Securing a shared future for wildlife and people

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Jo with briquettes

Four days ago I arrived in Kibale National Park (NP) in Uganda on a Taronga Zoo Friends Fellowship. I’m visiting the Kibale Fuel Wood Project, which is led by New Nature Foundation directors Rebecca Goldstone and Michael Stern, and has been supported by Taronga through its Field Conservation Program since 2011. Kibale is a unique ecosystem and is home to a diverse collection of animals, including the last viable population of Ugandan Red Colobus. However, the ecosystem is threatened from impacts such as deforestation, animal snaring and climate change. This project is working to protect Kibale NP by building fuel-efficient stoves in villages bordering the national park, making carbon-neutral briquettes that can be used as an alternate fuel source to wood and charcoal, encouraging home growing of wood and providing environmental education to local communities. I’ve been lodging at the Makerere University Biological Field Station inside Kibale NP and as I write this blog, I can see baby Baboons running around and monkeys playing in the trees, which is a continuous reminder of the importance of this work.

On my first day, we celebrated Earth Day at one of the Science Centres. Numerous activities were set up for children living in nearby villages, including a rubbish clean-up of the street, tree planting, trivia and a career planning workshop for high school kids. I also gave a lesson about the types of animals living in Australia. The kids were so enthusiastic to get involved in all the activities! I was then warmly welcomed by the briquette-making team and started helping to prepare the raw materials. Everything needed to make the briquettes are materials that would have otherwise gone to landfill – saw dust, paper, fruit peels. I was also given a turn at layering the briquette mixture into the moulds. After successfully making two batches of oddly-shaped briquettes, I was politely thanked for my help and moved along.  The team makes over 1000 briquettes a day so it was no surprise they needed to get back to business. The afternoon was then spent delivering and selling briquettes, and picking up raw materials from the Tea Estate and local markets. The locals were thrilled when they received a Taronga ‘Project Platypus’ t-shirt as a thank you for donating their banana peels. These t-shirts were kindly donated by the Taronga Education Centre. It was a busy first day in Kibale, but highly rewarding. At the end of it, the lovely briquette-making team gave me the ‘Empako’ (pet name) – Abwooli, meaning cat in the local dialect Rutooro. Perhaps my briquettes weren’t so bad after all.

The next day was spent with Bashir, a Kibale Fuel Wood Project employee, building a stove for a local family in the Kyamugarra village that borders Kibale NP. It was surprisingly straight forward. The home owner sourced the bricks, mud and ash that’s needed to build the stove, and with the help of Bashir, laid down the foundations. After the mud is set, the homeowner cements the stove with a mixture of sand and cow dung. With the stove completed, Bashir and I walked around a few villages to see if the fuel efficient stoves were used and whether they were still in good condition. They were. Everyone we spoke to were extremely happy with their stoves and very supportive of the project. Since 2006, over 1,500 stoves have been made by the team, in addition to many more home-made stoves. While the uptake of the fuel-efficient stoves has been relatively slow, the program is gaining great momentum as the number of villagers using the stoves increases.

Yesterday I was lucky enough to go for a walk in the National Park and see the animals that rely on an intact rainforest for their survival. The forest canopy was alive with primates! We saw Chimpanzees, Red-tailed Monkeys, Blue Monkeys, Grey-checked Mangabey, L’hoesti Monkeys, Baboons, Black and white Colobus and the Red Colobus. It was great to see plenty of young ones jumping around too. Interestingly, there were times where we saw two or three primate species spending time in the one area. Chimp researchers here at the Makerere University Biological Field Station even caught video footage of a 6 year old male chimp grooming a red-tailed monkey. Such affiliative interactions between primate species are quite rare to see. While on the walk, we also saw Helmeted Guineafowl, Dung Beetles, chimp nests and lots of evidence of African Forest Elephants being in the area. It was such an amazing experience.

Today we went back to the Science Centre and I had the pleasure of teaching the kids more about Australian animals, their biology, and the differences in animals between Australia and Uganda. The kids ranged from around 5 to 13 years old but they all participated and answered my questions.  The kids also drew a picture of their favourite Australian animal, and the winner received a ‘Tasmanian Devil Zoo Adventures’ t-shirt that was kindly donated by Monique Van Sluys. The kids had books as a reference for their drawings, but I was amazed how well the kids drew! After the Science Centre we went back to the market to pick up more bags of banana peels for the briquettes. When we went there a couple of days ago, only three people wanted to give us their peels, but after giving out a few t-shirts, when we went back today, everyone wanted to contribute something. Developing these relationships with the locals is so important for this project, because eventually the project directors would like to sell their briquettes here and reduce the number of people using charcoal to cook. 

By Jo Day

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