Back to Uganda

Posted on January 25, 2012


It’s official, in six weeks time I’ll be back in the Ugandan jungle. This morning I got an approval email for one of three research permits I’ve applied for. Woo-hoo the countdown has begun.

The Budongo Conservation Field Station in the Budongo Forest Reserve

It’s been almost two years since my first taster of fieldwork and this time I’m prepared, focussed and raring to go. I remember the slight trepidation I felt when I first entered the camp site of the Budongo Conservation Field Station. A totally alien environment for a television presenter more at home in the concrete jungle of London with all the mod-cons than the Ray Mears lifestyle. The comments of friends kept ringing in my ears: “Do they make jungle footwear with heels? Where will you plug your hair dryer in?”

But jokes aside I surprised everyone –  even myself – and this time I’m going back for three months. This is what all the studying and hard work has been for. A chance to carry out research, collect data and hopefully turn it into a bloody good thesis which will get published.  A Ugandan friend said to me yesterday: “Asha aim for the moon and you’ll fall amongst the stars.” I’m just praying I don’t land on my ass.

While I’m in Uganda I’ll be investigating whether the demands for timber of a particular tree species, Cordia millenii,  to build boats is leading to habitat loss for the chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) population. In simple terms I’ll be counting trees; talking to people and looking at ape s***. Life just won’t be the same after this.

The Royal Mile in Budongo - used to be hunting grounds for royalty - hence the name

Exciting as it all is the mountain of paperwork is relentless: risk assessment; health and safety; ethic forms; project proposal; research permits . And if I want help funding this study, the grant application forms are weighty and you need at least three references. I don’t know how academics do this year in and year out?! I’m exhausted after ten days of form-filling.

Not all of the students can afford to go off to a tropical rainforest like me. Some will have the wilds of Stoke-on-Trent or Kent to contend with. One of the other mature students, Sweet Tooth, has plumped for somewhere a little bit closer to home – the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. She’ll be studying the behaviour of Barbary macaques (Macaca sylvanus) and has the added difficulty of  trying to recognise all the newborns that arrive roughly the same as she does. It’s bad enough trying to distinguish the difference in human babies, which all look the same to me, but non human primates cling onto their mothers until they are more precocious, so getting a good look at their faces is not easy.

I was explaining to a friend Hermes, how after some time it is possible to identify different individuals, especially the adults. He told me he’d read that scientists have been working alongside a technology firm to create an app that can help id your monkey for you. At first I thought, that’s a joke……then I thought that’s cheating. The whole point of long-term study is to get to know your animals it’s part and parcel of being a field biologist. But I guess it makes sense if you’re in difficult terrain or your species is particularly elusive.

The software is being developed by the biomedical engineering organisation Fraunhofer Institute and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI-EVA). The recognition software is called SAISBECO – Semi-Automated Audiovisual Species and Individual Identification System for Behavioural Ecological Research and Conservation. I known catchy!!

It aims to: “Create a computer vision systems that exploit the structure of animal skin patterns for a robust biometric identification of individuals in natural habitats.”

A baby chimpanzee in the Budongo Forest Reserve

The pilot study will be run on great apes and elephants. Sweet Tooth is unlikely to benefit from this technology this time round, but maybe in a few years time it’ll be de rigueur.

Now before I sign off, I’ve been meaning to tell you all about my fantastic news. Yes I know, how much more good news can one woman have and it’s not even the end of the first month of the year.

I HAVE A JOB!!!! Yours truly has been freelancing since 2009 but at the end of the last year, Channel 4 News appointed me as its new Science Reporter. The boss is prepared to wait until after my MRes, so I start my role at the end of September after my studies have ended. Thank you to everyone who has supported me over the last three years and the blog; you have no idea how important you all are to me and I’m hugely grateful. Let’s see if I can crowbar in a few more primate stories into national news once I’m staff. In the meantime I promise to update you all on my adventures in Uganda.