 6000 pictures during the trip and has whittled these down to something under 1000, with hopes to cull even further. She thinks that she will eventually be able to get them all on to two DVDs. Then she has the challenge of getting her movie footage edited. That will take time.

Meanwhile you can see how the students reacted on their own blog site at

One set of Tessa’s pictures, taken for the fun of it, showed most of the female students, who were dressed in coveralls, holding up a dart gun as if it were the ultimate “Great White Hunter” weapon and they had just shot one of The Big Five. Tyler, who was speaking at the time, acknowledged that each year I offer a “Birds of Africa” calendar as a means of raising funds for the two schools and suggested that I might like to alter the content of the calendar and offered these pictures instead. I could only think of one thing to say, and so responded “These birds have far too much clothing on to be of any use in a calendar.”

Next, we meet with the 2009 crew on Monday to begin the preparations for next February’s trip. Busy times.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

March 22nd

Well, back home after almost two months away.  The last two weeks were in Kenya, where things seem to have settled down, although we avoided going into the western part of the country.
If the rumours are right, then the ghastly trouble that exploded in late December and much of January was hardly spontaneous.  It appears to have been planned well in advance.  One account had it that pangas, the machetes of East Africa, had been purchased in bulk many weeks before the election.  Another had it that road blocks in some areas were up and functional within ten or fifteen minutes of the election results being announced.  There is no doubt that there are huge numbers of internally displaced people around the country, people who have lost everything, and are now desperate, living on the charity of friends, relatives or even in tented camps.
We were sheltered from all of this as we traveled in our old stamping grounds, around Mount Kenya, and saw many old friends from our time living in the country.
Our flights home were fairly brutal.  The total travel time was 35 hours, with three intermediate airports (Zurich, Frankfurt and Calgary). Just over half of this was in the air, the rest hanging around in lounges.  Not restful.
The Saskatoon scenery is a bit bleak.  Everything that is not white is brown. Open patches of gravel appear like mange at random spots in the remaining snow.  Piles of messages to deal with at home, but at least the house is in great shape.
After the messages have been dealt with it is full speed ahead on two fronts. 
The first is to set next year's trip to Uganda in motion.  We arrive home a few hours after the students draft has taken place, and we have no idea who has chosen to join us.  Next week country here, and then we have to get them organized.
The second, more immediate task is to prepare for the book launch in 18 days.  If all goes according to plan it will be off to Edmonton on the 10th to thank Jane Goodall for contributing the foreword, and to maybe tell a couple of stories from the book.  Right after that it will be back to Saskatoon for the first official launch at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, at noon on the 11th.  This will be a more-or-less private event at the college.  Thence to Banff for the Canadian Non-fiction Collective's annual meeting at the Banff Centre.  The first public reading or launch in Saskatoon is to be held at The Refinery on Dufferin Avenue on the 17th.  More later on that as the organizational details unfold.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Wed 27th & Thursday 28th Feb.
Little did we know, when we set up the trip to the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary last year, that the road north out of Kampala had become an utter nightmare. Last year we got to the sanctuary in less than three hours, visited a butterfly farm on the way home and had an interesting day. This year the road had more potholes and speed bumps per kilometer than a cheese grater has sharp edges and apertures all over. One stretch of 50 km took us one-and-a-half hours! The reason was not far to seek. Huge trucks have been heading back and forth, severely overloaded, on their way to the refugee camps in neighbouring Sudan. The tarmac surfaces and sub grade construction were simply not built to withstand the onslaught. The road has gone from passable to impossible in a few short months. Where reconstruction has taken place the contractors have built seriously large speed bumps every thirty metres, for long stretches of up to two kilometers. We did eventually arrive, but most of us felt that we had been through ten rounds with a heavyweight boxing champ, or at least a sadistic masseur.

The rhino at the sanctuary are the only free-ranging ones in Uganda, and we did spend time with them. Indeed for some of that time we were only about 10 metres from them. Up close and personal as it were. Sadly there are no specimens of the Northern White Rhino left in Uganda -Idi Amin's ghastly regime saw to that- and apart from a non-breeding pair at the zoo this is the only opportunity to see any rhino anywhere in Uganda.

After an overnight stay at the sanctuary, which included a wonderful supper, we headed back to Kampala by a longer but much more comfortable route. That evening Jo and I hosted everyone to a tasty South Indian meal at a restaurant appropriately named Masala Chat. Our favourite dish there is Masala Dosai, and we cannot get it anywhere in Saskatoon, so this is a great way to round out the trip, with only one day left for the students to stock up on curios, carvings, cloth and other memorabilia.

I will take them to the airport tomorrow evening (the 29th) and then Jo and I are off to Murchison Falls National Park, not worried about who may have missed the bus, or who may not have heard the information about some tropical disease and wildlife technique. We are looking forward to the break after almost four full weeks of teaching and supervision from dawn to dusk.

The computer will not be going to Murchison, but the camera will.

Tuesday 26th Feb.
At 8.30 am we boarded a long native fishing canoe and headed out for a two-hour boat ride into Lake Victoria, destination Ngamba Island. This is one of the twelve ape sanctuaries in Africa; all members of the Pan African Sanctuary Association- that cater to orphan chimps, all confiscated from poachers or their customers, that are the sad by-products of the bushmeat trade. It is a terrible fact that in order to capture one infant chimp the entire troop must be slaughtered. Bushmeat hunters will take what they can, and if there are infants they will sell them to unscrupulous buyers for additional profit. The sanctuary manager is veterinarian Dr. Lawrence Mushiga, and apart from his overall management duties he has established a strong preventive care program of health checks for the 48 chimps on the island. We are lucky enough to be at the sanctuary on a health check day, and Lawrence has arranged things in such a way that our group, divided into teams of four, get to work on one of three chimps destined for a full physical. It is very different from work on truly wild animals, but it does offer an amazing opportunity and experience as our trip heads towards its end. Apart from the health checks the students get the
chance to watch two feeding sessions and learn from the excellent staff about the fascinating social structure of the group; who is the alpha male at the moment, who can imitate a human whistle, who is playful, who is shy.

Monday 25th Feb.
We are on the road again, having had no computer access for several days. Something of a blessing. It's off to Entebbe, the site of Uganda's main airport, but we are not going there. We are instead lodging at the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre, which is the Sunday name for the zoo. There are student dormitories and attractive thatch-roofed circular cottages, known in East Africa as bandas. Jo and I have opted for the latter. However, after almost a month without much food that they are used to the students vote unanimously to splurge, and we are off to the Lake Victoria Hotel, where everyone can choose their favourite pizza, followed by ice cream. Hurrah for hedonism!

Thursday 21st. Feb.
Off to Lake Mburo National Park, home to the only population of impala in Uganda, as well as zebra and topi antelope, so distinctive with their blue-black legs that make them look as if they are wearing trousers.

The first stop is in the market town of Mbarara, where we must stock up on groceries, as we will be camping for four nights. It is now that the student in charge of the menu comes into her own. Ronalee works with the Ugandans and gets some input from the other Canadians, but it is she who makes all the purchases and ensures that we have enough grub for a party of twenty. Luckily Hannah, our group secretary is used to large-scale purchasing, as she comes from a family of nine, so she helps out with ideas, and together they simply double the quantities that she is used to. One big difference is the variety and taste of fresh fruit. We will have no refrigeration, but we will have a supply of delicious finger bananas, two other edible varieties, cheap avocados (ten for a dollar),passion fruit by the basket full and sweet, tasty pineapples that resemble our Canadian supermarket varieties just as fillet steak resembles cheap hot dogs.

Our accommodations have gone very down-market with the camping. The students will of course divide into his and her tents, there being two large ones, quite big enough to handle our small crew, while Jo and I get a single tent to ourselves. The shower is the most down-market of all, being just three sheets of corrugated iron around a badly poured concrete pad. The open side faces into the bush, and showering is nothing of the sort. The technique involves a plastic cup and bowl, and the art of sluicing oneself before and after the application of soap.

Our work revolves around the cattle, which almost certainly outnumber the other species in the park and the small commercial fishery that supports a community located just outside the boundary. The fishermen are not allowed to bring their families into the park, but live in small mud-and-wattle houses near the landing site. Every day buyers come from Mbarara and further afield and so the economy stutters along. Those fishermen who specialize in the netting of tiny cichlids may catch a few hundred, on a good day. The fish are sun-dried and smoked on racks, and a rack of 100 cichlids fetches 1000/-, about 65 Canadian cents.

Wednesday 20th Feb.
This was our last day in Queen Elizabeth National Park. We spent Tuesday completing our research-cum-teaching program with the students. This involves the capture, by darting, of Uganda kob, the beautiful russet-coloured antelope that live here and the examination of their blood to see if they are part of the story of the infectious disease called Brucellosis that is known to affect the cattle on the buffalo in the area, not to mention the people. In humans the condition is known as undulant fever, and as its name implies it causes nasty symptoms that can be very severe at times, and often ends up if untreated, as a debilitating arthritis. So far we have not found any evidence of Brucellosis in kob, but as they are heavily poached, and as the handling of carcasses is one way in which the bacteria that cause it can be transmitted, we want to know if they are part of the story.

Today we switched species, and tried a new drug combination on Cape Buffalo that not only get Brucellosis, but also are host to other nasty diseases, often harbouring them without any signs of disease. The drug cocktail worked to perfection, and we will forward our results to the Uganda Wildlife Authority so that they can decide if this single result is worth a further examination. Of course one trial is far too little to allow us to reach any solid conclusions, but it was an encouraging start.

Monday 18th Feb.
Monday was a special day. We had to return to Kasenyi to finish up the painting work that we had started, and Vivien found the time to paint a dramatic mural on the back wall of one of the classrooms. She depicted the Ruwenzori foothills at the left, with the savannah grasslands of the park, dotted with enormous Giant Euphorbias, and then at right, Lake George, at the fishing village of Kasenyi, with a pod of hippos right near the fish landing, and a dugout canoe on the water. She insisted that this is a work-in-progress and so we will have to see what next year's student group thinks of it all, and who can build on it or do another mural in a different classroom.

The school choir and band put on a concert for us, using the instruments that they had purchased with the money we donated two years ago. Then came a surprise. Our students had prepared a mini-drama about the importance of hippos to the fishery and while, two of the girls acted out the hippo under an old sheet, others pretended to be fish of various sizes, starting with little fish being eaten by bigger fish, and finally the biggest of all being caught in a mosquito net which was made to double as its fishing cousin. The kids lapped it up, the biggest laugh of course occurring when the "hippo" tossed some grass between her legs and Salvatory, our the student interpreter, explained that the product of night's grazing was essential as a food item for the herbivorous fish.

Kiiza George (the first name pronounced Cheesa to Caucasian ears, as are all words in Uganda that start "Ki.."), the smiling headmaster, then invited us for a lunch snack of hard-boiled eggs and chapattis in his house, which was most generous, considering that we were a party of 15 people. George then joined us for a trip to another school with which he is involved. This one had 46 registered AIDS orphans and there were many new faces, as the enrolment has risen from 127 last year to 220 this year. First event was a well–orchestrated little concert, with accompaniment of drums. The came our turn, with gifts of school supplies and toys to give to each child. Luckily we had enough gifts to give each child something of value. The tiny ones, in the first four forms, all received a Teddy Bear, the older ones a geometry set or something similar. Each of the girls, no matter what her age, was given a small piece of costume jewelry. The Teddy Bears had been lovingly knitted by a church group in Saskatoon that call themselves Teddies For Tragedies. How appropriate.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

update, a bit delayed

Finally got to a place where I can get at a computer that is not running on molasses. So it's the 7th March & I have not updated anytng for almost 3 weeks, so here are a couple of entries from the diaries of our Uganda activities.

They are in reverse order so that they give some degree of logicality.

I may have chance for more input in a day or two & will be able to relate some other excitements, including our return visit to the school, another school visit to The Equator Highway Primary School, where there are 46 registerd AIDS orphans and some surprising animal work.

Sunday 17th Feb.
R & R day.
Late breakfast, with the extra treat of French toast that we had asked for.
Most students went to the local Catholic church to see how services are conducted here. They turned out to be in the majority, there being only five adult locals at the service, with a few small children. After lunch about half the students went off to the pool at Mweya Lodge and will no doubt spend the rest of the day relaxing there. The rest took off on an expedition to see the bat cave that is crowded with an estimated 10,000 Egyptian Fruit Bats.

Two other species have realized the potential of a cave full of fruit bats. There is a resident python that lives right inside the cave and no doubt reckons that he is in some sort of packed lunch heaven. He certainly doesn't have to move far for a snack! Then there is an African Fish Eagle that hangs about in the trees just outside the cave. Lunch-on-the-wing as it were.

Jo and I took the day off. I went for a wander and then while she read and sketched I checked out the hedges and flowering trees on the everlasting search for that perfect bird picture. Things went slowly at first, with the gorgeous red-chested sunbird males always not-quite-right, or with the iridescent dark green of their heads buried in a flower at the crucial moment. The came one of those Eureka! moments. A flash of green and white in a bush, and I realized that I had a chance to get a close-up of a Klaas's cuckoo. They are fairly common throughout much of East Africa, but are usually cryptic and dive ever-deeper into the foliage if one approaches. This one was different. He was quite unconcerned about me, and I was able to fire off about 60 pictures in rapid succession as he hopped about picking up scraps of who-knows-what, grabbed an unsuspecting insect and generally posed as if to the manner born. Sometimes the sun highlighted the amazing emerald green of his back and head feathers, and also showed up the bronzy colouring of some of the back feathers that are not described in the bird books. When I figure out how to send pictures to the blog I will add one or two, but the last time I tried it was a bust. That effort took place in Saskatoon, with the privilege of high-speed, and here that is not an option. Here a sort of fast crawl of something only slightly better than dial-up seems to be the norm. There is some form of Wi-Fi at the lodge, but even that is agonizingly slow.

Friday 15th Feb.
This is a double activity day. The students and I are off on a school visit while Dr. Ludwig Siefert goes looking for lions with his field assistant, James who is sitting on the roof of the Nissan Patrol holding an antenna aloft and turning it slowly to see if he can pick up any signals.

We have been supporting the tiny village school at Kasenyi, which lies on the shore of lake George. in various ways for a few years, and one feature of our visit has been the annual soccer match. The children have worn the uniforms that we donated three years ago, and we look like a bunch of ruffians, clad in our field working clothes. We have never beaten them at their own game, although we did manage a draw one year. This may be something to do with the fact that we usually field only two or three players who have ever played the game before.

This year we have brought along several gallons of paint, as the classrooms are badly in need of some maintenance. It is a sad fact that the local government education department seems to provide no funds at all for upkeep after building schools. As this one is several years old the walls are decidedly grungy, covered in the accumulated grime of many pairs of hands and the dust and dirt of passing cars and general neglect.

We get stuck into the paint job, with rollers and brushes, while Jo and Jean-Felix one of our students, a Congolese vet who is working with the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Program in Rwanda entertain the children with games and stories. Then it is time to give away the gifts we have brought. Colouring books, crayons, pencils and toys. The kids soon get into the mood of things when I show them how to make a pair of glasses from two pipe cleaners twisted together.

As we wrap up a call comes in from Ludwig. James has heard the "blip blip blip" in his earphones and they have found two big cats lying about 100 metres apart in some heavy thickets. Time to go looking for lions!

There are two males that hang about together, but also tend to separate for a few days at a time. Both have radio collars, but one is perilously close to its sell-by date, and its transmission signal can only be picked up inside a range of about 300 metres, which is not much use when he might range over an area of many square kilometers. Luckily his chum has a new collar and can be found at considerable distance, as long as he is not hiding behind a hill.

We soon get near to the lions, and Ludwig's first task is to make sure that they have not moved together while he was waiting on the track for us to arrive. They are even further apart than at first, and so, after some manoeuvering to get a good shot away our boy is beginning to feel the effects of the drugs. The students have drawn lots to see who would actually fire the dart, so one happy Canadian will have a story to tell round the dinner table.

For half an hour we wait to see if our patient is asleep and safe to approach. The trouble is that as the drugs began to take effect he chose to crawl into a particularly heavy patch of thicket and there is no way we can be sure that he is deeply asleep or safe to approach. After we have thrown all our water bottles into the bush, and a variety of other heavy stuff, Ludwig charges the thicket, engine gunning, to see if there is any reaction. Then he goes in carefully with James, carrying a long stick as prod. Finally the student team assigned to today's work is allowed out of the vehicle. When Ludwig touches the lion, he at once growls, and the ensuing retreat is something of a prat fall scene, as if from an old Charlie Chaplin movie, with everyone piling back into the 4 wheel-drive. However, it was really no more than a last objection, as the lion does not move at all, and a tiny top-up dose takes that final edge off.

The test of the work is pretty routine. The collar is soon changed and tested, blood samples for disease study are collected and the student team makes a thorough clinical examination of the whole cat, using exactly the same principles that they know so well form the clinic table in Saskatoon. Because this is likely to be the only lion on which we will work all of the students come forward to take a close look, paying close attention ot the mouth of this particular lion as he has several broken teeth and a few ulcers. He has definitely not been flossing before bed-time!