Cycad: Uganda’s new tourism treasure

Saturday September 21 2019

A cycad tree in Kitagwenda.  Photo by Edgar R

A cycad tree in Kitagwenda. Photo by Edgar R Batte. 

By Edgar R Batte

To the residents of Karuguma Village, the cycad is another plant, but to South Africans, it is a prized one. They are seed plants with a long relic history, cherished for their ornamental and medicinal use.
British daily, The Guardian, reports that cycads, the world’s oldest seed plants, are now under threat like never before from obsessive collectors. In two separate incidents, thieves stole 24 cycads worth an estimated 700,000 rand (£40,000, or Shs186m) from the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town, South Africa.
“Experts say theft cases point to a lucrative international trade run by organised criminal syndicates that links poachers, often poor and desperate, to wealthy private collectors who prize cycads like a rare stamp or first edition,” The Guardian further reports.
In effort to diversify the country’s tourism products, Uganda Tourism Board (UTB), the marketing agency for destination Uganda, is smelling the coffee and acting on it.
On Wednesday last week, UTB’s chief executive officer, Lilly Ajarova, led part of her team to visit Kitagwenda, to see the cycads on which the herbivorous dinosaurs fed, 320 years ago.
While the colossal dinosaur became extinct, the cycad still thrives in the jungles of the western region district.
“There is a story about this unique plant and we would like to tell the story after experiencing it ourselves. We are trying to diversify the tourism products in the country. Numerous efforts have been placed on promoting the primates. As we diversify, we will realise development of the tourism across the country, which we have divided into 13 clusters,” Ajarova explains.
To see the cycad, we head out into the wild, trekking through country paths and steep valleys. Mackay Mwebingwa of Hill Crest Safaris, a tour operator looking at promoting the cycad, explains that the particular type found in Kitagwenda, and Uganda at that, is called encephalartos whitelockii, and Muhuure in a local dialect.
Countries such as South Africa have cycad gardens and designated parks where tourists pay, get a permit to go, see and learn about the historical plant. “(Here) we have them in the wilderness where people cut and burn them. We would like to conserve them for learning purposes and tourism. The community too can earn something,” Mwebingwa adds.
Edward Charltone, a cycad expert, explains that Kitagwenda is home to the cycads. “These are some of the biggest and they are the fastest growing species.”
Cycads mainly grow in a gorge, along the rift valley in Kitagwenda, along River Mpanga, slightly before it joins Lake George. This is where one can see the Kazinga Channel, in Queen Elizabeth National Park, and Lake Edward, which shares waters with Lake George.
“We are yet to fully utilise the Kazinga Channel. We can enjoy a boat cruise that could be a whole day’s activity. One can go on a game drive in Queen Elizabeth National Park, then visit the fishing villages of Nyakera, Kayinja and Mahiyoro from where you can walk and have the cycad tour and return to the channel,” Mwebingwa observes.
Mpanga is a long river that emanates from Mountain Rwenzori in Kasese, and flows through Fort Portal, through the districts of Kabarole, Kyenjojo, Kamwenge and into Lake George in the newly created Kitagwenda.
Along the way, it feeds refugees in Rwamwanza camp, thanks to a number of tributaries that feed into the river, adding to its volume. Mpanga has a share of threat from human activity.
Locals would take their cattle down the river to drink, but lose some given the steep nature of the landscape. Belgium Non-Government Organisation Joint Effort to Save the Environment (JESE) has a Memorandum of Understanding in which they conserve 11 kilometres of buffer to save cycads.
“We have carried out sensitisation, demarcations and created an alternative for the locals by pumping water up stream so that the cattle don’t have to come down, which is 100 metres steep. The cattle and people were dying. The water is treated for human consumption,” explains George Bwambale of JESE.
Mwebingwa says locals have always burnt the cycads to cultivate land and construct houses.
The walk in Karuguma, up and down through the hills and valleys is a marvel, thanks to the mesmerising greenery that opens up to Mpanga falls and dam from afar.
Kitagwenda is a virgin tourism destination awaiting development. In a fortnight, I have seen two similar sites, the other being Lake Elland Game Reserve in South Africa with developed features, a zip-ling and suspended bridge activities along the Oribi Gorge.
Kitagwenda provides the perfect location for similar tourism activities. Reverend Jason Tusabe is passionate about leveraging the presence of the cycad to turn Kitagwenda into a tourism destination. As we enjoy a cool breeze at one of the hilltops, he shares his wishlist.
“This would be a good place to construct a tourist centre from which tourists can rest and view the lake and natural splendor. Geographically, it is attractive. If we put up construction, the community can sell crafts and entertain tourists,” Rev Tusabe envisions.
He adds: “In 2004, I toured the Mpanga Falls and I reported to the district administration that there was a unique plant that is attractive and they asked me why, as an evangelist, I was moving in the forest.”
Ajarova says they are going to profile the area of Kitagwenda and identify the different opportunities alongside the plan and package it for investment.
“It will be very exciting and different from what we are used to; the big five,” she adds. Besides the cycads, the energetic beauty of Mpanga is an environment to marvel at.
The nature walks along the river banks are refreshing, from the peaceful end to the splashy side before the water drain into a bank and flow on. The waters against the green scenery are worth some photographic moments.
There are some three viewpoints from which you will take some open and clear pictures. Additionally, the nature walks up some steep walkways, through shrubbery and gardens, will leave you panting but in satisfaction at the view that unfolds with distant caves and streams of aquatic magnificence.
Take moments to stop and sip in more of the garden fresh country air. You will see many energetic and agile folks, young and old, tending and cultivating their gardens.
“I have devoted time to conserve the cycads in Uganda and I am glad that finally, my efforts are being seen and the cycads are getting visibility. A walk in the Jurassic Park - cycad gorge is something I look forward to all the time,” Mwebingwa, a cycadiologist, adds.