Despite the fact that the water hyacinth is affecting more than 10,000 people in Ntoroko District, whose source of livelihood depends on fishing on Lake Albert, it has given the shoebill a golden opportunity to enjoy catching its prey.
The shoebill, which is the most prized bird for Tooro Semliki game reserve attracts between 500 to 700 tourists each year, according to the warden in charge of Tooro Semliki Wildlife Reserve, Mr Benon Mugyerwa.
10 tourists visit the park daily
Mugyerwa says: “About 10 tourists, mostly birders visit the park daily to watch the shoebill on Lake Albert. Each trip on the water boat costs $100 (Shs367,379) and tourists enjoy bird watching.” He adds: “There are 95 per cent chances of seeing the shoebill at Semliki. I have spent 20 years here. In other parks, it may take you two weeks without seeing this bird. The water weed has enabled us to view the shoebill. This bird has turned into Tooro’s tourism brand.”
Business on the lake shore crippled
While the water weeds have crippled businesses on Lake Albert, on the other hand it has made life easier for some birds to prey on aquatic animals.
According to the affected fishermen, the weed has hindered fishing activities in most of the fishing landing sites in the district as the weed hampers easy movement of the traditional canoes and makes it harder for the fishermen to cast their nets in the water, because the weed roots have made a cobweb like mesh in the water.
While on the lake, the fishermen guide the Uganda Wildlife Authority rangers to locate the shoebills. Because of their grey colour, it is not easy to locate them on water at a long distance.
While on Lake Albert, we saw another interesting small bird called pygmy kingfisher, catching fish. “That bird you see, it is called the pygmy kingfisher, it can mount any bird that it comes across, whether it is the same or different specie,” says Philermon Tumwebaze, the assistant warden, Ecological Monitoring and Research at Tooro Semliki.
How they feed
Kingfishers feed on a wide variety of prey. They are known for hunting and eating fish. Their family contains 114 species. The shoebill, also known as Balaeniceps rex, is one of the world’s most sought after bird.
According to kabiza.com, an online publication, Uganda is a top destination for watching the shoebill while on a safari.
Other sites for birdwatching
Places such as Mabamba Swamp along Lake Victoria, Lugogo Swamp in Ziwa Rhino Reserve, the lower Nile in Murchison Falls Park and Lake Mburo are some of the parks where you can spot the shoebill stork.
The same publication states that Uganda has safe, secure, easily accessible locations where tourists on a safari can spot the prehistoric shoebill stork.
The shoebill survives on a diet of mainly lungfish supplemented by frogs, puddle fish, baby crocodiles and water snakes.
They have sharp edges on their wide beaks. They tend to be nocturnal and do not have webbed feet, which give them a stealth-like ability as they hunt for lungfish.
Tumwebaze says Lake Albert provides the most perfect site for a shoebill to be viewed, should one consider birding experience in Uganda.
According to Bashir Hangi, the spokesman of UWA, tourism is one of the top revenue earners and in the last financial year, Uganda earned Shs5.35 trillion.
Brief facts about the shoebill
According to factanimal.com, the shoebill is a large, elusive, stork-like bird with an almost prehistoric appearance, due to its oversized shoe-shaped beak. They are sometimes referred to as ‘whalehead‘, for obvious reasons.
Shoebill inhabit freshwater swamps and marshes of Uganda, Sudan, eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Botswana and Tanzania.
Its distribution is often close to the presence of papyrus vegetation, and lungfish.
Shoebill were previously thought of as storks, but genetic research has re-classified them as members of the order pelecaniformes and family palaenicipitidae, which are large water birds, genetically closer to pelicans and herons.
Origin of water weed
The head of National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute, Dr Anthony Tabu, says water hyacinth is mostly associated with lakes that spew plenty of nutrients into the water.
“The weed can be removed manually but that maybe costly because it involves paying people who have fuel and boats to remove them,” Dr Tabu said, adding that once the weed entangles with the nets, fishermen cannot catch any fish.
The water hyacinth became prominent in late 1980s and mid-1990s, with its impact mostly felt in 1995, when the weed covered 90 per cent of the Lake Victoria shoreline.
It cuts off oxygen supply to aquatic life. Hyacinth is an aquatic floating plant that has become a global freshwater scourge after being inadvertently transported worldwide.
Environmental experts say a combined approach to stop the further spread of the weed is necessary because it can be used as raw material for feeds and act as breeding spots for some aquatic lives.
About Semliki game reserve
According to Mr Deusdedit Twinomugisha, the assistant warden in charge of Community Conservation at Tooro Semliki Wildlife Reserve, the reserve became significant for tsetse fly control programme and a lion hunting area for the king of Tooro kingdom.
“Tooro Semliki Wildlife Reserve was established as a game reserve in 1926 aiming at the protection of the large population of wild animals of which Uganda kobs were dominant. Other games were reedbucks, waterbucks, hartebeests, lions, buffaloes, elephants, hippos and others” he says
The reserve covers an area of 542sq, km. It is located in western Uganda, within Ntoroko and Kabarole districts.
Habitat for endangered species
It is a habitat to a number of endangered species (IUCN red list) including the chimps in the central savanna and the river line forest of Mugiri, Wasa, and Nyaburogo Rivers. These chimps here exhibit a number of unique features, for example they dig drinking holes even when water is available.
The park hosts more than 400 bird species, notably among which are the shoebill stork, the pigmy kingfisher found along the shores of Lake Albert, which comprises a permanent wetland.
It has magnificent scenery located in land scape in the Albertine Rift, comprising of unique geographical features and landscapes, such as the flat open area in the rift valley, gorges, L. Albert and escarpment.
The management at Tooro Semliki is negotiating plans of having a national park status in order to tap into the potential tourism products in Kabarole District.
According to factanimal.com, the shoebill is a large, elusive, stalk-like bird with an oversized shoe-shaped beak. They are sometimes referred to as ‘Whalehead‘, for obvious reasons. Shoebill inhabit freshwater swamps and marshes of Uganda, Sudan, eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Botswana and Tanzania. Its distribution is often close to the presence of papyrus vegetation, and lungfish.
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Mabamba Bay Wetland
Located on the edge of Lake Victoria, Mabamba Bay Wetland is one of few places where the rare shoebill stork can be found. Sighting the shoebill stork at Mabamba Bay Wetland will make your Uganda birding safari all the more exciting.
Murchison Falls National Park
About 450 bird species have been recorded in Murchison Falls National Park and these can best be seen during a wildlife game drive through the park or when on a boat ride to the bottom of Murchison Falls. Bird species in Murchison Falls National Park include Goliath Heron and Swamp Flycatcher.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
Although Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is known for Gorilla trekking, bird watching is an activity you cannot afford to miss because of the abundance of rare species of birds. About 350 species of birds can be found in Bwindi and these include black-billed turaco, African green broadbill, chapin’s flycatcher, among others