“We were chased by people with machetes and sticks who perceived us as land grabbers. I had purchased an Opticron telescope from the UK and they thought it was a surveyor’s gadget,” reminisces a jovial Johnnie Kamugisha, the first president of Uganda Bird Guides Club and one of the founding fathers of the activity in the country.
The unfriendly encounter experienced by Kamugisha and his colleagues in the late 1990s did not deter them from promoting and shaping bird watching which has turned the Pearl of Africa into an ornithologist’s dream.
It hardly needs stating that Uganda is one of the top bird watching destinations in Africa.
Uganda’s richness is exceedingly echoed by the booming bird list which now stands at 1,080 species mark with a record of 450 to 500 species in a 14-day itinerary.
Uganda has about half of Africa’s total bird list which is placed at 2,310 bird species.
Bird hotspots in Uganda
The conducive climate all year round accounts for the robust bird list and impressive number of endemics and migrants in a number of birding areas in the country.
For the last five years, the chairperson of Uganda Women Birders, Ms Judith Mirembe, has been bird watching, an activity once regarded as the preserve of men.
From her experience, she identifies Mabamba Wetland, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, Semuliki Valley, Budongo Forest, Mgahinga National Park, Murchison Falls National Park, Kibale Forest, Queen Elizabeth National Park, and Lake Mburo as top birding areas. “Kidepo is relatively good, but not highly marketed,” she adds.
According to the Uganda Bird Guides Club, Mabamba swamp, on the edge of Lake Victoria is one of country’s important bird areas (IBA).
It is the natural habitat for the elusive Shoebill Storks which are only found in central and eastern Africa.
On the other hand, Bwindi in the rugged Kigezi highlands offers the finest montane forest birding in Africa with no fewer than 23 of Uganda’s Albertine rift endemics, including globally threatened species such as the African Green Broadbill and Shelly’s Crimson wing.
To be a top birdwatching site, an area needs to not only have a lot of birds, but also hold a great variety of species.
Queen Elizabeth, Uganda’s most scenic park undoubtedly satisfies this criterion.
It has a remarkable diversity of more than 600 species, the most prevalent of any protected area in Africa.
In the late 1990s, eight men met, discussed, enlightened colleagues who were unacquainted with bird watching, and agreed on how birding would take shape in the country.
It was not a walk in the park for Herbert Byaruhanga, Alfred Twinomujuni, Mutebi Hassan, Sam Bamwesigye, Elias Kabogoza, Livingstone Kalema, Johnnie Kamugisha and Robert Bahindi who were on many occasions humiliated by residents at different birding spots.
The eight would dash in the nearby thickets, hide their gadgets, come back and explain to the locals what exactly they were doing.
Relatedly, Alfred Twinomujuni recalls the day he was arrested by policemen at Shell Kibuye as he waited for his friends to go for the outdoor activity. His crime was possession of a pair of binoculars, play back machine, and putting on a gilet (sleeveless jacket).
Nevertheless, arrests did not deter them as they continued to sensitise locals and media. Robert Bahindi, the late Cuthbert Mayega and Kamugisha were the first tour guides to visit Mabamba and sight a shoebill. When they informed their friends, non-took them serious. They organised themselves for the following weekend and just like those born under a lucky star set eyes on two shoebills.
“This introduced a new chapter in our birding life considering the fact that the literature available at the time mentioned Murchison Falls as the only location of this unique bird,” Kamugisha narrates. The “bird-men” as they are popularly known, travelled for courses, and have trained several others.
Uganda’s birding continues to register success amid challenges. The incredible potential is reflected by a recent victory of 23–year-old Ashley Brian Baboineki, who emerged second to Costa Rica’s Rodriguez, among 78 participating nations at the Intercontinental Youths Birding Competition organised by Singapore Tourism Board in October 2018.
In May, during the Global Big Day, the big story in Africa was Uganda, where a fantastic network of local guides and Tourism Uganda Board helped get 34 birders out across the country, finding 429 species; up from 116 last year. The other countries that were critical to the success of Africa’s tally were Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Zambia.
Influence of women
In a bid to attract more women to birding and nature guiding as a profession, the Uganda Women Birders was formed in 2013.
“Women are known to be the best drivers and guides. They are patient and honest,” reveals Mirembe. Over the years, the women’s club has been able to receive assistance from Uganda Wildlife Authority in form of binoculars. Similarly, Uganda Tourism Board has provided guide books. “These books and binoculars are borrowed by members of the club who are able to train,” she explains.
From five women, the club currently boasts of about 30 female bird guides who are supported with recommendations to secure jobs in tour companies. It is the only group in the world training women in bird watching and nature guiding as a whole.
Obstacles to development
The chairman of Uganda Bird Guides Club, Mr Davis Rukundo, cites lack of equipment as a hindrance to the outdoor activity. “Majority of Ugandan birders cannot afford the gadgets such as binoculars. They are expensive,” he says.
Kamugisha adds that whereas senior birders can afford, most upcoming birders cannot part with at least $300 for a pair of bird watching binoculars.
He suggests that shops dealing in birding gadgets be opened in Kampala to encourage enthusiasts.
Habitat destruction continues to pose a danger to the growing market. Areas such as Mabira Forest, Mabamba and Kaku swamp are at risk.
Prossy Nanyombi, the vice chairperson of Uganda Women Birders, says Kaku swamp between Masaka and Kyazanga was rewarding in the species of ducks such as Black Crake, Moorhens and Purple Swamphens until it was reclaimed.
“The community destroyed the swamp and it is now a farmland,” she explains.
Bird guides are also deeply concerned by the management of Mabamba swamp, a shoebill haven. “We used to pay Shs100,000 for the boat and guide, but now we are paying an addition Shs50,000 per visitor. Someone put a barrier and is charging money under Kasanje Town Council. The extra fee is not the problem, but there is no value for money; there is no toilet or structure for resting,” explains the concerned Kamugisha.