It is about 9.15am when I arrive at the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre (UWEC) formerly known as the zoo. I’m volunteering as a keeper on this warm Saturday. It is an hour late as per the agreed time with Nicholas Muhindo, the sociable head keeper. We exchange pleasantries and he introduces himself as my supervisor.
Muhindo leads me from the lobby to the carnival complex. This is where the big cat dens, as well as the changing rooms are located. I quickly change to my overall and gumboots. Off to the lions’ den, for my first assignment of the day. Just before I get started, Muhindo lays out the rules for me, “No unnecessary show of anxiety and excitement, contain and behave yourself before the animals, no noise, and most importantly, only do what you are told to for your own safety.”
He also fills me in on some of the activities I missed earlier on like the counting of all the animals in the complex, checking their health status and administering medication to the sick ones, before letting them out into the exhibition grounds.
9.30–11.30am Cleaning up
I meet my colleague Sarah, a zookeeper intern, already cleaning up one of the chambers in the lion den. Kibonge, the old alpha male, is just in the next chamber, still resting because of his ill health and his wounded hips. I’m told that Kibonge is currently the oldest lion in captivity in Africa. At 19, it is believed to be the oldest in the world, having been brought to UWEC at two years old. Muhindo then asks me to join Sarah in cleaning. Armed with brooms, shovels and scrubbing brushes we start off by cleaning lion poop, and use liquid soap to scrub the concrete floor.
Kibonge keeps on roaring whenever I get close to his territory as I scrub the floor, which Muhindo says is a welcome sign. “See, he is smiling at you,” he says. With my colleagues, we slide the guillotine doors open for Kibonge from his dirty chamber to the one we had just cleaned. With my broom in hand, I sweep the bones from previous night’s meal with other refuse, then shovel it away into a bin outside the den. Then scrub the floor sparkling clean. At about 10.30am, we go to the commissary or food store to prepare the animals’ food. Preparing food and feeding.
From the commissary, we pick vegetables like carrots, nakati, cabbage and egg plants from the fridges together with sweet potatoes, maize cobs, bananas and watermelons which we chop into small pieces before packing them in crates and loading them on a pick-up truck. From the store, we proceed to the meadow and load some of the already cut grass, which is given to supplement that already growing in the exhibits.
Our destination is Lake Mburo exhibit at about 11:20am. Here, we are welcomed to the gate by two female ostriches that seem impatiently waiting to eat. In this exhibit, are other animals like the zebras, impalas, water bucks and a few crested cranes. They crowd around the pick-up, as we pour out the grass for them at specific points in the exhibit.
Towards noon, we head to the Queen Elizabeth exhibit, to feed the rather shy Uganda Kobs, some zebras and water bucks. I alight with a crate of supplements like chopped carrots, cabbage and egg plants, which I pour onto a long slab for them. Our presence didn’t deter the notorious Vervet monkeys from the nearby trees from stealing most of the vegetables. Here we do not stay for long.
At 12.30pm, we drive to the rhino park where the two white rhinos, Sherino and Kabira, named after Sheraton hotel and Kabira country Club, are busy grazing at the far end of the park. Both look like two huge white moving rocks and Muhindo says each weighs about 2,000 tons.
Unlike other wildlife these creatures do not seem to notice our presence. Perhaps because of their poor vision which is very common among rhinos. Soon the two trudge to the pickup and ravenously start to chew on the grass that we pour out. Muhindo calls for us one at a time, to pat their mud-patched rumps, while soothingly calling out their names. We head back to the commissary to pick up pellets, a protein supplement and back to the meadow for more foliage.
At 2.30pm, we go for lunch at the keepers’ cafeteria. We are treated to a menu of white rice, posho, meat and groundnut paste. During this one hour break, I get to appreciate how hectic zoo keeping is. I’m however still excited about other animals like crocodiles, otters and snakes that we are yet to feed.
At about half past three in the afternoon, we walk to the nearby Murchison falls exhibit, where a fountain depicts the real falls at the game park famous for its Nile crocodiles. There are two crocs here, Lauren, 50, who was rescued from Buikwe after she had eaten seven people, and Kadogo,50, who has been at the centre for about 30 years now.
I’m hesitant to go into the crocodile enclosure after overhearing Muhindo talk of the three attempts the crocodiles have made on him before. From a distance, my colleague and I carefully feed the two giant reptiles on chunks of meat which they greedily swallow and wait for more. I imagine being swallowed in a microsecond but take a deep sigh upon a safe exit of the crocodile enclosure and then move on to the opposite otter pool. I’m handed a bucketful of fish to feed the otters.
It is 4pm. We walk to the Budongo Chimpanzee Island, where Zakayo and his extended family are busy ululating at the visitors. All the chimps seem so excited at the visitors and their shouts grow louder when they see us cutting the sugarcane into pieces to throw at them. To show how eager they are, they move close to the water and extend their hands begging, each shouting even more upon receiving a piece of the sugarcane and bananas.
From Budongo, at 5pm, we check on Charles, the three-day-old elephant, who was rescued from Queen Elizabeth Park after his parents had been killed by poachers. He was brought to the centre when he was only a week old. We walk with him, as he does his daily exercise up to the wetland aviary. Here, we meet the rare but whining shoe bill stork, whose feathers I caress and it goes quiet.
In the evening, at about six, we drive back to Budongo Island to let the chimpanzees in, and then feed them on millet porridge, we feed the lions at 6.30pm, since they only feed once a day and lock them in their dens, we then feed the hyenas, which keep laughing at the sight of the meat, before finalising with letting in the rhinos, which we feed on some hay for the night.
After the animal encounters, it was 7pm. Exhausted but elated, Muhindo thanked us for making the day memorable. With my photographer Abubaker Lubowa, we hopped on a bodaboda to the main road and call it a day.
At about 11.30am we drive to the buffalo exhibit, where were are cautioned at the gate on how dangerous the animals are especially the bull called Kule. He stays with the wife Nabila. For our safety, Muhindo rides with us on the back of the truck.
Indeed, Kule welcomes us at the gate and follows us till to the central point of the exhibit. With Muhindo’s guidance, I hand feed him on a piece of watermelon. My heart raced as I imagined the humongous creature sinking his teeth in my small palm. The warthogs, the other members in the exhibit also join us near the pick-up and hungrily munch on the grass, maize and other food stuffs we pour out on the ground. Perhaps the presence of food kept the couple calm as we left the exhibit. Kule is especially fond of charging at people.
At Kidepo exhibit with giraffes
At Kidepo gate are two Rothschild giraffes; Seguya and Nile. They are waiting for us. Muhindo explains how the giraffes always wait for their meal at the gate whenever it is brought in late.
It’s ecstatic as we feed the two scaling giants on bananas and pellets. Their long rough tongues caress our palms. We then place the rest of the fruits and vegetables in their raised feeding trough before we drive to a nearby shed to hang the foliage on which these gentle giants chew on at night. In Seguya’s territory are other animals like the donkeys, elands, toupees and the Ankole cows.