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Abuko Nature Reserve - A view from our expert author
Bushbuck (Tragelaphus scriptus) at the Abuko Nature Reserve, the Gambia © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, www.africaimagelibrary.com
Situated on the Brikama Road less than 30 minutes’ drive from the northern beach resorts, Abuko Nature Reserve (http://www.thegambiawildlife.com/indexx.html; open: 06.30–18.00 daily; entrance £0.60), is a popular goal for day trips out of Greater Banjul, particularly with birdwatchers. Extending over a mere 1km², it is the oldest sanctuary in the country, initially set aside in 1916 as a catchment area providing fresh water to Banjul, gazetted as a nature reserve under the supervision of Eddie Brewer, first director of the Wildlife Department of The Gambia, in 1968, and extended to its present size in 1978. The most important habitat in Abuko is the rare remnant patch of pristine gallery forest that hems in the small Lamin River and a few associated pools. This is one of the most northerly projections of the Upper Guinean Forest that extends along much of coastal West Africa from southern Senegal Casamance to western Ghana. Away from the river, the vegetation thins out to become Guinea savannah, which is not as rare as the gallery forest, but still supports plenty of wildlife.
This small forested reserve, 30 minutes’ drive from the coast is home to an abundance of monkeys and colourful birds.
Abuko contains a quite remarkable biodiversity for a reserve of its size, with many thousands of species of fungi, plants, trees, insects and other invertebrates living in and beneath the tall leafy forest canopy. Around 50 mammal species have been recorded, most visibly green monkey, red colobus, bushbuck and Maxwell’s duiker. It also supports a varied selection of birds, with some 270 species recorded, and it is perhaps the best site this close to Banjul for forest specialists such as turacos, greenbuls and hornbills. Hides help you to get close to the animals, which are very used to humans and relatively easy to see –indeed, the monkeys in particular virtually ignore human visitors as they go about their daily routines. The least edifying aspect of the reserve is the so-called animal orphanage, a run-down zoolike set-up that houses a few miserable monkeys and spotted hyenas.
Around the reserve
The ticket office and entrance gate lie at the reserve’s southeastern corner, alongside the Brikama Road. In addition to paying the entrance fee here, you have the option of picking up a bird guide, for which there is no charge, but a tip will be expected (in the £1–5 range, depending on how long you spend there). From the gate, a reasonably well-maintained 200m footpath leads through tall gallery forest and across a bridge to the first of Abuko’s pools. A quiet vigil here is likely to yield sightings of green monkey, red colobus, bushbuck, Maxwell’s duiker, crocodile and Nile monitor, along with water-associated birds such as black-headed night heron, squacco heron, African jacana, African darter and giant kingfisher.
Just past this, on the right, the Darwin Field Station for Biodiversity Research, Education and Training houses a display about the wildlife in Abuko, while the area around the toilet often yields the localised Ahanta francolin. The centre’s upper storey affords a good view of the main crocodile pool, which supports a wonderful variety of birds, including hamerkop, black crake and various herons, kingfishers and birds of prey. At the end of the dry season (March and April), these pools constitute the only fresh water for kilometres around, and thus act as a magnet for larger birds including spoonbills, storks, ospreys and even the odd pelican. As evening turns to night, there is a fantastic display consisting of hundreds of straw-coloured fruit bats that drop by for a drink after leaving their daytime roost at nearby Lamin, but you need special permission to stay on and wait for this.
Abuko contains a quite remarkable biodiversity for a reserve of its size, with many thousands of species of fungi, plants, trees, insects and other invertebrates living in and beneath the tall leafy forest canopy.
From the Darwin Field Station, the footpath continues westward through the gallery forest, passing one active and one defunct photo-hide on the way. Among the more conspicuous forest species resident here are such beauties as violet turaco, bearded barbet, common wattle-eye and red-bellied paradise flycatcher. Less easy to observe are several Upper Guinean Forest species at the extreme northern edge of their distribution, among them white-spotted flufftail, green turaco and western bluebill, while other birds uncommon elsewhere in the country include African goshawk, leaflove, grey-headed bristlebill, yellow-breasted apalis, oriole warbler, collared sunbird, yellow-bill, red-shouldered cuckoo-shrike, and green hylia. Heading further east, the forest thins out and you find yourself walking through Guinea savannah with an open canopy allowing you to see the sky.
The footpath then leads to the so-called animal orphanage, which was originally established as a refuge for animals that had been orphaned, injured or kept illegally as pets. In its early days, it provided sanctuary to The Gambia’s only lions, as well as the orphaned or confiscated chimpanzees that were later released into the River Gambia National Park. Today, the most interesting inhabitants of the orphanage are a few listless spotted hyenas which, like many of the other inmates, were born in captivity and seem destined to die there. The rather cheerless atmosphere is alleviated slightly by a cafe that serves chilled drinks and not much else. The café is also where birders can pay to use a small tin hide overlooking a freshwater pool that’s too small to hold many water birds, but does tend to attract a steady stream of thirsty forest birds, from turacos and kingfishers to smaller weavers and finches.
Beyond the orphanage, the bird extension walk loops through more savannah to a tower hide where you can stand above the level of the treetops. This is a very pleasant walk that takes you through woodland, scrub and open areas. Because of the winding nature of the path you feel as though you have walked through a much larger area than you actually have. Rejoining the main footpath at the orphanage leads you through more savannah until you reach the gallery forest again. The path then takes you to the exit of the reserve. Alternatively, there is a footpath off the return path, about halfway along. It is well signed and will take you back to the first footpath and the entrance via the education centre.