After initially being rejected by birds and monkeys, I met the little Fire Crested Alethe, a small bird. Alethe fell in love with me, my eyes opened and I became a born again in photography. Thanks to my jungle friend little Alethe and my guide Justice Olibokiriho of Semuliki National park.
Uganda Wildlife Authority organised a marathon media tour of Kibale National and Semuliki National Parks respectively. As a photographer, I needed more time to capture life, death and life after death in the parks. So I remained in Semuliki to capture the hot springs at sunset and the birds.
Semuliki National Park in western Uganda is known for its endemic bird species, unmatched butterfly life and hot springs. It has 441 recorded species, representing 40 per cent of Uganda’s total bird species and 66 per cent (216) of the country’s forest bird species. Some of the most sought-after birds are: Nkulengu Rail, Yellow-throated Cuckoo, Piping Hornbill, Red-billed Dwarf Hornbill, Black Dwarf Hornbill, White-crested Hornbill, Black-casqued Wattled Hornbill, Red-rumped Tinkerbird, African Piculet, White-throated Blue Swallow, Yellow-throated Nicator, Leaf-love, Swamp Palm Bulbul, Lemon-bellied Crombec, Maxwell’s Black Weaver, Crested Malimbe, Red-bellied Malimbe, Blue-billed malimbe, Chestnut-breasted Negrofinch, Orange-cheeked Waxbill.
One day, I bought raw matooke and meat for the dinner to be cooked in the hot spring. After this, I would reward myself with the scenic geysers against the setting sun. The hot spring dinner was smooth. My sunset picture was never to be. The sunset was swallowed up by dark clouds. I cursed the gods and looked forward to capturing some Albertine Rift endemic birds the following morning. It was a disappointment. The birds never showed up despite persistent calls from my guide Olibokiriho, who is a living encyclopedia of birds and butterflies. “This is a bad season. The dry season is better,” he said.
Rich in biodiversity
According to Nelson Guma, the Chief Warden for Kibale Conservation area covering Katonga, Semuliki game reserves, Semuliki and Kibale National Parks, Semuliki could have more than the 53 recorded mammals as a new inventory being created.
Semuliki is about two hours from Kibale National Park. With 13 primates species, Kibale National Park measuring 795 sq km is known is the Primates capital of the world.
The park hosts about 1500 chimpanzees out of the 5000 recorded in the country. Chimpanzee tracking is the main tourism activity. Kibale has 350 and 250 bird and butterfly species respectively.
Before heading to Semuliki, we were able to interact with some members of the 120 strong Kanyantale chimpanzee community. Notable among the members we met was Bwana, a male chimpanzee known for his bad temper and making faces. Bwana showed me not more than five faces and inspired me to continue photographing primates once I reached Semuliki.
I turned my attention to the special primates in the park. There are nine primate species, including De Brazza’s monkey, and many mammals not found elsewhere in Uganda, such as Zenker’s flying mice.
Once in Semuliki, my target was the De Brazza monkeys. They proved too shy and we played hide and seek for some time until I proved they too had rejected me. My spirits sunk until in the evening when the sunset against the hot springs proved to be promising. There are two hot springs- the female and the male. Both bubble up from the depths to demonstrate the powerful subterranean forces that have been shaping the rift valley during the last 14 million years. My model was the female. The sunset started well and time passed until, without warning, a cloud swallowed it gain a few minutes to my much sought after golden hour. The two resident Spur-winged Lapwings continued their search for insects in the steam-filled environment around the hot springs unbothered about my anguish. Again, I was not happy that night. How could I miss a golden picture at the last minute?
Through the lens
The following day, after trekking for hours, we managed to capture the Red-billed dwarf Hornbill albeit with technical challenges. Semuliki measuring 220 sq km is a paradise for nature photographers but there is a catch. The dense vegetation typical of Central and West African tropical forests blocks most of the sunlight. It is always darkness at noon in Semuliki. Photographers are advised to carry fast prime lenses.
I was happy to see the Dwarf hornbill. Next on the list was the White-crowned hornbill, Piping Hornbill, and African Pied Hornbill.
“Normally, these birds are seen along the roadside for free. I am surprised.” The Chief Warden of Semuliki, Patrick Tushabe said of the birds’ conspicuous absence. Later in the day, the gods of the Semuliki creatures muted my punishment. The birds stopped shunning me. First, the White-crested hornbill peeped followed by a pair of Piping Hornbills and the African Pied Hornbill. The Blue-breasted Kingfisher we had sought for days also announced its arrival. For the first time, I was a happy photographer.
It was also during these happy moments that I got a special friend. As I sat in the dense jungle playing hide and seek with a Red-tailed ant Thrush, a sub adult Fire-crested Alethe started picking ants from my feet. It was too close to photograph but when I moved away, it followed me. We sat there eyeing each other and I got a noble feeling about nature.
I looked at the little bird and watched the sun rays penetrating the canopy and illuminating the butterflies. I looked at the backlit leaves swinging. I saw beautifully and artistically woven spider webs and I was filled with awe and respect for nature. From that moment, my eyes opened, my mind relaxed, I forgot about the elusive birds and De Brazzas and started seeing so many beautiful creations. All the time, little Alethe never left my side.
“That butterfly is called Euphaedra Lattery and that small one is Neptis Sclava.” For the first time, I was willing and eager to learn butterflies from Olibokiriho. They were many and all beautiful. Though studies about butterflies in the park are in progress, the Lepidoptera data from the 1996 census showed Semuliki to be the most butterfly rich park in Uganda, containing 309 species from a country with a total of approximately 1,300 species (Davenport, 2001).
I was completely humbled when I moved to photograph the butterflies and my little Alethe followed me. When it was time to go for lunch, little Alethe also escorted Olibokiriho and I for several metres. Alethe looked on as I took my best ever butterfly pictures. It was as if the forest had for the first time opened its doors to my camera, yet this beauty was always there only that I had been obsessed with finding the rare birds. Even the moss, living off dead trunks looked photogenic. And the sight to behold was that of a baboon grooming a grey-cheeked Mangabey.
Later in the evening, I went back to see little Alethe and sat down alone in the jungle. My heart lit up with happiness and tenderness when little Alethe appeared from the thickets a few minutes later and sat with me on the same fallen tree trunk. Alethe looked at me and I knew I had become born again in nature photography. It was hard parting ways with the Fire-Crested Alethe.