The second of two parts
The first thing we see on our boatride along the shores of Lake Mburo is a pair of African fish eagles, which look like streamlined bald eagles but with the white extending from the head and neck down to the chest. Our park ranger, Moses, tries to fill us in on the hunting techniques and mate-for-life habits of the eagles, but we ignore him completely as soon as the first hippos begin to bob their heads out of the water. I happen to spot the first one and point, and everyone leans over to see. Shudders snap. I can practical hear Moses think, Well, so much for me….
The hippos tend to surface, exhale a spray of air very much like a whale, blink once or twice as they inhale, and then slide quietly back under water. “They look so hungry, hungry…” I say to no one in particular.
We find hippos in a dozen clusters along the lakeshore, where they live in shallow areas and eat vegetation. If you combined a submarine with a tank and gave it a gaping maw, it would look like a hippo.
We also find a tiny Nile crocodile sunning itself on a tree branch, although he quickly plunks himself into the water when Moses slows the boat. We find another, about three feet long, sunning itself along a muddy bank near a shallow inlet. They grow as long as four meters, Moses tells us—that’s more than twelve feet of crocodile. That’d be a big damn reptile with a lot of teeth.
A little while later, we spook a couple sizeable crocs resting in a stand of papyrus when we round a bend. I can’t get an accurate sense of their length, though, because they both slide into the water, and stare at us with their cold reptile eyes, and disappear with hardly a wake.
A family of baboons comes to the water’s edge as we’re nearly back to the dock. Perhaps twenty of them march by, including a mother with a tiny infant on her back. The troops dominant male finally pushes his way out of the brush closest to the river and scoops his charges up the bank and away like a cop telling onlookers, “Nothing to see here folks. Move along. Nothing to see.” Maybe I’m anthropomorphizing the scowl on the male’s face, but he sure doesn’t look happy to have us bothering his family, even if we are only taking pictures.
We have the chance for some souvenir shopping, and Herman shows off the park’s bungalows, which would make for first-class camping. We also see plenty of other animals: waterbuck; topi, a type of antelope with front legs longer than its back legs, built for sustained speed; mongoose; and more bird varieties than I could ever wrap my head around. The place is a birder’s paradise.
We also see a pair of water buffalo, reportedly the most dangerous large animal in Africa because of their truck-like size and notoriously peevish temperaments. Each beast has a set of horns that begin from a central plate, or “boss,” on their forehead, and then like a full head of hair parted straight down the middle, the horns branch out like the curved ends of menacing handlebar moustaches.
Herman tells us the fall census tracked fifteen leopards and a bunch of hyenas in the park, too, as well as a single male lion. “And people camp here in tents?” I ask him.
Once upon a time, elephants used to roam the area, as did rhinos, although Uganda now only has seven and they’re all in captivity. The park does have plans to introduce giraffes later this month as a way to manage the brush.
The national government spends a lot of money on the national parks, Herman tells me later. The biggest problem is a lack of manpower, which would help address the other major problem, which has been poaching. The introduction of sport hunting in Lake Mburo National Park—the only park where it’s allowed—has helped alleviate the problem by providing much-needed income to local communities. A water buffalo might bring in as much as $1,000 U.S.; fifteen percent goes to the park, fifteen percent goes to the sportsmen’s association, which regulates the hunting; and seventy percent goes to the local landowner.
Similarly, when an animal from the park causes property damage for a local landowner, the national government reimburses the community with money that can be used for public works projects like new wells and community centers.
While no leopards show their spots, a monkey gives us a parting shot that could not be more perfect: it sits on the park sign and looks cutes as though posed there for promotional purposes. But Herman has shown me more than beautiful animals—through his own passion today and his work setting up Green Pearl, he has given me a glimpse of Uganda’s ecological future.