Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Parrots and other birds here and there

I am in the process of working on an article about human-wildlife conflicts, but I am taking longer to write it than I originally planned. In the meantime, here are some of the beauties Michele and I are finding around Rwanda. All of these birds are found in the wild only on the continent of Africa.

A pair of African Grey Parrots (Psittacus erithacus) hang out
near the shore of Lake Kivu, in Gisenyi, in the Norhtwest of Rwanda.

According to BirdLife International, the African Grey has
experienced significant population declines due to habitat loss
and the international pet trade. They are apparently so
popular as pets in the United States, Europe, and Asia that up
to 21% of the wild population is harvested annually. Read more.

A Red-chested Sunbird (Cinnyris erythrocerca) sings
near Lake Kivu.

A Woodland Kingfisher (Halcyon senegalensis) perches
on an acacia tree near the shore of Lake Muhazi
in Eastern Rwanda.

An African Wattled Lapwing (Vanellus senegallus)
searches for food near some rice paddies. Note its yellow
wattle on the side of its bill!

Four Lesser Striped Swallows (Hirundo abyssinica) rest atop
a banana leaf. These are the most beautiful swallow species
I have seen in the world. They make metallic-like sounds
and nest at Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village.

An African Jacana (Actophilornis africanus) patrols the shore
of a lake in Akagera National Park, which forms the
Eastern border of Rwanda.

One Hammerkop (Scopus umbretta) lands on another
in the Eastern Province of Rwanda.

A Hammerkop stands on its nest in a garden in Kigali,
the capital and approximate geographic center of Rwanda.

The most beautiful bird of all... Michele stands at the edge
of Lake Kivu, which forms the Western border of Rwanda.
Across this body of water is the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

As you can see, this country is rich in birds. Michele and I use our free time to travel around Rwanda in search of them and other wildlife too. I am reminded of a quote from the poet Pablo Neruda that I saw posted at the Central Park Zoo:

"I've wandered the world in search of life: bird by bird I've come to know the earth."

I hope to see them all... thanks for reading!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Organic Agriculture and Composting in Rwanda

On Friday, I joined a small group from ASYV for a field trip to learn about organic agriculture in Rwanda. This group included a chemistry teacher, school administrative staff (myself), an informal education representative, two farm staff, and a landscape staff member. Our objective was to get some ideas on how to build environmentally sustainable practices into our operations and educational programs. We specifically wanted training on composting in the tropics and on plants that could be incorporated into our landscaping and farm to decrease pests without pesticides.

Entrance to the GOFTC demo farm

The training was at the Gako Organic Farming Training Center (GOFTC). The center opened in 2000 and has since trained over 60,000 farmers from Rwanda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Its founder and director, Richard Mynyerango, was our host for the day.

“No matter how big you are, a president, a businessman, or anyone, at the end of the day you still have to eat.” Richard said. The center is largely focused on just that: connecting people to the idea of healthy food and the how-to of growing it.

A terraced mound garden at GOFTC

While Richard and his center promote protecting the environment through organic agriculture, their approach is centered in helping people through an ecological approach. Richard said they are looking for ways that organic farming and conservation can boost peoples’ income, open new cottage industries, and shift people from subsistence agriculture to accessing markets. With the environment as his guide, he is searching for “anything we can do to improve the livelihood of the people.”

Many of the innovations that the center promotes are not necessarily new to the world, but they are adapted to local conditions for use by local people. For example, space is very limited in Rwanda. Not only is it a small country, but it is very densely populated. If people do not have enough land, then they may not be able to produce enough food. Since 90% of Rwandans are farmers, this is a huge issue. The GOFTC promotes several space-optimization schemes to increase the amount of food grown in the same space. Two that really stuck out to me were the mound gardens and the sack gardens.

A mound garden can double the growing space

Mound gardens are soil (and compost) piled up in a small hill. The chemistry teacher with us calculated that it doubles the amount of growing space. The mound allows more plants to grow because it increases the surface area available for growing. The sack garden is like a kitchen container garden on a larger scale. A durable sack is filled with soil and compost, staked with a post on 4 sides, and holes cut from bottom to top. Plants like onions were planted in the sides of the sack garden and herbs on top. Again, it is an increase in the surface area- and thus growing space- that is the real benefit of the sack container.

Sack gardens are used to optimize space

Other technologies they promote are rabbit, goat, or cow pens that allow for easier collection of manure and urine for use in composting or fertilization. They are also promoting dairy goats, but face a lot of resistance as there is a stigma about goat milk here in Rwanda. They experiment with different drainage systems and siltation traps to reduce erosion and catch topsoil that would otherwise be lost. They keep bees and remind people that if they use chemical pesticides on their farm, it will kill their bees. They experiment with mushroom production and with plants as-of-yet unused by most Rwandan farmers like bamboo. Perhaps most impressive to me is that these technologies are being tried by Rwandans for Rwandans; they are using materials that are accessible locally and are affordable for most people.

Rabbit hutch with easy manure collection (this hutch was
three containers high, again optimizing space)

One technology that has potential for renewable energy production in Rwanda is biogas. GOFTC has several underground tanks that allow for anaerobic (without oxygen) breakdown of its cow manure; they are able to use one of the end products of the breakdown, methane, to power their stoves (maybe their other electricity too). Our lunch for the day was cooked on a biogas stove, and it was delicious! We ate most of the food, but I am guessing what was left over was composted.

Lunch being cooked on a biogas stove

GOFTC promotes composting as a way that Rwandans can improve their soil fertility. From my observation, composting in Rwanda is not that different than composting in the Midwest or Eastern United States (or perhaps elsewhere, but I have only composted in those two regions). Decomposition is the same process, with pretty much the same biological and chemical forces at work, and humans are just managing it to get a desired product. Climate does affect the composting process. There are two main seasons here, wet and dry, which essentially produce opposite problems: too much moisture getting into your compost or too much moisture loss from the pile. The compost book that GOFTC uses is a UK-based book (All About Compost by Pauline Pears) that has two basic pages on composting in the tropics. For the wet season, it recommends using large leaves to cover the compost to retain moisture. For the dry season, the book recommends again using large leaves for moisture retention or to bury the compost in a shallow pit.

Compost site with greens and browns waiting to be processed

GOFTC builds small structures over their compost to reduce moisture loss, protect from torrential rains, and keep their compost form baking in the equatorial sun. The compost cover has a post on each corner and a basic roof structure of attached sticks and large leaves draped over the sticks. As GOFTC does a lot of composting, these structures were fairly large and provided nice shade for us as we observed. The method of composting that GOFTC uses is called lasagna composting (called that in America, but I am not sure if they have names for different methods here), and it involves building your compost pile with specific layers. They start with sticks at the bottom to provide aeration and room for macro-invertebrates, then a 30 cm layer of dry brown materials, a thin layer of dry ash, a soaking of water or animal urine, a 30 cm layer of dung, a layer of topsoil, a 30 cm layer of freshly dead green materials, dry ash, and then start over adding another dry brown layer. Richard presented a reason for each layer, such as for instance, using ash to add potassium. He recommended checking the compost every 3 days and then after 14 days turning it. Most of these “waste” materials are available on a Rwandan farm, and while they will break down anyway, composting them in a managed way can provide the farmer with quick and high-quality humus that improves their soils’ productivity. Richard said they get finished compost in about 4 weeks.

Smaller compost site at the demo farm
also has a pit for materials storage

I got the impression from Richard that organic agriculture is still in its infancy here in Rwanda, but it has serious room for growth. One major challenge is that most people here are too poor and cannot afford the higher prices of organic food. Organic food commands premium prices, but these are mostly from external markets, not local ones. Encouragingly, he said that the perception of the organic approach has changed in the last ten years from discouraged and un-modern to viable; he said even some agencies are beginning to promote it. Richard said, “no longer do the organic farmers walk with shoulders down. They now hold their shoulders high.” For the sake of the butterflies, birds, and the people of Rwanda, I hope that organic agriculture continues to grow and improve the lives that it touches.

Digging in!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Safari at Akagera

This past Sunday, our volunteer group headed out from the village for a safari at Akagera National Park. With over 1000 square kilometers, Akagera provides habitat for hundreds of species of animals, including large mammals such as hippo, giraffe, zebra, buffalo, lion, and elephant. Its bird list includes over 500 species, including the shoebill. With such potential, I could hardly sleep the night before, and I stayed up studying other peoples’ trip lists and the plates in the field guide for what could be a bonanza of new birds.

Akagera National Park

Only three of the nine people on the trip were birdwatchers so we agreed to try for a balanced safari with a mix of birds, mammals, plants, and any other wildlife we could find. Our chances for some animals were pretty slim due to the events of the past twenty years. Akagera has lost over half of its original space due to people settling and cultivating its lands (about 1500 square kilometers lost), and several of its big animals have been devastated by poaching. Still, it is a giant space… what did we see?

Once inside the park gate, interestingly enough, the first bird we saw was a red-necked spurfowl, and it gave great views. This was such a contrast to the experience with the spurfowl that I described in the last post (In Search of Inyoni). Whereas it took us days to get a good look at ASYV, the spurfowl were fairly easy to see throughout the day in Akagera. Soon after passing some impala (a type of antelope) but before even reaching the park headquarters, we found two excellent birds, the crowned hornbill and the African grey hornbill.

African grey hornbill (Tockus nasutus)

The park cost $30 for each person to enter, and you have to have a vehicle to enter the park (luckily we had a vehicle for the day). A guide, paid for in the entrance fees, accompanies visitors during the safari drive. Our guide was named Charles, and although he claimed his bird knowledge was just ok, he proved to be a great companion in helping identify difficult birds and in sharing his knowledge of the local ecology.

Nile Crocodiles (Crocodylus niloticus)

At our first lookout point near Lake Ihema, we found Ruppell’s long-tailed starling, African open-billed storks, an African fish eagle, an African darter, glossy ibis, Egyptian geese, a pied kingfisher, and a woodland kingfisher. The spot seemed to be ripe for finding birds. We were not, however, permitted to stay long or wander away from the specific place we had stopped. One drawback to Akagera is that you are not allowed to leave the vehicle except at lookout points and then not allowed to stray from those points. This was a major challenge to finding birds.

Hippo (Hippopotamus amphibius)

As we drove through the park, we found two types of primates, the vervet monkey and olive baboons. Nearly all of the bodies of water contained hippos, and we saw a good number of Nile crocodiles too. Birds like African jacana, black-collared barbet, helmeted guineafowl, and bare-faced go-away birds impressed even the non-bird folk. A few warthogs darted in and out of the bush just long enough for us to see. As we approached the northern section of the park, the big mammals became more numerous. Impala, bushbuck, waterbuck, topi, and zebra grazed in the woodland that surrounded the road or even crossed it in front of our vehicle.

Common Zebra (Equus quagga)
African open-billed storks (Anastomus lamelligerus),
spur-winged goose (Plectropterus gambensis),
white-faced whistling duck (Dendrocygna viduata)

We stopped for a picnic lunch at a body of water called Lake Mihindi. The view was spectacular and made up for the simple lunch of bread and bananas. With hippos and crocodiles further out in the water, open-billed storks, spur-winged geese, white-faced whistling ducks, spur-winged lapwings, and water thick-knees populated the banks. Shortly after lunch, we passed a tree with a couple European bee-eaters. Michele and I had searched and searched for this species in Israel in August 2009 but we never found them; they had already migrated from the area for the year. No worries after all- we got them in Rwanda!

African buffalo (Syncerus caffer)
with yellow-billed oxpecker (Buphagus africanus)

Once we made it onto the plains, we found three additional very large mammals: the eland (largest antelope in the world), the African buffalo, and a single giraffe. These brought the mammal count to 11 for the day. As everyone took in the beauty of the open grassland and its wildlife, Ido spotted three grey crowned cranes far in the distance. A black-chested snake-eagle soared overhead, giving us a total of 54 species of birds on the day. The variety of life on the plains was a thrilling conclusion to our visit, and we soon reached the park exit.

Grey crowned cranes (Balearica regulorum)

Seeing 54 species of birds is a mere scratch of the surface of Akagera. I am eager to return and explore different parts of the park. I really want to find spots that allow for some out-of-the-car bird watching, such as trails, but they may not exist. Let me illustrate how few birds we saw, relatively speaking. On average, I see about 36 species each morning at ASYV in about two hours; ASYV is not a park nor does it contain a variety of habitats. In about nine hours at Akagera, which contains several habitat types, we saw 54 species. Covering so much ground on the safari and being limited to searching for birds from the car made this not so much a bird watching trip but a get-lucky-and-see-what-is-around-while-doing-other-things type of trip. The car had to keep moving on, or even if we did stop, the birds sometimes flew just out of sight from the car. I have read that the outskirts of the park are also quite good, and you are not bound to stay in a vehicle. The birdwatchers among us vowed to return to try to see some of the other roughly 475 species that live in or visit the area.

Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) with Homo sapiens Ido and Michele