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CIE Travel Grant Helps Professor Travel to Uganda

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Joel Hartter, assistant professor of geography, traveled to western Uganda in summer 2011 to visit the communities outside Kibale National Park. A report of his trip follows.

This past July and August, I traveled to western Uganda to visit the communities outside Kibale National Park. Kibale is not the typical national park when you think of Africa. Most people I know think of the vast savannah landscapes, such as the Serengeti – big open grassland expanses with few trees teaming with wildlife. They think of hot, dry days, with the lions and antelope seeking refuge in what little shade they can find, while elephants and hippos try to keep themselves cool near the water.

Kibale is very different from that picture. It is a moist tropical rainforest situated just above the equator. The park lies just above the equator about 200km west of the capital city Kampala and about 50 km from the Congo border. It is relatively small, known mainly because it has one of the highest primate densities in Africa. Here you’ll find 12 species of primates, including the endangered chimpanzee. Since most of Kibale is dense forest with its showcase animals often difficult to find and spending most of the day in the trees, this park doesn’t attract the big crowds.

Only about 6000 people visit the park annually, mostly as a stop-over half-afternoon on the way to the bigger savannah park – Queen Elizabeth, which is connected to Kibale’s southern edge. While Kibale may be less known than some of the other flagship parks of East Africa, it is an extremely important reserve for biological diversity conservation.

The people around Kibale face many hardships. Since the park was established in 1993, people have been almost entirely excluded from any activities within its borders (such as hunting, fishing, and collecting firewood or grasses for weaving baskets). Outside the park, poverty is rampant, and nearly everyone is a farmer surviving on less than $1 per day. Population in this region continues to soar. Country-wide the Ugandan population continues to grow exponentially at an estimated 3.3%, which ranks 8th highest in the world. More alarming is that Uganda has the second youngest population in the world, with almost 49% below 15 years. Around Kibale, the population has increased seven-fold since 1920, making this area one of the most densely population farming regions in Sub-Saharan Africa!

Nearly everyone in this area is a farmer. The two main ethnic groups, the Batooro and the Bakiga plant more than 20 species of subsistence crops, and the main staple foods are cooking bananas, sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, beans, groundnuts, maize, and cassava. The population growth, land shortage, and extreme poverty already lead to food insecurity, but climate change will no doubt exacerbate these hardships further. Therefore, my task this summer was to find out about how local farmers in Uganda are affected by climate change.


Kibale National Park in western Uganda
Joel and field asssistant extraordinaire, Ahabhyona Peter

I had three objectives to complete while I visited Uganda this summer. The first was to set up rain gauges in farms so that local people could record daily observations of rainfall. This information would be used to quantify rainfall trends throughout the seasons, as well as help the farmers to understand rainfall patterns, which could help them determine planting and harvesting dates. So far my field assistant and I have set up 20 rain gauges in local farms.

My second objective was to meet with elders who could help me learn about local knowledge associated with the start and ending of seasons. They told me about times of drought and flooding and how the area around Kibale has changed in the last fifty years.
Lastly, I met with a number of farmers to conduct a survey. I asked them questions about rainfall, changing seasons, and their crops. For this last part, I wanted to understand how different families may have been affected by climate variability. In sum, the data that I collected will serve as the basis for ongoing research in the region about how local people adapt to climate change in tropical Africa. I am also working with colleagues in Uganda, Canada, and the U.S. to engage the local population around Kibale National Park so that they can better understand weather patterns, as they rely heavily on the timing and amounts of rainfall for their agriculture. Further, I have begun to involve undergraduates in this research as we are beginning to map climate change vulnerability using GoogleEarth.

UNH students will help build the web-interface, which my colleagues and I will use in Uganda to show local farmers, government officials, and park managers “hotspots” of change or areas that warrant intervention or education. Lastly, this experience has been invaluable in providing me with more first-hand experience, anecdotes, and images to share in my classes – especially my Geography in Sub-Saharan Africa course taught in the spring.


Checking rainfall from a rain gauge at a local farm.
With a local elder after interviewing him and his family.

There is more to the trip to Uganda than my academic pursuits. Part of the excitement about such trips comes from all of the other activities, opportunities, and experiences (planned, or more likely, unplanned) that offer valuable insight. Once I arrive in Uganda, I hit the ground running, since I want to make my days abroad count. After stocking up in Kampala, the capital city, I drive the 5 hours west to Fort Portal, the cultural hub of the Toro kingdom. Once there, I travel into the bush. The tarmac and hustle and bustle of an urban center quickly gives way to rural landscape.

Each time I travel here, I am struck by the amazing beauty of the land and the people. Every day I have the opportunity to meet with people of different tribes, hear different languages, and experience different foods and cultures (although I will say that I could do without the millet porridge). And of course, my time here is not without adventure – no trip to Africa would be complete without some sort of “story” to bring home. Sure, baboons wind up in my kitchen and steal my food and I run after them swinging a broom like a madman. Or I cheat death riding on the back of a motorcycle taxi in rush-hour through the jammed streets of Kampala. Sure, these things happen all the time.

This time I wound up getting a tick bite while on a hike to recover data. Ordinarily, the headache, fever, sweats, chills, loss of appetite, the dizziness, and the complete feeling of … (well, you get the picture) would be enough, but I also had my foot swell up to my knee. Flu-like symptoms…malaria? After traveling to Kampala and stopping at the clinic, I’m diagnosed with and treated for spotted fever. Upon returning home, I see the infectious disease specialist… which promptly turns into meetings and phone calls with the New Hampshire Department of Public Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Tropical Medicine Laboratory at Dartmouth College, and more doctors and academics. It turns out that feeling terrible has some benefits to it. I have become a local celebrity because of my “transient infectious disease” and because my case has become one of the worst the CDC has ever seen. Next time, I think I’ll just stick to the queasiness from street food and trekking with chimpanzees as counting for enough “adventure” in the field.

I am extremely grateful to the Center for International Education. Funding for this research was also provided by a National Science Foundation Human and Social Dynamics Grant through the University of Florida. Certainly this work could not go on without my hard-working field assistant Ahabyona Peter.