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Why Uganda´s Bushfires Aren’t All Bad

During our field surveys to better understand the primate diversity of north-eastern Uganda, we seek the least traveled routes and those areas for which primates have never been surveyed. Our explorations often yield data for species other than primates, and get us into some interesting situations.

Fire Season

For two weeks in February 2015 we moved through northern Uganda to assess the primate community at multiple sites. This is the middle of the dry season with the rains not expected until March. During the dry months, large, raging, bushfires are common in Uganda. On several occasions we drive towards curtains of smoke and bushfires.

Tall grasses and bushes are ablaze, but also trees and fence posts. Many of the fires are wind-driven and move quickly. Much of northern Uganda has already burnt—and much more will burn before the March rains. Throughout this survey, hazy skies (the result of thick smoke and dust), create a spooky atmosphere during the day and spectacular sunsets and sunrises.

Hazy sunrise after extensive bushfires at Opit Central Forest Reserve, north Uganda. Photograph by Yvonne de Jong and Tom Butynski.
Sunrise is hazy after extensive bushfires at Opit Central Forest Reserve, north Uganda. (Photograph by Yvonne de Jong and Tom Butynski)
De Jong & Butynski - bush fire
A bushfire turns plant life to clouds of smoke near Zoka Central Forest Reserve, north Uganda. (Photograph by Yvonne de Jong and Tom Butynski)
Sunrise through the smoky haze of a bushfire at Opit Central Forest Reserve, north Uganda. Photograph by Yvonne de Jong and Tom Butynski.
The sun rises through the smoky haze of a bushfire at Opit Central Forest Reserve, north Uganda. (Photograph by Yvonne de Jong and Tom Butynski)


Fire for More Than Just Cooking

In northern Uganda, as over much of Africa, farmers and hunters use fire as a tool to exploit and maintain grasslands and woodlands. Fire, at least temporarily, removes much of the dense bush and 2-3-meter tall rank grass that covers most of northern Uganda. This greatly facilitates the preparation of the soil for planting crops, promotes the flush of green grasses for livestock, attracts wildlife, greatly improves visibility for hunters, and makes movement through the area by people, livestock, and wildlife much easier.

De Jong & Butynski Cochlospermum (1)
Many of the plants of north Uganda are fire-dependent and only come forth and flower after a burn. (Photograph by Yvonne de Jong and Tom Butynski)
De Jong & Butynski Cochlospermum (2)
One such fire-dependent species is Cochlospermum tinctorium, the flowers of which are shown in the above two photographs. (Photograph by Yvonne de Jong and Tom Butynski)

As depressing as it is to witness so much vegetation go up in smoke, there is one up-side for us. The fires attract an abundance of birds of prey, eager for a feast.

Birds on the Lookout

This creates the perfect opportunity for us to document the diversity of raptors at those sites where we encounter bushfires. Pearched on tall trees and electricity poles on the edges of these fires, dozens of raptors of several species scan the ground for insects, lizards, snakes, small mammals, and other animals escaping from the smoke and heat. Other raptors soar and hover about—waiting! We find ourselves in an avian action movie, with our cameras clicking away to capture the drama. We’ll say more about this in an upcoming blog about Beaudouin’s snake-eagle and other raptors in northern Uganda.

Scanning for birds and primates south of Adjumani, north Uganda. Photograph by Yvonne de Jong and Tom Butynski.
We stop to scan for birds and primates south of Adjumani, north Uganda. (Photograph by Yvonne de Jong and Tom Butynski)
De Jong _ Butynski - Beaudouin's Snake-eagle - Kilak (3)
A fine example of the vulnerable Beaudouin’s snake-eagle (Circaetus beaudouini) watches from its perch near Kilak, north Uganda. (Photograph by Yvonne de Jong and Tom Butynski)
Regenerating bushland after a bushfire in Otzi East Central Forest Reserve, north Uganda. Senegal lesser galagos (Galago senegalensis senegalensis) are common at this site. See blog: Primate Survey Raises Question: Are Uganda’s Northernmost Chimpanzees Vanishing?.  Photograph by Yvonne de Jong and Tom Butynski.
Bushland regenerates after a bushfire in Otzi East Central Forest Reserve, north Uganda. Senegal lesser galagos (Galago senegalensis senegalensis) are common at this site. See blog: “Primate Survey Raises Question: Are Uganda’s Northernmost Chimpanzees Vanishing?” (Photograph by Yvonne de Jong and Tom Butynski)
De Jong & Butynski - White stork
A white stork (Ciconia ciconia) forages along a fence on the edge of a bushfire near Kilak, north Uganda. (Photograph by Yvonne de Jong and Tom Butynski)

Unfortunately, many, if not most, bushfires “go wild,” spreading into and greatly damaging precious riverine and gallery forests. Forest now covers but a small proportion of northern Uganda as a result of fire and clearance for agriculture. It is in these forests where much of northern Uganda’s biodiversity occurs, along with most of the region’s threatened species of plants and animals.

De Jong & Butynski - bush fires N Uganda
Degraded woodland rests after a bushfire near Zoka Central Forest Reserve, north Uganda. (Photograph by Yvonne de Jong and Tom Butynski)
Uncontrolled bushfire approaching (and later entering) Otzi East Central Forest Reserve, north Uganda. Photograph by Yvonne de Jong & Tom Butynski
Uncontrolled bushfire approaches (and would later enter) Otzi East Central Forest Reserve, north Uganda. (Photograph by Yvonne de Jong & Tom Butynski)

For additional blogs, images, and publications, visit wildsolutions.nl.

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