Fire in the forest

February 17, 2011

The smell of woodsmoke at camp is a familiar friend, dinner is cooked on a wood burning stove and even the water in the oil-drum shower is heated by fire, but it was with a sinking feeling that as the well known smell drifted through the house we heard with it the crack and spit of a large fire.

It started somewhere down in the old sawmill, we don’t know how – a careless spark from the men who come hunting or harvesting rattan cane, or just a piece of glass in the heat of the afternoon sun. At the height of the dry season, with no rain for weeks, the grassland and shrub in the sawmill and camp clearings were tinder dry and too quickly the flames built while we could do little but watch and wait and hope that the natural damp of the main forest would be enough to control its spread while we worked to keep the houses at camp safe.

Nick and Musa walk through the ash and back into the forest

To add to our concern we heard the distinctive alarm calls of our chimps as they approached the area. What would they do? They would certainly have experienced small fires in the forest at the illegal logging camps, and we recently found Musa, the confident adult son of our alpha female Nambi, sitting on a still smoldering log that had been set alight for charcoal. But how would they react to a serious fire in their forest? They came slowly, one by one, clearly nervous, but still apparently curious – we heard the main group of females and families detour around camp and move south away from the area, but the adult males and one or two of the younger subadult females came up to the edge of the flames. And then, to our relief, after checking the area they settled down to feed – the sweet ripe red Brusinettia fruits apparently higher on their list of priorities.

Fortunately the dry grass and brush that had allowed the fire to spread so quickly also helped control its impact – burning so hot and fast that the flames overtook the larger trees before they had time to really catch.  For several days the sun rose through morning mists mixed with the smoke from a few remaining patches of embers, but they are now cold and it’s only the unfamiliar black ash that is kicked up by the chimps as they cross the clearing and blown down through the forest trails.

Our new vet Dr. Asimwe Carol had barely been given time to unpack and settle into camp before she was called into action in a local chimp emergency. In a small forest fragment in Bulindi, about an hour’s drive from our site in Budongo, a tiny group of chimpanzees continues to eek out an existence under incredibly difficult circumstances. With almost nothing left of their forest but a few trees along the river, they are forced out into the surround fields of sugarcane to find food; here they come into contact with wire snares and worse: mantraps. These heavy duty, and illegal, traps inflict horrific damage to anything or anyone unfortunate enough to stumble into them, crushing the trapped limb between strong metal teeth. In this case it was an adult male chimpanzee who had trapped his right arm, probably while in the surrounding fields.

Even for a strong male chimpanzee there's no escape from the crushing steel teeth of these illegal traps

It took the joint efforts of a team from the local area, the Budongo Conservation Field Station, the Jane Goodall Institute, and the Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife and Conservation Trust, two days of tracking before a safe opportunity was found to dart the injured male. Once the chimp was anesthetised, the arm was examined and the trap removed. Puncture wounds had to be cleaned and blood flow controlled, fractured bones were examined and the tissue in the hand massagd to try and stimulate the return of blood flow to the area. Having done their best the team could only wait anxiously until the male was safely out of anesthetic, and then monitor his progress closely over the next few days. To their relief, and in an incredible display of resilience and recovery, only two days after the intervention he was spotted climbing tress and utilizing the injured arm.

The team, with new BCFS vet Carol on the right.

Huge congratulations are owed to everyone who worked incredibly hard on this operation. We are proud that people in the surrounding villages feel confident and comfortable approaching BCFS when a chimp is seen injured, and that thanks to the concerted joint efforts of BCFS, JGI and CSWCT in recent years we are now in a position to be able to assist and intervene in these cases.

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