Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) at Murchison National Game Park last weekend commissioned River Aswa Wildlife Conservancy, which has been termed the first ever privately-owned game park in Uganda.
It took the Paragon Group (who owns the facility) a year and a half to research and initiate the establishment of the multi-million home for a wide variety of wildlife species that have been living in the area at the mercy of poachers.
Measuring 18sqkm in size, the Aswa Wildlife Conservancy is located on the northern bank of Aswa River at Arana village, Nyamokino Sub County, Nwoya District, Northwest of Murchison Falls National Park.
The land is part of the former Aswa-Lolim Game Reserve, a wildlife reserve in northern Uganda that provided dispersal area and migration corridor for ungulates such as elephants, giraffes, buffaloes and so on. Ungulates are any members of a diverse group of primarily large hoofed mammals that includes odd-toed mammals such as horses and rhinoceroses, and even-toed mammals such as cattle, pigs, giraffes, camels, deer, and hippopotami. The park was later degazetted in 1972 by President Idi Amin’s government.
In 2013, UWA gave a concession to a private group known as the Aswa-Latoro Community Wildlife Conservancy to manage the important wildlife migration route in the area.
However Dr William Olwoch Lalobo (Paragon Group director) who is a member of the group said he privately ventured into the idea by investing his resources to put up the facility since the group was taking forever to conclude on the plans.
“We have been keen to identify tourism as one of the fastest growing and biggest earning sector to government that the private sector has ignored. By ploughing our resources here, we hope not only to promote tourism in the country but conserve nature, an identity Uganda boasts of globally,” he told Saturday Monitor.
Although he declined to disclose how much money the Paragon Group invested into River Aswa Wildlife Conservancy, Dr Lalobo said that investments into wildlife and tourism had been abandoned for a government who was falling short of providing for the increasing number of tourists that visits Uganda annually.
Spectacular scenes and rich fauna
Uganda has more than 1,060 bird species, constituting 11 per cent of the global population of bird species of mammals, 86 species of amphibians, 142 species of reptiles, 1,249 species of butterflies, over 600 species of fish and over 5,406 species of flora.
Murchison National park and the surrounding areas (including River Aswa Wildlife Conservancy) according to UWA provide habitat to 47 per cent of these rich varieties of flora and fauna.
The conservancy according to Dr Lalobo is home to a wide variety of wildlife including the rare and endangered porcupines, leopards, lions, elephants, antelopes, Uganda kop (approximately 700 individuals), Jackson Hartebeests.
Humans, animal and plants each have an essential role in maintaining a balanced ecosystem of the earth and to conserve wildlife is to conserve the ecosystems in which the relevant animals (and plants) live since these ecosystems provide us with clean air, clean water, food, and shelter, he says.
You probably still have no idea what to expect when you come face to face with Aswa falls that lie in the heart of the establishment, a magnificent sight that tames and instantly turns a disappointed and jaded traveler into a raving fan.
Cashing in on attractions
The falls consists of a four-step waterfall formed by two layers of basalt rocks approximately four metres in height that controls the shape of the falls falling from six meters high from nine individual outlets.
The surrounding subtropical rainforest has more than 120 species of vascular plants and is home to the typical wildlife of the region.
“With careful planning and commitment of resources, the tourism sector has the potential to contribute and strengthen the fundamentals of our economy to enable Uganda harness her abundant opportunities, that is why it is a high time the private sector like us engaged in developing tourism,” Dr Lalobo said.
Annual figures in 2016 showed that tourism contributed up to Shs 5.1 trillion ($1.4bn) to Uganda’s export basket, the single highest foreign exchange earner contributing 23.5 per cent of total exports.
Construction of administrative headquarters and offices for the conservancy is currently at 55 per cent while an accommodation unit is also being built by the River Aswa Wildlife Conservancy in the middle of the conservation area.
Wildlife and challenges
Meanwhile, because River Aswa Wildlife Conservancy lies within the former Aswa-Lolim Wildlife Reserve and a former hunting ground that stretches to East Madi Wildlife Reserve, poaching has remained prolific, a challenge Dr Lalobo counts.
“We will work together with UWA to deploy scouts and rangers within and around the facility to ensure the security of animals. With the help of community members, we are trying to critically identify those said to be poachers and employ them as workers here in the various disciplines,” he said.
Besides creating a scheme where community members are compensated for damages against their farmlands by problem animals from the park, he adds that revenues generated from the park shall be shared to the district and UWA.
While there will be a functional monitoring and protection system (a well-trained and highly motivated ranger force), both armed and unarmed to counter poaching and human-wildlife conflicts, regular aerial surveillance shall be carried out as the boundary live fencing is maintained to reinforce security.
The conservancy, however, is seeking a deal with Nwoya District local government to work on the roads leading to the area since most of them are impassable at the moment.
It is only at Lake Mburo National Game Park that UWA (government) and AWF have partnered and are in the process of establishing a separate wildlife conservancy.
With at least Shs1bn already invested into the initiative, government believes that there are unique animal varieties at the park (Lake Mburo) such as zebras, impalas, eland, oribi, Defassa waterbuck, hyena, topi and reedbuck according to African Wildlife Foundation country director Uganda Suudi Bamulesewa.
Suudi reveals that Karenga Wildlife Reserve bordering Kidepo National Park and Aswa-Latoro Community Wildlife Conservancy bordering Murchison National Park have been marked by government and are to be developed into wildlife conservancies.
Ecological health and relief for UWA
Robust scientific measures on ecological health of the facility have been taken up including planting and reintroduction of unique and particular plant species that would provide habitat and food to animals in attempts to tame and provide them with a perfect environment to live.
The extent of threats from wildfire, feral herbivores and weeds have been studied and this would be mitigated by the already established 18km game tracts within the conservancy that will enable controlled burning and pasture growth according to Dr Lalobo.
Dr Eric Enyel, the UWA acting director for Murchison Falls National Park while commissioning the facility said the establishment of the park is a big relief to UWA.
“This park will save us from the worries of providing a migratory area for the animals such as elephants, antelope family and buffaloes, whose population has rapidly grown lately at Murchison park” Dr Enyel said.
Just as UWA regularly transfer animals across national parks within the country to manage their population, Dr Enyel said animals whose populations are in excess at Murchison will be moved to River Aswa Conservancy.
“We inspected and okayed the conservancy and we are set to immediately do habitat analysis to find out if unique animals such as chimpanzees and gorillas can survive in the environment before we move them,” he stated.
He added that UWA was proud to have on board the private sector in a partnership to promote human-wildlife co-existence to preserve Uganda’s rich natural heritage.
“This conservation effort and partnership will contribute towards a greater social and human development. We are certain that it will provide a powerful example of the benefits in terms of income that wildlife can bring to landowners than dependence on the unreliable agriculture,” Bamulesewa said.