Wildlife conservation since independence

Uganda Wildlife Authority game rangers with an elephant in Murchison Falls National Park. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

Uganda is indeed the Pearl of Africa boasting of great diversity of flora and fauna

In his book, My African Journey, originally published in 1908, Winston Churchill refereed to Uganda as the Pearl of Africa.
After his tour of Uganda in 1907, he wrote in his book that “For magnificence, for variety of form and colour, for profusion of brilliant life — bird, insect, reptile, beast — for vast scale — Uganda is truly the Pearl of Africa.

Uganda is indeed the Pearl of Africa boasting of great diversity of flora and fauna.
The country has diversity of wildlife species ranging from large mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, among others. These are found both inside and outside protected areas.
Concerted management of wildlife in the Uganda Protectorate began in 1923 with the formation of the Elephant Control Department. The objective of this organisation was to reduce the damage elephants caused to agriculture by limiting the size and range of their population. 

In 1952, the colonial government gazetted Queen Elizabeth and Murchison Falls national parks. This was 10 years before the country attained independence from British colonial rule.
Several other wildlife conservation areas and forests were gazetted over the years, with the country now boasting of 10 national parks and 12 wildlife reserves.
Veteran wildlife conservationist, Capt John Emilly Oteka, who is an honorary wildlife officer and  board member of the East African Wildlife Society, says wildlife reserves were established as early as 1936.

“In 1952 , two national parks; Queen Elizabeth and Murchison Falls were gazetted under the colonial regime. 
In 1962, Kidepo was gazetted after colonialism and Lake Mburo National Park was the next one gazetted in 1984 and I was the first chief warden posted there that same year,” Capt Otekat says.
“Mark you, we already had game reserves, they were established way back,  I think in 1936 is when they were established by the colonial governments,” he adds.
 He says conservation in the early 60s was easier because the human population was still very small, estimated at about seven million people, hence exerting no pressure on  the national parks and forest areas which are habitats for a number of species.

Tourists at Queen Elizabeth National Park. PHOTO/FILE

Political challenges
In the 1960s, Uganda’s wildlife population was stable and increasing until the 1970’s and 1980’s when the country experienced political instability and insecurity.
Capt Otekat says all hell broke loose on  January 25, 1971 when Idi Amin overthrew the Milton Obote government.
“ There was now total lawlessness, the soldiers who were being chased away by the Idi Amin regime and were retreating to the north, went poaching in Murchison Falls National Park and the soldiers who were being chased to the west by Idi Amin also went poaching  and the number of elephants greatly declined,” Capt Otekat says.
He adds that poaching was at its peak in 1979 when Amin was overthrown, noting that during that time, many elephants sought refuge in neighbouring Zaire (present day Democratic Republic of Congo.) 

The Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities, Ms Doreen Katusiime, says during that time there was severe poaching and illegal wildlife trade, which decimated a number of wildlife species and led to population decline and in some cases extinction.
“Some of the species have since become extinct such as the Beisa Oryx, Lord Deby’s Eland, North White Rhino, and Eastern Black Rhino, with others endangered like the gorillas, chimpanzees, elephants, crested cranes and pangolins which were hunted for their scales,” she says.
Mr Sam Mwanda, the executive director of Uganda Wildlife Authority, says: “The almost 30,000 elephants that we had at the time of independence were reduced to only 2,000 in 1985.” 
There has, however, been a great improvement since 1986 when the NRA/M ascended to power.

Capt Otekat says when NRA/M  took over management of the country, poaching reduced tremendously.
“This was because there were no guns in the hands of the soldiers because they were all absorbed in the national army at that time,” Capt Otekat says.
Latest reports indicate steady recovery and increase in a number of species.
For instance, the gorilla population increased from 400 in 2015 to an estimated 459 individuals by 2018, the elephant population stood at 30,000 in 1960, declined to 1,900 by 1995 but had increased to 7,975 individuals by 2020.
Mr Mwanda says: “ The number of gorillas had dropped to almost less than 300, we now have more than 500 in the country, so our efforts have resulted into this improvement.”

The number of buffalos in the 1960s stood at 60,000 and declined to 18,000 in 1995 but had increased to at least 44,163 individuals in 2020.
The giraffe population stood at 2,500 in 1960, declined to 250 in 1995 but had increased to an estimated 1,968 in 2020.
Ms Katusiime says the Uganda Kob population, which stood at 70,000 in 1960 , declined to 30,000 by 1995 but had risen to 175,590 by 2020, surpassing the 1960 population status.
Other species that have had their populations grow include the chimpanzees from an estimated 5,000 individuals in 2017 to 5,072 in 2020. The number of Bruchell’s Zebra increased from 10,000 in 1960 to 17,516 in 2020, among others.

Worth noting also is the fact that the country has been able to reintroduce rhinos which had become extinct.
Through a breeding programme at Zziwa Rhino Sanctuary, the numbers grew to 33 by 2020 and have since further increased to 34, with two others at the Uganda Wildlife Conservation Education Centre (UWEC), commonly known as Entebbe zoo.
The above success in recovery of a number of species’ populations have been attributed to, among other factors, improved security, surveillance and law enforcement, deployment of sniffer dogs at entry and exit points of the country and creation of intelligence and investigation units.

Others are strengthened collaboration between UWA with other security agencies such as police and Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF). Regional collaboration within the East Africa Community has also been strengthened.
Community engagement, awareness and benefit sharing have also played a big role in contributing to the growth in numbers. 
“We share revenue with communities that neighbour our protected areas. From 2005 to 2022, Uganda Wildlife Authority has shared up to Shs45b with the communities and so that benefits us in that the communities feel that these resources belong to them because they are also beneficiaries. So they have a duty to protect the wildlife,” Ms Katusiime says.

 Mr Mwanda says with passing of regulations to operationalise the compensation scheme under the Uganda Wildlife Act 2019, the Authority is to compensate a number of people.
“We have established the compensation verification committee which is now compiling the list of the first group of people to be compensated,” Mr Mwanda says.
He adds that the committee is to start handling the actual requests for compensation in the next one to two months, with at least Shs1 billion already set aside for this purpose.
The successes notwithstanding, the country’s conservation efforts have not been without challenges.
Among the key challenges is poaching, illegal trade and trafficking of wildlife and its products, human-wildlife conflict, and climate change.

 Mr Mwanda says: “We still have challenges related to human-wildlife conflict; with growth of the human population they have come closer to the protected areas, the animals have not realised that there should be a boundary so they keep moving to the gardens and they destroy crops and occasionally kill people, that remains a challenge”.
He adds: “Some people have continued to undertake poaching and to try and traffic and get monies that they think are out there and that has remained a challenge that we are also trying to address head-on to see that we reduce illegal wildlife trafficking through creating awareness and through direct law enforcement”.
Climate change has caused habitat chances and displaced a number of species such as elephants, Uganda kobs, Buffaloes and has also enhanced natural disasters such as floods, landslides which have led to habitat destruction, displacement and loss of wildlife species.

Capt Otekat says political interference is another challenge faced, arguing that during campaigns a lot of pressure is put on conservation areas where a number of candidates promise and make calls for degazetting of protected areas.
Outbreak of diseases such as Ebola, and Covid-19 are also some of the emerging key challenges as they negatively affect tourism and revenue generation for reinvestment into conservation.
Other hindrances are retaliatory killings through snaring and poisoning of wild animals, especially the big cats such as lions, leopards and cheetahs.
Experts advise that government should ensure that it implements all laws regarding conservation of natural resources to the dot, ensuring that all illegal trade of wildlife and their products is to be stopped.

Mr Sam Mwanda, the executive director of Uganda Wildlife Authority

Capt Otekat says the Judiciary should give deterrent sentences to people contravening the law and government should ensure that UWA is given enough funds to motivate its staff and rangers who put their lives on line to protect the country’s wildlife.
“Animals in the wild can do without humans , but human beings cannot do without wildlife and so we must all join hands to conserve wildlife,” Capt Otekat says.
On its part, UWA says it is looking at improving relations with the various stakeholders, including communities neighbouring conservation areas, continue training of staff and engaging communities on wildlife conservation enterprises.

“Conservation effort are more than just wildlife, we need to protect their habitats, we need to protect wetlands, forests whether they are managed by UWA or other entities,” Mr Mwanda says.
Ms Katusiime says there are several strategies that can be implemented to overcome the above challenges.
These include use of modern technology such as drones, electric fencing and establishment of rapid response units at each conservation area to mitigate human-wildlife conflict, intensified monitoring, enforcement and patrols to curtail illegal activities.

Some national parks
Murchison Falls National Park

At 5,000 sqkms, the park is Uganda’s largest protected area. Murchison Falls National Park lies at the northern end of the Albertine Rift Valley, where the sweeping Bunyoro escarpment tumbles into vast, palm-dotted savanna. First gazetted as a game reserve in 1926, it is Uganda’s oldest conservation area, hosting 76 species of mammals and 451 birds.

Queen Elizabeth National Park
Located in western Uganda, Queen Elizabeth National Park was named after Queen Elizabeth II of England and was established in 1954. Famous for its wildlife, the park is home to many elephants, hippos, lions, leopards, chimpanzees. The park also house 500 species of birds.

Kidepo Valley National Park
Kidepo Valley National Park is the most isolated national park in Uganda. Kidepo Valley lies in the rugged savannah between Uganda’s borders with Sudan and Kenya. The park houses more than 77 species of mammals and more than 475 species of birds. If you are up for some game viewing, then this park is ideal.