What you need to know:
- Endangered species. Uganda is home to three of the World’s famous Big Cats; the Lion, Leopard and Cheetah.
- With the current trend of decline, the cats will soon be extinct.
On the plains of Africa, I have been called a King; along the veins of South America, revered as a god; across the mountaintops of Asia, a legend. We are among the most powerful creatures to grace the planet, but also the most fragile.”
The narrator in the “Big Cats” wildlife mini-documentary makes a compelling introduction on the might of the “Big Cats”.
Wild cats are scientifically known as felids, and are carnivores (meat-eaters). They have efficient body design, acute senses, explosive muscle strength, powerful jaws, protractile claws and elastic wrists for control as they grasp and handle prey. Of the 38 felid species, eight are informally referred to as ‘Big Cats’ because of their size; big heads, wide muzzles, great length, height, weight and ability to hunt large prey. Originally, these included the cats that roar; the Lion, Jaguar, Tiger, and Leopard. However, a more extensive definition attracted the Cheetah, Snow Leopard, Puma, and clouded leopard. It is important to note that whereas the original four roar and purr while breathing out, the latter additions such as Cheetah, snow leopard and Puma purr.
Big Cats thrive in Uganda
Uganda is home to three famous Big Cats; the Leopard, Lion, and Cheetah. Two of these are members of the Big Five. Most of them are located in Murchison Falls National Park, Queen Elizabeth and Kidepo Valley National Park. Unlike the other big cats, the Cheetah is found only in Kidepo Valley. In his speech at the World Wildlife Day celebrations in Kasese, the Minister of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities(MTWA) Prof Ephraim Kamuntu indicated that the lion population had declined from more than 1,000 individuals in the 1990’s to the current estimated 420 individuals nationwide. Cheetahs and leopards are under assessment but Dr Akankwasah Barirega, a board member at Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) estimates the leopard and cheetah population at 2500 and less than 100 respectively. Out of the wild, the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre (UWEC), a rescue, rehabilitation, conservation, and education centre boasts of eight lions, one leopard, and two cheetahs.
Conservationists are worried about survival of the big cats in the wild. Unless this trend is reversed, the cats could become extinct in Uganda.
Impact in tourism
Big Cats are an important attraction for Uganda’s tourism. They are second only to the Mountain Gorilla as the most sought after species.
Tour operators acknowledge the joy and excitement among tourists when they spot the big cats. “During my game drives in any of the national parks, the tourists always ask for the lions, leopards or Cheetahs. Once they spot them, they feel they have covered 70 per cent. Even those who come to track mountain gorillas are more excited when they see them. Tourists who spot these cats tip me well as a token of appreciation,” says Augustine Kikomeko of Wild Haven Uganda Safaris. Relatedly, the Association of Uganda Tour Operators (AUTO) PRO Jonathan Ayinebyoona says the big cats provide one of the most important elements of the safari package. “Tour operators often sell a tour package of tree climbing lions of Ishasha in Queen Elizabeth because it is a priceless experience for their guests,” he explains.
The wildlife endowment is the number one competitive edge for Uganda as a tourism destination. Tourism is now the leading foreign exchange earner for Uganda with US$1.37m (Shs5 trillion) in visitor exports (23.5 per cent of the total exports) and a provider of 1.173 million jobs in Uganda (7.8 per cent of total employment). As a result of wildlife including the Big Cats, UWA employs more than 2000 staff.
World Wildlife Day
On 20 December 2013, the United Nations General Assembly declared March 3 the annual World Wildlife Day. This year’s global theme is “The Big Cats” which is commemorated under the national theme “Creating a safe environment for the survival of Uganda’s big cats”.
Big cats play a vital economic, social, and ecological role. Buganda, Bunyoro and Toro kingdoms use the lions on their respective court of arms as a symbol of strength. “As a ministry together with stakeholders, we strive to improve the ecological integrity of our protected areas and other critical habitats for our predators,” says Mr Ephraim Kamuntu.
During the Wildlife Day observance at Nyakasanga Grounds in Kasese District, conservation and tourism agencies in partnership with the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife, and Antiquities launched the Wildlife Conservation Fine Art Challenge. “With the hope to restore the large wildlife numbers including the big cats, we need to task the young generation to use their skills, talents in Art to be the voice of the voiceless natural resources. This journey begins with future leaders of conservation,” explained Lilly Ajarova, Chairperson of the Art committee.
Legal framework for conservation
Government has reviewed and established policies and laws to curb human threats. “We now boast of the Uganda Wildlife Policy 2014, Uganda Wildlife Education Centre Act 2015, and Uganda Wildlife Research and Training Institute Act 2015 to create a conducive environment for conservation to thrive,” says Kamuntu.
The Uganda Wildlife Bill 2017, which is before Parliament proposes stringent penalties for wildlife traffickers, poachers, strengthens community participation in protected area management and enhances statutory obligations for addressing human wildlife conflicts.
“The Bill establishes a wildlife compensation scheme to pay for losses caused by wildlife. I hope it will reduce the human wildlife conflicts,” he explains.
Uganda Wildlife Education Centre
(UWEC) is also part of efforts to conserve through education, research and documentation of captive behaviour of the species and training on cats’ management.
“We hope to do captive breeding to increase viable numbers, enlarge big cats holding facilities and enclosures to accommodate rescue individuals,” says James Musinguzi, UWEC Executive Director.
UW has trained and deployed wildlife law enforcement, ecological monitoring, tourism, community conservation and other staff. “We have created a wildlife crime intelligence unit, crime investigations unit, and secured sniffer dogs to detect illegal wildlife products. The dogs have done a wonderful job at the Airport and we are looking forward to escalating the initiative to other points of entry and exit,” says Kamuntu.