Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Perfect Day

Every once in a while I experience a perfect day, where everything goes as planned, events exceed expectations, and timing just keeps working out.  Saturday was such a day.  With one exception - I forgot my camera at home.  That made me be much more in the moment, though, when I didn't have to constantly be trying to capture a memory and could just focus on making them.  So excuse the lack of pictures and just focus on the content.  I'll update this as friends send me their photos (though so far the photos have other people in them, so I won't add those).

Earlier this year a friend and I spent a day at the Uganda Wildlife Education Center in Entebbe, the local rescue/rehabilitation/conservation center.  It's too simplistic to term it a zoo, as all the animals are native to Uganda and are orphaned, rescued, or confiscated.  They do captive breeding of a few species but focus their energies on promoting love of animals, nature, and conservation in communities throughout Uganda via education and research.  Schoolchildren visit the center often, and some of the animals go on community visits as ambassadors.  It's a pretty amazing center. 

Anyway, my first trip to the UWEC was great, but it was pouring throughout our entire visit, so a lot of the animals were hiding out.  We vowed to come back and take advantage of one of UWEC's awesome programs - their Behind the Scenes tour.  We cobbled together a group of new friends, old friends, including Ugandan friends, and set out for a morning at UWEC.

After a fun drive down to Entebbe singing to Billy Joel's greatest hits, we reached UWEC and gratefully looked at the shining sun with only a few clouds.  We met our guide for the day, boarded our specially designed ark on wheels (so cool!), and set off.  UWEC is easily walkable, but for this tour we went into some restricted areas so it was better to be in a vehicle.

We drove past the Queen Elizabeth National Park habitat with its kob and waterbuck and headed for the rhino enclosure.  There are only 15* rhinos in Uganda, two at UWEC and 13 at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary.  Hunted to extinction in the 1970s and 1980s, there's now a plan to release rhinos back into the wild by 2030.  Sherino and Kabira are the two resident white rhinos at UWEC; I'd met them on my previous visit, but this was very different.
 (*there may be 1-2 more as the breeding program succeeds at Ziwa; I'm quoting the guide's figures.)

We parked our ark and walked into one stage of the rhino habitat.  There was a wooden rail fence separating us from the animals, who came running up to the fence as we approached.  All of the animals at UWEC are trained and socialized so they can serve as ambassadors of their species and so medical procedures can be done without sedation.  For the rhinos, it's important to take blood draws from behind their ears to check for parasites or tsetse fly sicknesses.  It's much easier for everyone not to have to sedate the animals to do this, so the socialization is a pretty important thing.  Kabira stuck her horn under the fence and nuzzled me, one of the first brave enough to approach.  Sherino almost pushed her out of the way trying to get some affection.  Given that each of these animals is approximately 5,000 lbs, this was a pretty daunting sight to behold.  And so amazing.

I have pet rhinos before, black rhinos in Zimbabwe, but these two were much more affectionate and eager to get ear scratches and massages.  Their skin is fascinating - hard in exposed areas but oh so soft behind their ears, on their muzzles, and under joints.  What a gift to be able to behold them at such close range, these majestic creatures.  Kabira grew tired of us after a few minutes and wandered away to graze, but Sherino kept close for more ear scratches. 

We bid them goodbye and headed to the lion enclosure.  Kibonge the male was lying in the grass while Biza watched from her perch atop a wooden platform.  Zara, the other resident female, was out on an outreach trip.  We watched them for a few minutes before driving around back to meet their little ones.  Kibonge was rescued from a private home at five months old and has spent most of his life at UWEC.  At 21 years old he is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, lions in captivity.  He's still active and virile, siring a littler with Biza in late 2012.  That littler produced four cubs, two of whom survived.  These two cubs, now 11 months old, are ready for integration with their dad.  First contact has been quite successful. 

Flavia and Mutagamba are the two surviving female cubs.  My friends point out that cub is an understatement since each one of these girls is close to 200 lbs and increasingly ferocious.  I volunteered to go into their enclosure to do some training; only two of the others did.  It was a little scary at first as Flavia growled and bared her teeth, but as soon as the training glove was produced she batted at it just like my own house cats do. 

I took a turn with the glove and played with Flavia, who continued to growl ominously but made no move to get closer.  Mutagamba came over when one of my friends took a turn with the glove, but she bit into it and wrestled it away.  It took a broom, two keepers, and 10 minutes to retrieve the glove.  Flavia decided to try to play too, and she and Mutagamba had a nice wrestling match with each other; again it reminded me very much of Griffin and Callaghan.  Albeit on a grander and scarier scale. 

After a couple more brave souls ventured into the lion cage for a turn, we headed to the next adventure.  We drove out of the regular visitor area and headed to the veterinary clinic, home to UWEC's only pachyderm.  Hamukungu Charles was only a few months old when his mother and several members of his herd were will killed by poachers.   The rest of the herd was able to swim from their island home to the mainland, but Charles was too small.  A fisherman found him and arranged for him to get to UWEC, where he has lived ever since.  At just over two years old he's still a small little guy and doesn't yet have a permanent exhibit.  He has his keeper and a visiting elephant expert from Japan and does pretty well around people.  Charles is the hairiest elephant I've ever met and one of the most well behaved.  Other than a probing 'kiss' with his trunk when I was petting him, he was pretty laid back.  He even tolerated a group photo before heading back to his home.

Our next stop was perhaps my favorite and a first for me.  We loaded up with a crate of fresh fruits and veggies and headed to the Kidepo habitat.  At the gate we were met by three hungry giraffes, a curious male ostrich, and two beautiful eland.  They followed us as we made our way farther into the enclosure (which is many acres - a beautiful, big space) and parked underneath a tree.  A long-horned Ankole bull stood next to us, unfazed by our presence but a little curious about what was in the crate. 

UWEC has three Rothschild giraffes, rescued from Murchison Falls National Park.  Nile, Tangy, and Seguya delight visitors to UWEC, particularly those on an interactive tour!  Our guide showed us the two ways to feed a banana to a giraffe.  There's the traditional way, which is to hold it in your hand and offer it to the giraffe.  Or there's the fun way - hold the banana in your mouth and let the giraffe take it from there - thus accomplishing the famed giraffe kiss.  I of course tried the second method and soon found myself trying not to flinch as a giraffe head and then giraffe tongue came in to grab the banana.  Other than a slight lick on the chin, it was a perfectly harmless experience, and I repeated it several times, much to the amusement of my companions, most of whom kept to traditional feeding methods. 

We spent about five minutes feeding bananas, carrots, spinach, green beans, peppers, and other yummies to our three friends.  I learned that a giraffe will take bananas, carrots, and peppers from a human's mouth but not a single green bean.  Giraffes also will not let you pet them unless you have an offering of food.  And their mouths are surrounded by lots of bristly hair.  What an experience!  After a while we put the rest of the crate of food into a feeding stand so the giraffes could eat freely and made our way to our next adventure stop.

Sushi the shoebill stork is a beautiful and endangered bird, one of only 500 of his kind left in the world, mostly in Uganda and the surrounding countries.  Sushi has been at UWEC since 1976 and stands about four feet tall.  Meeting him requires an elaborate and reciprocal ritual - bowing, shaking one's head from side to side, whine/squealing, and clapping one's hands like it's a beak opening and closing.  Sushi mimicked all of our movements and noises, seemingly accepting us into his habitat.  He is an absolutely gorgeous and unique bird; and I hope to see some in the wild in my remaining time in Uganda - it would definitely be a treat.

From Sushi's enclosure, resembling a Central/East African wetland, we walked over to Chimp Island.  UWEC houses 11 adult chimps and several young ones, all rescued or confiscated.  They sleep in a building at night and roam their own private island during the day.  Chimps don't swim, so the moat surrounding the island discourages them from escaping.  It was feeding time, so we joined the keeper as he threw cassava, potatoes, sugarcane, and matoke to them.  He demonstrated how they'd use tools (branches) to retrieve pieces that fell into the water.  They also would hold out their hands to indicate they wanted a treat.  Some would make noise and jump up and down before displaying their hands.  Quite a sight to see.  We wandered over to the chimp house to see several young chimps who will be integrated over time.  Due to health restrictions we kept our distance, but they were certainly adorable and playful. 

From there we visited the reptile pavilion where we were introduced to an African rock python, approximately seven feet long and 17 years old.  Once he calmed down a bit after leaving his home, he let us hold him.  I wrapped him around my neck and shoulders.  He was very calm and cool (literally - it felt nice on a sunny day), but I definitely felt a little compression in my neck when he tried to wrap up. 

After several friends held the python, we meandered back to the entrance, visiting the crocodiles, otters, zebra, and buffalo on the way.  We even spotted a couple of the beautiful free-ranging crested cranes, Uganda's national bird. 

We bid farewell to our guide and driver and headed to grab pizza for lunch in Entebbe, after which some of us went to a friend's house for a get together.  We sipped cold drinks and looked out over Lake Victoria and Kampala on a lovely weekend afternoon.

Amazingly, we hit a sweet spot with traffic and made it home with no delays.  All in all, it was a marvelously perfect day.  For my intrepid intending visitors - you too can have a day like this!