Birding tourism to create 3, 000 jobs 

Tourists on a birding excursion in Kibale National Park. PHOTO / EDGAR R. BATTE 

What you need to know:

  • Bird Uganda Safaris has partnered with two foundations for a five-year project to train youth in birding, nature and cultural guiding, nature photography, tour and safari driving and crafts making. 

Noah Keefer Strycker holds the record of being the biggest birder in the world. The 35-year-old, who grew up in rural, forested Oregon, in the US, set the record after watching 6, 042 bird species in 2015, on seven continents.

Herbert Byaruhanga, one of Uganda’s top birders, has watched more than 1, 000 birds. Uganda is home to 1, 084 birds, and counting. Some of its unique bird species include the Shoebill, Crested Crane, Great Blue Turaco, Shelley’s Crimson wing, Saddle-billed Stork, Marabou Stork, African Green Broadbill, and more.

The world is estimated to have 10, 400 bird species. Uganda has 10 per cent of the world’s bird population. Birding is a tourism attraction for the fact that it fascinates a special segment of tourists, who are rich and do birding as a hobby. 

Cumulatively, Uganda earned $1.6b (about ShS5.8 trillion) from tourism in 2019. Seventy per cent of the earnings were from gorilla trekking. Costa Rica, which is about 20 per cent the size of Uganda, earned Shs9t from birding as a tourism product in 2019.

Byaruhanga says there is needs to be deliberate about promoting Uganda as a preferred birding destination because birdwatchers stay longer and as such, spend more.

The tourism sector was allocated Shs178.9b, which accounts for a negligible 0.4 per cent of the national budget. An average birder can stay in the country for 13 to 25 days, which would earn Uganda between Shs7.3m and Shs25m ($2, 000 and $7,000). A professional birding guide averagely earns about Shs540,000, while a trainee earns Shs324,000.

The safari driver is paid between Shs180,000 and Shs252, 000 on average. According to Byaruhanga, the country has the biggest number of female birding tour guides and will be hosting the first women birders conference.

“The aim is to create jobs for women and the youth. If our country focuses on birding, we can create more jobs. The partnership with Private Sector Foundation Uganda (PSFU) and MasterCard Foundation Uganda is an effort to create 300,000 jobs,” the director of Bird Uganda Safaris, explains.

Bird Uganda Safaris hosts group tours and individual clients on birding excursions. The safari company has partnered with the two foundations under a five-year project dubbed “Upscaling Birding for Youth employment in Uganda” to train youth in birding, nature and cultural guiding, nature photography, tour and safari driving, crafts making and marketing.

Job opportunities 
Under this partnership, employment opportunities will be created  in birding tours, cultural tours, other nature tours, tour driving, food and craft production and cultural dances. The project will be piloted in the districts of Kiruhura, Kazo, Isingiro, Mbarara, Rubirizi, Bushenyi, Mpigi, Buikwe, Mukono, Masindi, Hoima, Kasese, Bundibugyo, Ntoroko, Wakiso, Kisoro, Kanungu, Kotido, Moroto, Kabarole, Sembabule, Rubanda, and Kabale.

Byaruhanga will lead birding trainers of the youth in different places. The efforts are in addition to prior training under the auspices of the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), the local agency that conserves, manages and regulates wildlife as well as the Uganda Safari Guides Association (USAGA). 

Training 
Fifty bird guides were trained and 21 of them were from UWA. Its director of tourism and business services, Stephen Masaba, observes that Uganda had rare bird species and is home to 50 per cent of Africa’s bird population.

Similarly, UWA, USAID-Star, Nature Uganda, and Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) are planning on professional training sessions for bird guides and also improving infrastructure to make birding expeditions easier. 

An 18-day birding tour by Birding Uganda Safaris would start at Mabamba Swamp, 50km west of Kampala on a canoe, paddled by our local site guides. Watch out for the Shoebill, Swamp Flycatcher, African Purple Swamp Hen, African Water Rail, Common Moorhen, Lesser Jacana, African Jacana, African Pigmy Goose, White-faced Whistling Duck, Squacco Heron, Blue-breasted Bee-eater, Winding Cisticola, Goliath Heron, and Black Crake.

More bird species
Birders will then head to Masindi and watch bird species along the Budongo Forest-Royal Mile and Busingiro Section for Nahan’s Francolin, Cassin’s Spinetail, and Chestnut-capped Flycatcher. The tourists will be transferred to Murchison Falls National Park which hosts 360 bird species including the rare Shoebill Stork, Secretary Bird, Abyssinian Roller and Ground Hornbill, Pied Kingfishers, among others. 

In Kibale National Park, birders have an opportunity to watch 325 bird species, including six that are endemic to the Albertine Rift region. They include the Black-capped Apalis, Blue-headed Sunbird, Collared Apalis, Dusky Crimsonwing, Purple-breasted Sunbird and Red-faced Woodland Warbler. 

If you are lucky, you may also see the African Pitta, Green-breasted Pitta, Black Bee-eater, Yellow-spotted Nicator, Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird, Little Greenbul, Black-eared Ground-Thrush, Brown-chested Alethe, Blue-breasted Kingfisher, Abyssinian Ground-Thrush and the Crowned Eagle.

Birders can then be transferred to Queen Elizabeth National Park, which is home to 612 bird species, some of which can be seen on a game drive during an afternoon boat cruise on the Kazinga Channel.

Birds in flight along the Kazinga Channel in Queen Elizabeth National Park.  PHOTO / EDGAR R. BATTE

Bird spots in Uganda 
You can also travel to Bwindi Forest National Park that is home to 23 highly localised Albertine Rift Endemics, including the Black-faced Rufous Warbler, Grauer’s Warbler, Banded Prinia, Black-throated Apalis, Mountain Masked Apalis, Red-throated Alethe, Yellow-eyed Black Flycatcher, Ashy Flycatcher, Dusky-blue Flycatcher, Chapin’s Flycatcher, Chin-spot Batis, Rwenzori Batis, Black-and-white-Shrike-flycatcher.

It is a forest to call the Yellow-bellied Waxbill, Magpie Mannikin, Yellow-crowned Canary, Thick-billed Seed-eater, Streaky Seedeater, African Green Broadbill, Shelly’s Crimsonwing, Oriole Finch, Mountain Buzzard, Ayre’s Hawk Eagle, Handsome Francolin, Black-billed Turaco, Barred Long-tailed Cuckoo, African Wood Owl, Rwenzori Nightjar, Scarce Swift and more. 

A walk to Buhoma Village and Lake Mburo National Park to see the Crested Francolin, Emerald Spotted Wood Dove, Brown Parrot, Bare-faced Go-away Bird, Blue-napped Mousebird, Lilac-breasted Roller, Green-Wood hoopoe, Common Scimitar Bill, African Grey Hornbill, Spot-flanked Barbet, Nubian Woodpecker, Trilling Cisticola, Yellow-breasted Apalis and Marico Sunbird. 

Like other national parks, a game drive in Lake Mburo will bring you face to face with wildlife too. If 3,000 jobs are created, these would be some of the birding destinations the youth will be taking tourists on birding excursions to. 

This will improve their livelihoods and create a spiral earning effect in the economy. There is 7,310,386 youth from the ages of 15–24 living in Uganda. Global Metrics puts Uganda’s unemployment rate for 2020 at 2.44 per cent, a 0.72 per cent increase from 2019. Tourism has the potential to create job opportunities along a chain given its good spill-over commercial effect, as measured on stay and spend. 

Birding profits the host country
Stephen Asiimwe, policy director at PSFU explains that a tourist is likely to book a flight through Uganda Airlines, pay $50 (about Shs180, 000) for an entry visa and get into a cab to Kampala.
A cab from the airport to Kampala charges between Shs70,000 to Shs150,000. If they check into Kampala Serena Hotel, they will pay about Shs943, 000.

“A birder will come in, spend time at the hotel, pay for amenities, go to National Theatre to buy crafts, and want to see more. They will end up spending between and Shs10.8m per day,” Asiimwe roots for the need to promote birding. 

The MasterCard Foundation country head, Samuel Yalew Adela, observes that birding and tourism, in general, is a growing and promising investment space. He adds that Bird Uganda Safaris Limited will provide the necessary support to equip youth with the right ideas and skills.

UTB, a government agency that promotes destination Uganda, annually holds a birding expo, where international birders are invited on birding excursions from which they create an online buzz that ultimately markets Uganda. 

More bird guides needed
 “We have about 200 bird guides since 2001. We are working to increase the number of bird guides,” Byaruhanga adds.

Uganda has more women birders compared to any other country on the African continent. According to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS), the country recorded a total of one million international arrivals and 1.2 million departures in 2019. The number of visitors to national parks decreased from 325, 345 in 2018 to 323, 861 in 2019. 

The most visited national park in 2019 was Murchison Falls, standing at 32 per cent, followed by Queen Elizabeth 24 per cent and Bwindi Impenetrable at 11.2 per cent. 40 per cent of the visitors to national parks where foreigners who are non-residents. 

For novice birders, a good pair of binoculars, a professional camera and a field guide are all you need. You will also need a notebook so you can write unique features identified on different bird species. A keen eye and patience are key in bird excursion. 

Salient
Under this partnership, job opportunities will be created in birding tours, cultural tours, nature tours, tour driving, food and craft production and cultural dances. The project will be piloted in the districts of Kiruhura, Kazo, Isingiro, Mbarara, Rubirizi, Bushenyi, Mpigi, Buikwe, Mukono, Masindi, Hoima, Kasese, Bundibugyo, Ntoroko, Wakiso, Kisoro, Kanungu, Kotido, Moroto, Kabarole, Sembabule, Rubanda, and Kabale. 

Herbert Byaruhanga, one of Uganda’s top birders, will lead birding trainers of the youth in different places. The efforts are in addition to prior training under the auspices of the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), the local agency that conserves, manages and regulates wildlife as well as Uganda Safari Guides Association (USAGA).

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