Searching for the Shoebill Stork on Africa’s greatest lake

The Shoebill Stork is probably one of the oddest looking creatures I’ve seen, like something left over from when dinosaurs roamed the earth. It looks ancient, a pre-historic animal that doesn’t somehow seem right for our world. Plus, the Shoebill Stork is probably not a stork at all. Despite sharing a few similarities with the average stork, recent DNA studies place it in the same family as pelicans, although it may well be related to both storks and pelicans.

Guide sign, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Guide sign, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Shoebill Stork, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Shoebill Stork, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Regardless of its true nature, it is a huge and magnificent creature, well worth the effort of making a day trip from Kampala to the Mabamba Wetlands on the edge of Lake Victoria. The Mabamba Wetlands is designated as an Important Bird Area, but is affected by human encroachment which is damaging the Shoebill’s habitat. The Shoebill is considered to be vulnerable, if not yet endangered, thanks to habitat loss. Most people come here to spot a Shoebill, but the area has a rich diversity of birdlife on offer. Plus, the lovely waterscapes on the edge of the lake make a trip here a very pleasant adventure.

The Shoebill gets its name from its giant beak, shaped like a shoe – it looks like a Dutch clog – which makes it one of the most easily identifiable birds on the planet. They also reach a height of over four feet (140cm), which should make them simple to spot, but they are solitary creatures and have a tendency to loiter in high grass and papyrus. My Bradt guidebook mentioned a Shoebill expert who lived close to Lake Victoria, a short drive from Kampala. It was impossible to contact her by phone, so I hired a car and went in search of her, hopeful that she’d be free to take me into the wetlands to spot Shoebills.

Port, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Port, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Kasana, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Kasana, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Boat on Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Boat on Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Turning off the main paved road from Kampala, we bumped down a dirt track for a few miles before coming across a house with a large handmade sign outside it. Here we found Kasana, a knowledgeable local guide to the Mabamba Wetlands. After we’d agreed a price we set off for the ‘port’, where we picked up a boat and a boatman and headed into the wetlands in the hope of finding a Shoebill.

Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Flower, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Flower, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Malachite Kingfisher, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Malachite Kingfisher, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Blue-Breasted Bee-Eater, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Blue-Breasted Bee-Eater, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Paddling out into the wetlands, we passed through narrow channels overshadowed by foliage. Numerous small, brightly coloured birds flitted about in the reeds and around the boat. An intense sun bore down on us, and I was thankful I wasn’t doing the paddling. After about an hour Kasana spotted a Shoebill. It was quite a long way away, but we paddled as close as we could get and through binoculars watched this magnificent creature. They rarely fly, but I’d hoped to see one catch its favourite prey, a lungfish. Our Shoebill seemed to be content to walk around and flap its wings.

Shoebill Stork, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Shoebill Stork, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Shoebill Stork, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Shoebill Stork, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Shoebill Stork, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Shoebill Stork, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

After about twenty minutes, the Shoebill decided to sit down behind some long grass, our cue to leave. We paddled back to port seeing more birds in the reeds. At Kasana’s house, I signed the guest book and discovered that the last person to visit came a couple of weeks before my arrival. Despite the attraction of the Shoebill, there aren’t that many tourists visiting this area – one estimate suggests less than a thousand people each year. I suppose I should be grateful, but local communities could certainly do with an economic boost from tourism – something which might help preserve the Shoebill’s habitat.

Malachite Kingfisher, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Malachite Kingfisher, Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Mabamba Wetlands, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

After all that hard work, the driver took me to a nice lakeside hotel in Entebbe where I celebrated spotting a Shoebill with a fitting drink: a cold bottle of Nile Special.

Nile Special beer, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Nile Special beer, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Chimpanzees of Kibale, an animal encounter to remember

Just in case my enthusiasm doesn’t come through enough later, let me just say up front, chimpanzees are utterly beguiling creatures to watch in their natural habitat. So much so, after I’d been on an afternoon tracking session, I immediately went to the National Park office and booked to go again the following morning. I could have spent a week following them through the forest. Chimpanzees are  amazing, and that’s official.

Entrance to Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Entrance to Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Chimpanzees in Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Chimpanzees in Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Kibale Forest National Park was established in 1993, and covers an area of approximately 800 square kilometres. There are more than 1200 chimpanzees living in Kibale, with four groups having been habituated to the presence of humans. Only one of these groups has been habituated for tourism, and while I was there a researcher was studying the effects of tourism on the behaviours of the chimpanzees. I did ask her if her findings indicated changes to their natural behaviour, but she seemed reluctant to discuss it.

Chimpanzees, humanity’s closest relative, have a highly evolved social structure, living within communities that have complex rules. Their intelligence is well known, and chimp tool making and use is now well documented. Equally as complex is chimpanzee nest building. Each night chimpanzees construct nests by weaving the branches of one or more trees together. A skill set that would probably defeat most humans. Chimps also exhibit the ability to cooperate with each other at complex tasks. This is obvious when they hunt other animals – normally smaller monkeys. Working as a group, they are ruthlessly successful hunters.

Chimpanzees in Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Chimpanzees in Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Chimpanzees in Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Chimpanzees in Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Chimpanzees in Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Chimpanzees in Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Led by a dominant male, who controls the whole group, chimpanzees exhibit a very human condition when it comes to which chimpanzee becomes the alpha male: it isn’t always the biggest or strongest, but the male who can manipulate the group to support him. Human politics in a nutshell. Although dominated by the alpha male, and other powerful males, female chimpanzees have their own hierarchy. For a young female, this is sometimes influenced by the status of the mother – basically a chimpanzee aristocracy.

Chimpanzees in Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Chimpanzees in Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Chimpanzees in Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Chimpanzees in Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Because of their importance to the local economy, and thanks to sustained efforts over the years to protect them and their habitat, the chimpanzees of Kibale have a degree of protection most wild animals would envy. However, while humans don’t threaten the chimps directly, snares set up in the margins of the forest to trap bushpig and duiker can have devastating effects on chimps. At least one of the chimpanzees we saw had lost a foot to a wire snare. Others occasionally get caught in them despite efforts to work with local communities to eradicate them entirely.

Tracking the chimps involves walking through the forest in search of them, guided by their calls and locating fruit trees where they are likely to be feeding. Once you find them, the National Park guide will track them for a couple of hours before taking the human group back to the National Park headquarters. Its possible to transmit human diseases to chimpanzees, and you’re supposed to keep a distance of 5 metres away from them to minimise the risks. Easier said than done when the chimps are moving around. A couple of times they came so close to me that I could have touched them.

Chimpanzees in Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Chimpanzees in Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Chimpanzees in Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Chimpanzees in Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Chimpanzees in Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Chimpanzees in Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Chimpanzees in Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Chimpanzees in Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

We found a group of chimps eating some fruits in a tree. On the ground where we were, it was raining the detritus of the fruits that they didn’t want to eat. There was also the risk of something slightly less friendly than fruit falling on our heads, we moved away to safety quite quickly. Depending on how active the chimpanzees are, you can cover quite large distances following them. At other times they can be pretty stationary – sleeping off all the eating they do. Both times I tracked them, we moved around quite a lot, following chimps on the ground and in trees.

Chimpanzees in Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Chimpanzees in Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Chimpanzees in Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Chimpanzees in Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Chimpanzees in Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Chimpanzees in Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Chimpanzees in Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

All-in-all, tracking the chimps was a wonderful experience, certainly up there with observing gorillas in neighbouring Rwanda. There are plenty of things you could usefully spend times doing in Kibale, or even a bit further south in the Queen Elizabeth National Park. Sadly, I had to get back to Kampala for one final animal experience before leaving Uganda. Next up was the giant and weird Shoebill Stork…

Into the Ugandan wild, Kibale Forest National Park

I took the Postal Bus from Kampala to Fort Portal, the nearest town to the Kibale Forest National Park. It was a fun journey, lots of women dressed in the brightest, most glamorous clothes and headdresses I’ve ever seen got on the bus in party mood. It turned out that their children were graduating from college and they were preparing to celebrate. The two hour journey flew by as I was interrogated about my marital status and life in London.

Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Kibale is a place I’d wanted to visit for a long time, ever since I read about it’s chimpanzees, humanity’s closest relatives. The park has much more to offer than just chimpanzees though. It has thirteen species of primates, one of the highest diversities of primates in Africa, some of them highly endangered. It is relatively easy to spot at least four or five types of primate, and, in-between sightings, there are over three hundred species of birds and sixty species of mammals to keep an eye out for.

The National Park office is the starting point of the chimpanzee trekking, it is also home to the conveniently located Kibale Primate Lodge. I’d booked something called an Elevated Banda, which turned out to be a lovely place to stay in an opening in the forest. At night monkeys could be seen in the trees and the noise of insects was deafening. Once the sun set, it was one of the darkest nights I’ve ever experienced, made slightly traumatic by the sound of creatures walking across the roof.

Elevated Banda, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Elevated Banda, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Elevated Banda, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Elevated Banda, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

While I sorted out permits to track chimpanzees, I spent a day walking the 7 or 8km to the nearest village, Bigodi. On the outskirts of the village is the fabulous Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary. This extraordinarily biodiverse swampland is host to eight species of primates, several mammals and numerous bird species. This is a birders paradise, including the spectacular Great Blue Turaco. The sanctuary is managed by a local association; the local community is invested in the sanctuary, and this has ensured poaching has been dramatically reduced.

Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

House, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

House, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Guide in Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Guide in Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Fauna in Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Fauna in Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Fauna in Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Fauna in Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

A knowledgable local guide takes you through the sanctuary, the day I was there I was the only person on the tour. Despite all the attractions, this area still doesn’t get huge numbers of tourists. It was a lovely couple of hours, exploring the swamp and spotting a number of animals, including four primates – Baboon, Vervet, Red Colobus, Black and White Colobus – and the Great Blue Turaco.

Baboon, Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Baboon, Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Red Colobus, Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Red Colobus, Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Red Colobus, Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Red Colobus, Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Black and White Colobus, Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa, Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Black and White Colobus, Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa, Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Vervet, Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Vervet, Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Afterwards, I walked into the village and had lunch before stumbling upon a local business, set up by a women’s association, making delicious local peanut butter. It turned out the woman who ran it was the wife of the National Park’s head guard, both of whom came from Gulu, so we had a long chat about the situation in that part of the country. I bought a couple of jars of the sticky brown stuff and headed off on my walk back to the Kibale Primate Lodge.

Great Blue Turaco, Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Great Blue Turaco, Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Great Blue Turaco, Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Great Blue Turaco, Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Bigodi Peanut Butter Project, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Bigodi Peanut Butter Project, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Bigodi Peanut Butter Project, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Bigodi Peanut Butter Project, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Unfortunately, I came across a troupe of Baboons, three or four kilometres from the lodge, completely blocking the road. Laugh if you like, but I have a terrible fear of Baboons. I was once chased and attacked by Baboons when I was in India, an experience I didn’t particularly want to repeat. I was on the verge of walking back to the village when a man on a motorbike came along. I flagged him down and, despite laughing when I explained my predicament, he drove me past the Baboons and back to the lodge.

I imagine that story did the rounds in the village for quite some time.

House with plantain, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

House with plantain, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Chimpanzees, Shoebills and the Great Blue Turaco, it must be Uganda

Uganda is a challenging country to visit. It is beset by poverty, inequality, conflict and numerous health issues. It is also a country with which I feel a strong affinity. Maybe it’s because just outside Kampala they named a town, Port Bell, after me. Maybe its because one of it’s most famous beers, Bell Lager, is also named after me. Or maybe, just maybe, it is because Uganda wins the award for producing the most attention grabbing radio advert I’ve ever heard.

Share your passion for Bell Lager, Kampala, Uganda, Africa

Share your passion for Bell Lager, Kampala, Uganda, Africa

It was up against some serious competition, after all, I once sat in a bar in Belize listening to calypsos promoting the use of condoms by advising the men of Belize that women were conniving and devious harlots, hell-bent upon trapping innocent men into relationships. Give them a chance and they’d deliberately get pregnant…or so the jaunty calypsos would have us believe.

In the end, Uganda’s radio advert won by a country mile. I was sat in the back of a taxi in Kampala, the radio was loud enough to be heard in a neighbouring country, and the driver took delight in drawing my attention to the advert. In a country blighted by HIV, unwanted pregnancy and a miserable record on women’s empowerment, the advert was intended to put an end to the phenomenon known as “Sugar Daddies”.

Young woman in the market, Kampala, Uganda, Africa

Young woman in the market, Kampala, Uganda, Africa

Fish vendor, Owino Market, Kampala, Uganda, Africa

Fish vendor, Owino Market, Kampala, Uganda, Africa

“Sugar Daddies”, older men who use money and power to extract sex from young women and girls, are a major societal problem. The advert was blunt. Essentially, two girls are at university. One has a Sugar Daddy who gives her a mobile phone and clothes, the other has no Sugar Daddy and is poor. The girl with the Sugar Daddy arranges for her friend to meet another Sugar Daddy so she can have nice things as well. The man is waiting in a car on a darkened street. She opens the door, the interior light comes on to reveal…her father.

The moral of the story is obvious, but still quite shocking. I had come to Uganda for work, and, after a couple of days in Kampala, I was driving north on a pot-holed road to the benighted region of Gulu. In this vast and lawless area, which has the misfortune to border Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph Kony’s Lords Resistance Army has waged a brutal and terrifying war against the people of this region for two decades.

Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu Region, Uganda, Africa

Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu Region, Uganda, Africa

Woman makes beer, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu Region, Uganda, Africa

Woman makes beer, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu Region, Uganda, Africa

Kony’s story is well known. A man with messianic tendencies, who believes he is the instrument of God on earth. He has adopted a particularly perverse Christian fundamentalism to achieve his goals, including mass rape and murder, torture, decapitation, kidnapping male children to be child soldiers, and female children to be sex slaves. His militia have run rampant across this region, killing thousands and displacing hundreds of thousands.

The human cost of Kony’s delusion is incalculable. Kony insists that he is fighting for the Ten Commandments to be fully imposed in Uganda, but he forces children to murder and mutilate their own parents; orders whole villages to be burned to the ground and the inhabitants killed. Very Old Testament. This has been going on for over two decades. It wouldn’t be inappropriate to ask why the International community has done so little to help?

Young woman, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu Region, Uganda, Africa

Young woman, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu Region, Uganda, Africa

Children in Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu Region, Uganda, Africa

Children in Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu Region, Uganda, Africa

It was a period of truce and faint hope when I arrived. I spent a week in the region meeting people living in the Internal Displacement Camps, getting their stories and venturing into the countryside to see progress towards rebuilding villages and communities. After returning to Kampala, I decided to go and visit some different areas on my own time. I particularly wanted to see some of Uganda’s fabled wildlife.

Baboon, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Baboon, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Chimpanzee, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Chimpanzee, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Despite huge environmental degradation, intense pressure from population growth and agriculture, Uganda has some amazing wildlife to offer. I headed east to the Kibale National Forest, a wonderful region where it is possible to see lots of primates, birds and other wildlife, but which is most famous for chimpanzee tracking. Returning to Kampala, I went to Lake Victoria to try to catch a glimpse of the illusive Shoebill Stork (a pre-historic looking giant of a bird).

Boat on Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Boat on Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Shoebill Stork, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Shoebill Stork, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Malachite Kingfisher, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Malachite Kingfisher, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Despite all the challenges – and they are many and severe – faced by Ugandans, this was to be an amazing introduction to a beautiful and fascinating country. People are really friendly, and it is a country that deserves to see more international visitors – although if you’re gay it is unlikely to top your list of holiday destinations.