Twenty five years ago, Leah Buhl LaPlaca, a college student then, met Bahati- a young female chimp. She was studying about chimpanzees in Kibale Forest, in 1994.
Bahati had been rescued from a local farmer and reintroduced to a group of Kibale Forest chimps.
Unfortunately, Bahati kept going back to the forest camp and the decision was made to take her to Entebbe Zoo. Leah took care of Bahati for a few days and accompanied her to Entebbe on June 23, 1994.
That was the last time she saw her. Bahati was later transferred to Ngamba Island. In an email to Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary, LaPlaca, the vice president of Audience Strategy ESPN, reminisced the moments she spent with the female ape.
“When I learnt about Ngamba Island and saw Bahati’s photo on the website, I was very thrilled. I hope to return to Uganda sometime and see her again.”
Ngamba, on Lake Victoria, is home to 50 orphaned chimps and was ranked among the top 10 ecotourism projects in Africa.
Uganda made it to ‘The Cool List 2019’ in April, as one of the 19 best tourist destinations in the world. National Geographic Traveller (UK) chose the Pearl of Africa as a destination where visitors can marvel at mountain gorillas.
Following the hiking of gorilla permits in Rwanda from Shs2.8m to Shs5.5m in 2017, the magazine also highlights steady growth of Uganda’s mountain gorilla population, as one of Africa’s conservation success stories.
Primates in Uganda
A variety of primate species live in Uganda. The 15 species range from galagos, monkeys to apes. Most prominent are: mountain gorilla at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, common chimpanzee popular in Kibale Forest National Park, golden monkey endemic to Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, De Brazza’s Monkey, Patas Monkey, Ugandan red colobus monkey, bush baby, red tail monkey, Black and White Colobus Monkey (Engeye), l’Hoest’s Monkey, Vervet, Olive Baboon (Enkobe), and Grey-cheeked mangabey, popularly situated at Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, Kibale Forest and Bwindi.
Primate tourism has contributed significantly to the economy through job creation and revenue collection. Gorilla trekking and chimpanzee tracking are some of the most enriching experiences. Uganda is home to more than half of the world’s mountain gorillas.
According to Bwindi census of 2011, more than 400 gorillas are found in Bwindi Impenetrable Park and 480 others live in the Virunga massif comprising Mgahinga in Uganda, Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and the Virunga National Park in DR Congo.
Tour Guides Forum Uganda chairman and MJ Safaris Uganda director, James Mwere, says primates have created job opportunities for guides, tour operators and people along the tourism value chain such as restaurants, crafts shops, organised local communities like the Batwa, porters and other local groups, accommodation facilities, car hire companies, fuel stations, among others.
“Most of our itineraries from three to 25 days have either gorilla tracking in Bwindi and Mgahinga, golden monkey tracking in Mgahinga and chimp tracking in Kibale, Budongo or Kyambura Gorge.
Tracking fee hiked
Under the jurisdiction of Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), Bwindi and Mgahinga have 19 gorilla families. Each habituated gorilla family is visited by just one group of eight tourists per day and that visit is strictly limited to one hour.
A foreign visitor or non-resident parts with Shs2.2m for a gorilla permit. Meanwhile, the same visitor tracks chimpanzees at Shs368,800 and Shs184,372 in Kibale National Park and Kyambura Gorge respectively.
The director of Tourism Business, UWA, Stephen Masaba, says they are planning to establish two more gorilla families in the short run to curb the soaring prices of gorilla permits. “Prices of gorilla permits have not been changed for the last five years. Recent increase in the gorilla permit to $700 effective July 2020, are aimed at boosting infrastructure development and habituate more gorilla families,“ explains Masaba.
The Wildlife Statute of 1996 mandates UWA to allocate 20 per cent of entrance fees to communities adjacent to the parks such as Bwindi and Mgahinga, under the revenue sharing scheme.
Early this year, the authority handed over a Shs4.4 billion cheque to the district leaders of Kanungu, Rubanda and Kisoro in recognition of the important role that communities play in government’s conservation efforts to eliminate all forms of illegal wildlife activities.
Besides the ecological functions of seed dispersers, herbivores and predators in the different ecosystems primates inhabit, they hold cultural significance for tribes in Uganda. Among the Baganda people, lineage is passed on to the same lines through a clan (Ekika) system. The clans of black and white colobus monkey (Ngeye) and monkey (Nkima) deem it a taboo to eat, harm or kill their iconic species which are totems.
Although current numbers of primates attract many tourists, habitat destruction is putting them at higher risk.
They are thriving in national parks but their safety is threatened in forest reserves, as a result of timber harvesting and charcoal burning in forests such as Mabira, Budongo and Bugoma.
Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) founder, Dr Gladys Kalema- Zikusoka, says they are also threatened by infections such as measles, pneumonia and common human cold virus from humans and other wildlife species.
As much as primate research and tourism have a strong effect on great apes survival through reduction of poaching activities and monitoring of protected areas, the nearness of tourists to the apes such as chimpanzees and gorillas spreads diseases. Fortunately, hygienic procedures, health care and limits to avoid contact are enforced in and around the national parks.
Forest encroachment and agricultural activities continue to stir human-wildlife conflict.
The national status of some primates, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN guidelines, are protected by the new Uganda Wildlife Act 2019 to ensure their sustainability.
The Uganda Bay Colobus, mountain gorilla and common chimpanzee are endangered species, whereas the Ugandan Mangabey is categorised as vulnerable. Any killing, or trade in such wildlife species attracts legal proceedings that might culminate into hefty fines, life imprisonment or both.
UWA has strengthened park operations through collaborations to execute the mandate of keeping primates healthy.
Public relations officer, Gesa Simplicious, says this is evident in the three solid primate parks of Kibale, Bwindi and Mgahinga.
He adds that UWA has increased staffing to monitor and protect the primates, improved their remuneration, funded wardens to carry out primate research and availed more facilities.
“Wardens from these primate parks have been funded to undertake management oriented research. We have teamed up with researchers and partnering NGOs like International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) and International Primatological Society (IPS) to carry out meaningful research on protecting primate habitats based on science,” he explains.
CTPH conducts programmes to protect gorillas and other wildlife from human and livestock diseases near wildlife.
The founder, Dr Gladys Kalema, says much as UWA and NFA are ensuring that primates have enough secure habitats such the national parks, wildlife and forest reserves, CTPH ensures that people who visit chimpanzees and gorillas are healthy and the communities they visit are living healthy lives.
“When mountain gorillas go to eat banana plants, they will neither find human faecal waste in the gardens that may make them sick nor catch contagious scabies as a result of dirty clothing. But, these efforts are additional to measures undertaken to prevent them from crossing park boundaries to eat plants and crops of local communities.”
The veterinarian says other measures are strengthening human-wildlife conflict resolutions such as Human-Gorilla Conflict in Bwindi (HUGO), which ensures that gorillas are taken back safely, as soon as they cross the park boundaries.
“It is made up of local community members who are given training and support from UWA and other NGOs like ours, and IGCP and the same approach can be used in other protected areas where you have primates and other species that are endangered like chimpanzees, gorillas and elephants,” she explains.
Gorilla census 2018
Regarding the long awaited Mountain Gorillas census, Kalema says the tests are normally done in Max Planck Institute in Germany, however, this time ICGP took the samples to America.
“Bwindi census was carried out last year. So we hope for results by the end of this year. Previously, we counted nests but we realised some apes built more than one nest. We count nests and do the genetic tests for an accurate figure. But we expect the numbers to go up because there are many babies born in different gorilla group.”
The need for African stakeholders to increase their level of commitment to conserve the continent’s primates gave birth to African Primatological Society (APS) in April 2016.
The objective is to create a platform for networking, coordination of research and improving conservation efforts through capacity building.
Following the first congress in Ivory Coast held in July 2017, Uganda hosted the second African Primatological Society (APS) congress from September 3-5, 2019 under the theme: Primate Conservation in Africa;Challenges and Opportunities.
“Many are doing research and conserving primates but they never go to international conferences to present their work. It is always presented by someone from Europe or America. They eventually get out of primatology because they are not growing in the field. APS provides a platform to showcase our work, learning opportunities on writing and presenting papers,” explains Kalema, who serves as the APS vice president.