My name is Ben Jones and have come to Ngamba Island as part of a staff exchange programme between the Chimpanzee Trust and my workplace; Aigas Field Centre. At Aigas Field Centre I am the Staff Naturalist, a role that includes managing conservation projects such as breeding Scottish Wildcats, monitoring local wildlife and enhancing habitat to increase biodiversity.
It did not take me long to realise Ngamba Island is a special place. The Island is situated in the north of Lake Victoria so a boat journey from Entebbe is required. This journey gave me my first indication I was heading towards something special. Floating vegetation provides birds with an ideal perch between fishing trips. Terns, egrets and cormorants all make use of the leafy rafts. Feeding activity is at its highest concentration crossing the equator (An interesting phenomenon and one I will investigate further).
The island soon appears ahead of the boat, a dominant dark green forest the most striking feature but drawing closer the human quarters of the Island also come into view. I hopped off the boat ready for 5 days of working alongside the staff of the Chimpanzee Trust.
Chimp husbandry is fascinating and a particular highlight is feeding them 4 times a day, every day. At the beginning of my experience, I saw 49 chimpanzees, by the end 49 individual characters each with their own unique personality which really comes to light at meal times.
I am fascinated by all wildlife and Ngamba is a brilliant place for a keen naturalist. The abundance of bird life on the Island is a standout spectacle. 1,200 egrets were the official count during one of my days on the Island. Before dusk, egret, cormorant, ibis and heron would flock to the island from all corners of the lake it seemed. The cormorant and egret start taking up prime roosting perches on the trees, later the sacred ibis would arrive in a more formerly manner, tight V-shaped skeins as good as any pink-footed goose flock passing over the Scottish Highlands.
Ngamba is home to four species of weaver bird and a tree outside the staff kitchen is home to a massive village weaver colony, which must be one of the biggest in the world. It was impossible to count the nests, but they must number into the hundreds. At dawn, their chattering calls start up and do not waver until dusk. I noticed whilst trying to make a phone call at 6:30 in the morning that no place on the island is void of sound once the sun’s rays have crept over the horizon; everything is awake, singing and calling. Each day 2 – 3 weaver nests fall from the tree, some containing chicks, which despite my best efforts fail to survive. With such a concentrated abundance of life, there is always a predator close by to capitalise and in this case cattle egrets have filled the niche. These angelic looking birds patrol the ground under the tree and devour any young birds that have the misfortune of falling from their nest. Shikra, the local sparrowhawk species is never far away, the weaver colony alerting me to the presence of a raptor flying through by falling completely silent, the effect similar to when somebody turns off the music at a party.
The other weaver species are all daintier than the village weaver and include the orange weaver, an uncommon bird in most of its range around the shores of Lake Victoria but a guaranteed sight on Ngamba. The slender-billed and Brown-throated are also present.
Anywhere ventured within the human section of the island is home to birds. The shore, grasses and trees are alive with their movement. One day we took the Trusts boat around the island for chimpanzee enrichment feeding, it was fantastic to see the chimps coming down to the water’s edge, some braver than others when it came to wading in to get the first pieces of fruit. The boat trip enabled me to see the full extent of forest the chimps had to roam in during the day, looking for them in the emergent trees provided much fun. There was other wildlife to see also, fish eagles perched in trees overhanging the water, gorging on their fish quarry. A peregrine falcon perched, noble atop a dead leafless tree scanning for its next meal, a mongoose patrolled the beach on the far side of the island.
Calmer days reveal spotted necked otters rolling at the surface of the Lake, often diving and mostly in pairs. Nile monitor lizards, the largest lizard in Africa call the island home. Moving around the Island I often accidentally startle one of these giant lizards in which case it heads for the cover of vegetation or safety of the water. Nile monitors are marvelous swimmers and appear to churn up fish as they go because cormorants follow them. The great thing about watching both otters and monitor lizards is the simplicity, find a comfy place to sit and they show themselves to you.
In the evening just as the clamour of bird calls is calming down, the bats emerge. Thousands of fruit bats pour out from the forest where they spend the day, a marvel to behold (though it is best viewed from lying on the ground to avoid neck strain). After marvelling at these creatures for a minute or two the sky sucks me in, the world becoming a conveyor belt of winged mammals accompanied by the squawking of roosting birds.
Ngamba Island is a special place. The wildlife provides a naturalist endless days of starring through binoculars or down a camera lens, observing a behaviour of creatures close up, whilst witnessing the predator-prey interactions that make up the circle of life. But it is the work being done on Ngamba by the staff, that really make it special, providing chimpanzees with an exceptional quality of life after their often traumatic start in the world. The wildlife conservation education provided to all visitors is engaging and vital, I don’t think anybody leaves the Island without wanting to make a change in their lives to aid the environment.
‘‘Ngamba is a special place, I hope one day to return.” Ben