GORILLAS IN THE MIST
UGANDA’S INTEGRATED APPROACH TO WILDLIFE, ENVIRONMENT AND COMMUNITY
BY BARBARA GARDNER
After many years of concern about mountain gorillas, having watched the heartbreaking film Gorillas in the Mist, a true life story, where Dian Fossey gets murdered trying to protect mountain gorillas from poachers in the Virunga mountains of Rwanda, I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to visit the mountain gorillas for myself this year.
We share 98.5 per cent of our genes with mountain gorillas, yet there are less than 900 of them left in the world and these live either in the Virunga mountains of Rwanda or in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest of Uganda. With the opportunity of visiting my brother and his wife in May this year, who were in Uganda doing two years’ Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO), I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make the trek into the Impenetrable Forest of Bwindi to visit a gorilla group. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is a UNESCO natural world heritage site and lies in south-western Uganda, on the edge of the Rift Valley. Its mist-covered hillsides are blanketed by one of Uganda’s oldest and most biologically diverse rainforests, which dates back over 25,000 years and contains almost 400 species of plants. More famously, this ‘impenetrable forest’ also protects an estimated 320 endangered mountain gorillas – roughly half of the world’s population, including ten habituated groups, which can be tracked.
I consider myself to have been extremely privileged to have seen the beautiful gorillas in their natural habitat, but the trip was about more than just being a tourist, it’s about protecting the gorillas from poaching, preserving the natural environment and supporting the communities that look after them.
The Ugandan Wildlife Authority
Today, no gorillas are poached in Uganda and it’s all because of the Ugandan Wildlife Authority’s (UWA) interrelated approach to protecting the wildlife, conserving the environment and supporting the community. Buying a permit to visit the gorillas isn’t cheap, but the money raised pays the wages of the national park authority staff and the costs of preserving the national parks, with the remainder being ploughed back into the community. Numerous other local people benefit indirectly from the tourism, such as porters, guides, hotel workers, shop owners, producers of souvenirs and other supporting industries. There is also support for the local orphanages. National park authority staff go into schools to educate the children about the importance of conserving the gorillas. It’s not just that the community realise that the gorillas are worth more to them alive than dead, they actually respect and are concerned for the gorillas’ welfare.
Uganda, known as ‘The Pearl of Africa’, is a beautiful, lush country in the African rift valley, which is rich in fauna and flora, a Garden of Eden embracing ten national parks, which are the responsibility of the UWA, whose strapline is ‘Conserving for Generations’ – (www.ugandawildlife.org). These ten national parks include some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, including richly biodiverse rainforests and extensive savannahs which support many species of large wild animals. As well as visiting the iconic mountain gorillas, I was also extremely privileged to be able to take advantage of chimpanzee trekking in Kibale National Park and to go on safaris in the Queen Elizabeth, Lake Mburo and Murchison Falls national parks, where elephant, giraffe, lions (including tree climbing ones), hippos, zebra, baboons, 13 types of primates and hundreds of other animals adorned the landscape. Uganda is also a major bird watching destination with over 1,000 species of birds. However, you will not see any rhinos living wild in any of the national parks due to past poaching. All the parks benefit from the UWA’s integrated approach to conserving wildlife, the environment and working with the people.
The UWA recognizes the local community as a key stakeholder in ensuring the protection of wildlife, both inside and outside of Uganda’s protected areas. Traditional conservation approaches largely excluded the communities from protected area management. In contrast, community conservation, which has been employed since the 1990s, aims to harmonize the relationship between park managers and neighbouring communities, allowing these communities access to protected area resources. It also encourages dialogue and local community participation in planning for and management of these resources. Communities have regulated access to some key resources that may not be found outside the protected areas, such as medicinal herbs, papyrus and vines for handcrafts, fish, firewood, bamboo, bee hives and water access in the dry season or drought.
The UWA aims to raise awareness of the value of conservation and how communities can both participate in and benefit from it. In order to facilitate visits by school children and organized groups to some of the parks, low cost accommodation has been created to enable pupils to spend a weekend viewing and learning about wildlife.
Because of the extensive poaching of rhinos in the past, there are sadly no rhinos in Uganda’s national parks. They suffered a violent demise back in 1983. The only place where you will see these iconic animals in Uganda is at the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, in Nakasongola district, 100 miles north of the capital, Kampala. The rhino re-introduction project is supported by the UWA and the Rhino Fund Uganda (RFU). There are only 15 southern white rhinos in the sanctuary which are fully guarded and cannot currently be released into the wild due to the threat to their safety. However, the aim of the project is to breed and eventually release the rhino back into the national parks, as they are seen as a vital aspect of the environmental and cultural heritage of Uganda and an inextricably important ecological link.
Currently there is a security force of 80 rangers, many of whom are armed, who patrol the fence, guard the gates and monitor the rhinos 24 hours a day. The rangers are also active with anti-poaching activities around the sanctuary and assist the local community by capturing problem animals, such as crocodiles and pythons, and releasing them into a safe environment away from the community.
The project is working towards a future in which there will be a sustainable rhino population and the team are expanding their education and community programmes to teach people about the urgent need to conserve the rhino, the value of biodiversity in Uganda and the rhino’s place in the local and global ecosystems. They also educate people on the impact of conservation on the community and the importance of conservation efforts worldwide. They have built a primary school and are planning to build a medical clinic to care for the community.
Last year, a report by WWF and TRAFFIC said that rhino poaching had reached a 15 year high, pushing the animals close to extinction. About 1,500 rhino horns were traded illegally in the last three years, despite the long-standing ban on the international trade. The trade is being driven by Asian demand for horns and is being made more difficult to deal with as the poachers become more sophisticated with their weapons, using helicopters, top range communication equipment, expert vets and often having a military training. Armed guards, community education and tourism are the main weapons of defence for the rhinos.
The Tragedy of Rhino Poaching
Here is a quote from the Ziwa Rhino Fund website www.rhinofund.org:
‘Most rhinos being poached today are darted with the very same immobilizing drugs that we use when we are giving them veterinary care. The horror of this is that while this majestic animal’s horn is being hacked out of its face with a machete or panga, or being cut off with a chain saw, the rhino is fully aware of what is happening to it. The pain it is going through can only be compared with the immense pain you would feel if someone was chopping one of your limbs off while you are awake. There are many cases where the rhino carcass is found with tears running down what is left of its face, and rhino with chopped off faces have been found wondering around while bleeding to death.
‘We are dealing with a rhino poaching mafia that is so organised, wealthy and so well protected by their legal aid, it is like fighting a losing battle. When you win the battle of arresting the poacher or carrier, you then have the war of overpaid attorneys, who are protecting these thieves, to contend with. Clearly there is no difference between the man with the machete and the man with the Porche – they are the very same breed of evil.
‘Close your eyes for a moment, picture this process of poaching, imagine the trauma and pain that this animal is going through for an age old tradition that has created a frenzy of greed amongst beings.’