George Katongole, The Daily Monitor | September 25, 2020
Once upon a time, communities living near a forest in Kasese District were blessed with abundant wildlife and supply of food. Their bountiful crop harvest was supplemented by fishing from the nearby rivers and hunting in the surrounding forests.
Then, commerce came in as traders from distant areas with numerous enticements offered to exchange the meat with money and goods. For so many years, this kind of arrangement kept trade flourishing.
The urge to get more game meat made the men and grown boys venture so far in the bushes and forests to keep their hopes of getting money and enough food for their families. When hunting became unsustainable, it got a new criminal name- poaching.
“Poachers now move up to nine hours into the night to cross to the side of Lake Edward, where hippos and buffaloes are still in plenty,” says Robert Bukenya, a reformed poacher with Kabukwiri Reformed Poachers Association, Ndangara Parish in Rubiriizi District.
The association, in Ryeru Sub-county, is among those under The Queen Elizabeth Anti-Poachers Association which aims at eliminating poaching around the park. The others are Nyabubare Tree Planters Association in Rutoto, Rumuri Natural Conservation Association in Kichwamba, and Rubiriizi Anti-poachers Association in Katerera.
“The nearby forest, part of Maramagambo, which borders Kyasanduka and Nyamasingiri crater lakes, are short of big game,” he adds.
What happened in this remote part of western Uganda is so routine of all hunting villages that share borders with Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP). A population explosion has seen hunting outlawed and any form of encroachment on the gazetted areas. In 1952, for instance, when QENP was gazetted, Uganda had about 5.4 million people.
Picture is Ugly
But a growth rate of 3.7 per cent accounts for an estimated population of 45 million today. “When people talk about poaching, minds race to elephants, hippopotamuses, rhinos, lions or buffaloes. But the picture is deeper and ugly,” Pontius Ezuma, the chief warden of the Queen Elizabeth Conservation Area, says.
Ezuma says there are more sinister forms of poaching which must be fought. He explains that every year, wildlife face the destructive effect of bush-meat hunters, especially warthogs, baboons, birds, antelopes and even big prey like hippopotamus. The animals face painful deaths through gin traps, which mechanically catch an animal by the leg or head using spring-operated jaws, while others are choked by snares.
How Poaching is Done
It is said that it takes about six men to kill big prey like a buffalo, but even a boy can lay a trap and catch smaller animals. Bushmeat weighing roughly 3kg is valued at Shs20,000. Hippo meat is a major delicacy among people. Some locals believe this meat improves their sexual prowess.
Martin Asiimwe, the forest and biodiversity programme coordinator of World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Uganda, explains that unless communities are involved, parks will be wiped of their precious animals. WWF is funding initiatives which engage women and youth in conservation efforts on top of a proposed lion breeding project at QENP.
Asiimwe says elephants and lions are, especially, at risk from revenge killing. “In Ishasha, in the south-western rim of the park, for instance, many lions are killed because they eat livestock from nearby communities. That is why they are poisoned. Farming communities also kill elephants that stray to their fields,” Asiimwe says.
The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) is taking significant steps to end poaching actitivities through enforcement and community involvement. In its efforts to implement such efforts, UWA shares 20 per cent of each park entrance charges with neighbouring communities.
The revenue sharing programme is meant to strengthen partnerships between local communities, local governments and management of wildlife areas for sustainable management of wildlife resources in protected areas. Joshua Masereka, a warden, says while the community conservation in QENP and involvement of community groups is yielding significant results, human and animal conflicts remain a challenge.
Youth groups of reformed poachers have joined the cause. One group on the anti-poaching missions is at Kabukwiri village. The group of 30 youth monitors poaching activities and provides intelligence to the UWA foot patrols.
“Through such groups, we get useful tips. Because they understand their local areas, they have helped us catch a number of culprits.”
Use of Mobile Devices
Vincent Turitwena, the group chairperson, says his squad has been allocated a piece of communal land on which they have planted eucalyptus trees. It is from here that group meetings are conducted regularly.
Using mobile phones, they not only stop poachers but report any animal encounters in case they wander from the park. When the villagers are drinking alcohol in the evening and one hints at a poaching plan, one of the deployed youth passes on information to the UWA authorities.
He says one of the poachers was reported to rangers leading to his arrest in January, for killing a hippopotamus. “The group reported me to the rangers, who arrested me in the park. I was fined Shs1.5m and since I did not have the money, I was forced to sell my land. I don’t want to live like that again,” the reformed poacher says.
The scenic QENP sits on 1,978 square kilometres of forests, floodplains, and swamps; crawls with all kinds of animals including the African buffalo, Uganda kob, hippopotamus, giant forest hog, warthog, Nile crocodile, African bush elephant, African leopard, lion, and chimpanzee. It is home to 95 mammal species and more than 500 bird species.
By 1988, there were 400 buffalos. Rebuilding wildlife population requires a strategic vision, major financial investment and patience.
Asiimwe says success lies in an active anti-poaching strategy—assembling community squads to keep poachers from setting up camps, laying traps, and getting entrenched. WWF supports reformed poachers and communities to boost their livelihood through alternative income generating projects such as bee-keeping, fish farming and eco-tourism.
Bukenya, now a builder, says he abandoned poaching last year because his mother felt unsafe. “One time I took meat to my mother and she threatened to report me to UWA. That’s when I decided to quit poaching,” he says.
Pragmatic Anti-Poaching Strategy
According to Asiimwe, they emphasise a peaceful process, where there are no bullets, no bloodshed and no chase scenes. They believe using women, especially mothers who bear the brunt of orphans or widowhood, can be a game changer.
WWF has also facilitated women community projects in frontline villages that suffer crop damage by funding activities such as goat rearing, piggery, tree planting, bee keeping, and Irish potato growing.
Bee keeping serves two purposes; one is to provide money from honey while acting as a buffer for the park to prevent elephants from rampaging farmlands. One such community is Kataara Women’s Group, a poverty alleviation group in Rubiriizi District that makes paper and handicrafts from elephant dung.
Income Generating Projects
“If we can improve the standard of living of these people, they will not turn to the park. They can support forces in guarding the parks,” Asiimwe says.
With community involvement, reformed poachers who live within the villages have strengthened relationships with the people there, and get information from them.
A number of gin traps have been disarmed with the help of community groups. Asiimwe says stopping poaching requires anti-poaching groups that have relationships with communities to act as a deterrent. Organised groups have been granted free fishing licences to Kyasanduka and Nyamasingiri lakes, while on Wednesdays, free guided collection of firewood is promoted in Imaramagambo forest.
Uganda has one of the toughest wildlife conservation laws in the world. The 2019 Wildlife Act replaced the 1996 law. The previous law was considered weak because it set a maximum jail sentence of only seven years for poaching and wildlife trafficking.
The highest penalty in the new Act is a maximum fine of Shs20b or life imprisonment, or both for an offence related to a wildlife species classified as extinct in the wild, critically endangered.
This law has greatly discouraged locals from poaching. However, during the lockdown, between February and June, a number of poaching cases were recorded.
UWA registered 367 poaching cases across the country, more than double the 163 cases recorded during a similar period in 2019. Tourism is Uganda’s leading foreign exchange earner, reaping $1.6b in the 2018/2019 financial year alone. Conserving wildlife and people within the neigbourhood is the ultimate goal for all stakeholders.
If I were to visit a national park in Uganda, I would definitely go to…
Mgahinga Gorilla National Park
Besides wildlife, the park has a huge cultural significance, in particular for the indigenous Batwa pygmies. This tribe of hunter-gatherers was the forest’s first people. It is also home to the rare mountain gorillas that inhabit its dense forests, and the endangered golden monkey.
Lake Mburo National Park
A perfect scene for photographers and bird enthusiasts, Lake Mburo is home to a variety of leopards, hippos, zebras, hyenas, impalas and other animals, and to 350 species of birds. Underneath the park’s surface are ancient metamorphic rocks that make it a geologist’s dream tour.
Semliki National Park
This is one of the newest national parks in Uganda, made famous by the Sempaya Hot Springs. But the hot-springs are not for bathing as the water temperature is over 1000C. Try boiling an egg in it as a test. It should be hard-boiled after ten minutes. If you love a good nature tour, the park has primate creatures such as grey-checked mangabey, red-tailed monkeys, elephants; chimpanzees, De Brazza’s monkey, pygmy antelope and many species of birds.