A 17- hour road trip requires patience and persistence. Imagine how uneasy it can be for an animal weighing more than 800kg and standing at an average of 17 feet tall.
There was a moment of anxiety as the driver of the animal truck fought against forces of nature to maneuver the muddy Namalu roads in Bulambuli District, through Okududu Village in Nakapiripirit District.
It was a slippery mess because of rain and flooding of the river. The translocation convoy- four-wheel vehicles made it through, after a tough road test, which took a lot of time.
The tower of fifteen (a group of giraffes is called a tower) giraffes was drawn into rhythmic breathing as they made their way into Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve in north eastern Uganda.
In the wee hours of Monday, October 27, the translocation team in Murchison Falls National Park witnessed the flag off of a conservation drive. This was the day the first five of the 15 Rothschild giraffes were moved to their new home in Pian Upe located in Nakapiririt District in north eastern Uganda.
In conservation management, translocation refers to intentional movement of plants or animals to a new area. However, this specific translocation is referred to as reintroduction- where a number of animals are taken into an area where their species used to exist.
In this case, translocation was taking place because the number of giraffes in Pian Upe had significantly reduced. The fall in the giraffe population was largely attributed to armed conflict, trophy hunting and poaching.
These incidents led to extinction (no giraffes at all) in Pian Upe by the end of 1996. The tallest mammals have now moved into an area where their species used to exist, more than 20 years ago. The giraffes eat leaves and twigs of Acacia trees, which are plenty in Pian Upe.
The leggy herbivores spend most of their time eating. Although they prefer running from an attack to fighting back, they are not completely vulnerable. A swift kick from one of their long legs can seriously damage or even kill an unlucky lion.
That is why translocation is done with forethought, care and consultation. Factors such as stability of the source population and the suitability of the proposed site are usually considered.
Getting hold of 15 giraffes required efforts of five males and 10 females. Health checks such as disease testing were thoroughly done in advance.
After three days of wild action, the first 10 giraffes were darted, captured, and held in a boma—an animal enclosure, where they were constantly fed and given water to drink.
It took the giraffes two days of rest before they were moved to the release site in Pian Upe.
After the giraffes had rested enough at Tangi gate in Murchison Falls Conservation Area, about 110 kilometres from Karuma Bridge, they were loaded onto a big truck at 3am, driven through the dark on a bumpy road and they arrived in good condition.
A team of veterinarians, wildlife rangers, lab technicians, conservationists and animal translocation experts worked diligently, day and night to move the giraffes.
Getting to Pian Upe
Amidst cheers, the dry savannah animals were guided through the rural setup, their new home. The local communities around Pian Upe had been notified about their arrival two weeks prior, whereas the communities in Murchsion had been sensitised a week before the departure of the animals.
The giraffes arrived days later due to the narrow and soggy roads from Mbale to Karamoja sub-region.
At 8pm, Frederick Kizza Kayanja, the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) chief warden for Mt Elgon Conservation Area, was excited that the giraffes had arrived safely in Pian Upe.
“The journey was long and we are all exhausted. The giraffes too are tired. The technical translocation team has made a decision that the giraffes will stay on trucks overnight. They will be released into the wild on Tuesday morning.”
UWA senior manager, veterinary services unit, Dr Patrick Atimnedi, communicated the next move. “We are going to feed them overnight on the truck, keep people around the truck to monitor them and we shall convene at 7am to do the offloading and actual release. I only need the roping team to remain behind and get this sorted out,” says Atimnedi.
As the first light of a new day crept in from the east, Dr Panta Kasoma, a member of UWA Board of Trustees, was present in the wild to preside over the release of the giraffes.
Also present was another member of UWA Board of Trustees, Leonard Wamakote, UWA management, leaders of districts neighbouring the reserve and community members.
The long-necked, cud-chewing hoofed mammals had stood patiently for a long time on the truck. As soon as the doors to the holding area were opened, the giraffes ran into freedom.
Dr Kasoma said the re-introduction of giraffes in Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve is in line with UWA’s strategic objectives. “This exercise aims at restoring and managing viable populations of extinct and endangered species. We are happy that we now have giraffes in north eastern Uganda, after many years and we are optimistic that this will enhance tourism in this region.”
The UWA deputy director for field operations, Charles Tumwesigye, said in a bid to enhance tourism potential in Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve, UWA last year translocated 92 impalas into the reserve. He also noted that UWA’s efforts to protect the wildlife in the reserve has resulted in higher numbers of Roan antelope, eland, zebra and cheetahs.
Pros and cons of translocation
Reintroduction aims to restore a habitat to its natural state. This enhances tourism in the area since giraffes are bait for tourists. UWA in partnership with Giraffe Conservation Foundation, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in the United States, Uganda Wildlife Conservation Education Centre (UWEC) and Makerere University, successfully pulled off the translocation exercise.
UWEC executive director, Dr James Musinguzi, hailed all the institutions that participated in the translocation exercise, saying the initiative was aimed at restoring the country’s wildlife and biological diversity.
“Uganda’s tourism is largely wildlife based. Tourism is currently the highest foreign exchange earner for Uganda, fetching approximately $1.6 billion per annum and has created numerous employment opportunities for people along the value chain. This an opportunity for people along the route to Nakapiripirit District to sell crafts, food, establish shelters or home stays to increase overnight stays and attract big numbers of tourists,” says Musinguzi.
Meanwhile, the translocation exercise also a very risky process. Besides the significant expenses involved, issues such as quality of the habitat in the new area, the number and gender individuals for release, disease testing and post translocation monitoring must all be put into consideration.
Pian Upe wildlife reserve is located in Okududu Village, Namalu sub-county, Nakapiripiriti and Amudat districts. It borders Napak, Katakwi, Kumi, Kween, Bulambuli and Bukedea districts.
The reserve sits on 2,043 square kilometres, making it the second largest, after Murchison Falls National Park. It is under the management of the Mount Elgon Conservation Area and previously had the highest animal concentration in Africa.
Christine Lynn Nakayenze, the senior warden in charge of tourism, says: “The arrival of giraffes in Pian Upe is a means of diversifying tourism in the eastern region. Visitors to Mount Elgon have enjoyed mountaineering for many years. It is now time for them to visit the tourist reserve and look at thewild animals.” She noted that the reserve has been receiving three per cent of visitors to protected areas but the animals were non-existent.
National park status
Relatedly, James Busiku, a tourism warden at Pian Upe is excited about new wildlife additions, saying it is going to attract more tourists. “This reserve should be given a national park status to attract more tourists. I appeal to all stakeholders to invest in accommodation facilities because the only available facilities can accomdate five people. Many times we get many bookings and we turn them down,” he notes.
Pian Upe has three bird species including the magnificent shoebill, the Karamoja apalis, and the fox’s weaver, making it a destination for avid birders. Other activities tourists can enjoy in Pian Upe include game drives and sport hunting.
Busiku explains that UWA is planning to establish some conservancies. “On the eastern side is Amudat hunting area, the community has a good number of wild animals. If communities coopearte with UWA and form conservancies, the animals can still be in their communities while benefitting from sport hunting, as Pian Upe gradually evolves into a national park.”
After a successful exercise, the team heaved a sigh of relief and drove back to Murchison Falls. Conservationists are optimistic that Pian Upe will emerge as the next wildlife haven in Uganda.