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Uganda: Wildlife thrives as peace reigns

Uganda: Wildlife thrives as peace reigns
  • PublishedMarch 30, 2023

The surging wildlife numbers in Uganda’s national parks and game reserves since peace returned to the country in 2000 is clear evidence that no living creature is safe from armed conflicts.

Uganda’s Tourism and Wildlife Minister Tom Butime says wildlife numbers have rebounded faster than expected. “The number of elephants has dramatically risen from 2,000 in 1983 to a whopping 8,000 today, while that of giraffes has surged six-fold from 350 to over 2,000. On the other hand the number of buffaloes has hit the 44,000 mark from 25,000.”

He says the number of other animals and birds has continued to rise. The rosy picture is, however, dented by challenges posed by poaching and the competition for land between the national parks and neighbouring communities.

A top wildlife conservationist and former Tourism and Wildlife Ministry spokesman Jossy Muhangi says the quick rebound in wildlife numbers has been facilitated by the ideal conditions. According to the UN, Uganda has an incredible variety of animal, bird and plant species, making it one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. The country has, for example, 53% of the world’s estimated 1,000 mountain gorillas in its Virunga and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest national parks in the west of the country. It is estimated that the country holds 40% of the different types of African mammal.

In addition, Uganda boasts 11% of the world’s bird species and 4,800 plant species – more than any country. Biodiversity is important in growing and sustaining life, says Tony Okwalinga, a Makerere University wildlife scholar. He says wildlife numbers in Uganda were able to rise fast because natural conditions in the country enable animal and plant life to flourish.

The rich biodiversity has made the country one of the world’s top tourist attractions. International media houses including CNN last year praised its unique biodiversity as a major attraction for tourists. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the tourism sector earned 7.7% of Uganda’s GDP, worth $1.6bn in the 2018/19 financial year.

Root causes of wildlife attrition

The attrition of Uganda’s wildlife population in its 10 national parks and a dozen game reserves began in 1978 in the wake of a series of armed conflicts. In that year for example, the Tanzanian People’s Defence Force, backed by Ugandan exiles, invaded Uganda in reprisal for dictator Idi Amin’s invasion and annexation of northern Tanzania’s Kagera region. Amin had accused Tanzania of supporting Ugandan exiles who carried out across the border attacks on the country – most of them supporters of his predecessor Milton Obote, who he had toppled from power in 1971. 

Amin was driven from power in 1979 but attempts to restore peace failed and in 1981, Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA) rebellion started in the central region, eventually leading to his capturing power in 1986. 

Unfortunately, his coming to power did not immediately bring the expected peace. Instead, half a dozen armed groups across the country, including the Holy Spirit Army of ‘Priestess’ Alice Lakwena and Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) erupted and ravaged the country until around 2006.

Although there are accounts of hundreds of thousands people having perished in the conflicts, the wildlife in national parks and game reserves – which provided safe haven to armed groups – also suffered the brunt of the war.

The 3,893 sq. km Murchison Falls National Park in the North West, the country’s largest, with 76 animal species and 451 bird species, was a safe haven for Idi Amin’s forces fleeing the onslaught on Kampala by invading Tanzanian and exiled Ugandan forces in 1979, Tito Okello’s troops fleeing from Museveni rebels in 1986 and Joseph Kony’s LRA rebels fighting Museveni forces in the 1990s and early 2000s.

The national park was also the source of game meat to feed the fighters. Wildlife officials say fighting groups killed elephants for their meat and smuggled the tusks to raise money. Hippos, buffaloes and other game were also hunted for bushmeat.

On the other hand, the 1,987 sq. km Queen Elizabeth National Park in the west, home to 95 mammal species and famous for hosting the highest number of lions and hippos, has given sanctuary to the rebel Allied Democratic Forces, an Islamist radical group in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo’s North Kivu province, from where they make incursions into western Uganda.

Wildlife conservationist Jossy Muhangi says the rebels kill wildlife for meat and elephant tusks are smuggled out to international markets through DR Congo to raise revenue.

The 1,440 sq. km Kidepo National Park in the North East lies in a region vulnerable to cross-border cattle rustling between Uganda’s Karamojong and Kenya’s Pokot and Jie pastoral communities. The same happens between Uganda’s Karamojong and southern South Sudan’s pastoral communities across the common border.

A senior official in Kidepo National Park says the lawlessness across the borders has facilitated increased poaching.

Threat from neighbouring communities

The biggest challenge to wildlife, says Jossy Muhangi, is the threat from communities neighbouring national parks, such as the Basongora community next to the Queen Elizabeth National Park in the west of the country, notorious for killing lions.

Earlier this year, three lionesses were found dead near the gate to one of the park’s lodges. In March 2021 a pride of six lions was discovered dead and in 2018, 11 lions. The postmortem on the carcasses showed they had died of poisoning. Wildlife officials blame cattle keepers in neighbouring communities.

“The most brutal killers of lions are the Bahima communities neighbouring the Lake Mburo National Park, in the south west of the country. “They have wiped out the lion population. Only one male lion is surviving. Even if it is not killed, it has no females to bear offspring with. It will die of old age,” says Muhangi.

The decision by the government to de-gazette some areas of game parks across the country to give neighbouring communities more farm and grazing land, has not placated those communities living near the game parks, which occupy 16% of the country’s land surface.

The craving for more farm and pastoral land is not surprising in a country with one of the fastest growing populations in the world. Communities neighbouring Murchison Falls National Park say they love living near it because they often eat game meat. Because the number of elephants, hippos and buffaloes in the national park is growing fast, animals that stray into gardens are trapped and killed.

The impact of the killing on their numbers is apparently not being recorded by wildlife officials there. “We usually trap and kill wild animals, especially hippos which stray into our gardens,” says Mike Okwera, a resident of Olwel village in Nwoya district neighbouring the national park. He says the residents often share out the meat with the full knowledge of the park officials and local leaders.

Muhangi says poaching is a big challenge. “Poachers wiped out the white rhino by 1983. We have imported some young white rhinos from Kenya and South Africa. We are breeding them in a sanctuary in the central Nakasongola District. We have about 40 of them now but we shall reintroduce them in the game parks after putting in place appropriate measures to deter poachers,” he says.

However, he adds, “fighting poaching is a daunting task since some culprits are highly placed government and security officials. White rhino tusks are precious and are sought by poachers to sell to international pharmaceutical companies, which pay high premiums for them.”

The peace that has prevailed in most of the country since 2000 has given the wildlife precious time to recover and increase its populations but it is still vulnerable and a lot of work and resources will be needed before the country’s magnificent biodiversity can be considered safe for future generations to enjoy.

Written By
Epajjar Ojulu

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