Picture yourself lying in the dirt at 2am in the middle of Uganda, facing an unknown animal’s burrow. A colleague is accompanying you for safety… the sound of his heavy snoring 15m away fills you with confidence.
You look up through the dense treeline at stars dancing across the milky-way. Your camera traps revealed leopards strutting around this area, so naturally these videos play on repeat in your mind.
But at least your girlfriend’s next to you keeping you compan… oh she’s asleep too.
The list of potential residents for this mystery burrow is comforting: deadly snakes, large predators, warthogs, and giant pangolin — the one you’re really after!
Giant pangolins are mysterious and extremely elusive. Scientists know very little about them. So we’re here to find, catch, and tag one with a GPS collar. Pangolins are the most trafficked mammals in the world, covered in scales that are worth more than their weight in gold. If we can better understand their behaviours, we can better protect them.
How do you catch one? Who knows? No one has ever tagged a giant one. Legends talk of severed leopard heads curled up in their muscular tails due to its sheer power. But it’s okay, if one emerges from the burrow your plan is to carefully jump on it. What could go wrong?
Suddenly, there’s a rustling of leaves behind you. Something is approaching. Is it the slithering of a snake? Leopards don’t make that much noise… DO THEY?! Perhaps a rhino? Uganda sadly lost all of its rhinos 1983 after years of civil unrest and poaching. However, the site where you’re currently camped, Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, is a haven for these gentle grey giants.
Ziwa is a secure breeding site for white rhinos with a fantastic vision to repopulate Uganda’s national parks with these enigmatic dinosaurs. Starting with just 6 rhinos, the sanctuary now boasts a whopping 27 — the first rhinos born in Uganda in over 30 years and a real beacon of hope for conservation. Ziwa offers a fantastically rare opportunity for tourists to get close and personal with rhinos, while interacting with the sanctuary’s wonderfully knowledgeable and dedicated rangers.
If you’ve got a spare $5,000, you can even name a baby rhino — perhaps the most adorable things you’ll ever see. But however cute, you wouldn’t want one to be responsible for the rustling leaves around you. Mum’s always nearby and won’t hesitate to charge a shifty scientist to protect her calf.
The crunching of leaves looms closer. It sounds big! What if it’s a cheeky chimpanzee?
You know what these sound like — last week you spent a day tracking them through Kibale National Park, arguably the world’s best site to photograph chimps.
“Don’t get your hopes up, we might not see them”.
These words of encouragement greeted you at 6am as you began your trek through Kibale’s rainforest, overwhelmed by its staggering greenness and the choruses of its inhabitants. Another world. A world where your size 10 walking boot can trudge into an elephant track like a newborn’s hand against its fathers.
“Shhh. Above you!”
Then you saw them.
Locking eyes with the alpha, you glimpsed his power and presence. A young male wandered effortlessly down a tree-trunk beside you, despite missing both feet. Local hunters lay snares to supply meat for their families and farmers become intolerant of crop raiders – that legless chimp is a stark reminder that we’re living in the Anthropocene.
Yet this is a day you’ll never forget. A privileged day in awe of your closest ancestral relatives.
But these sassy sapiens are confined to rainforests, so can’t be approaching you at Ziwa.
Back at the burrow the rustling intensifies. Your heart races. You turn your head — something is coming.
Then the smell hits you. An assault on the senses. All you can relate it to is unwashed football bibs. Whatever this is… has a bad case of BO.
It’s metres away.
An aardvark?! That’s what all the fuss was about? But suddenly he turns and makes a beeline for you. He’s a big boy, muscular with 5-inch-long claws — the Schwarzenegger of insectivores.
He’s sniffing around the curry inches to your left, yet doesn’t see you. You sit like statues. Any movement could spook him into an attack. He ambles behind you, but you dare not turn.
The rustle of the aardvark begins to fade into the night. He’s alerted by your colleague’s snoring (always knew he’d help) and darts into the distance.
That’s what I loved so much about Uganda. Unpredictable. Wild. And, despite evidence of 21st century conservation threats rearing their ugly heads, the country offers unrivalled wildlife ecotourism opportunities.
It’s a country bursting with hope, moments that take your breath away, and leaves you wondering … why do aardvarks smell so bad?!
- Josh Adam Drummond Robertson
- : Conservation scientist with a passion for storytelling, science communication, and the natural world. Over the past 7 years I have been fortunate enough to implement and manage research projects around the globe: big game in South Africa, endangered species in Borneo, lemurs in Madagascar, tropicbirds in the Caribbean, disease in the US, bats in the UK, mammals in Croatia, predators in Namibia, and pangolins in Uganda. Having received my MSc Conservation Science from Imperial College London, I subsequently established a charity (Conservation Conversation) that aims to bring wildlife conservation to the masses through environmental journalism.
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- : This is the first time this story has been published.