So, why come to Uganda for your holidays? In a nutshell: beautiful landscapes, lovely weather and marvellous wildlife. Above all, it's unspoiled. After 40 years of conflict in one region or another, Uganda may no longer have the astonishing numbers of animals found in Tanzania's Serengeti. However, neither does it have the tourist buses queuing up to snap each hapless lion as we hear is the case in Kenya's Masai Mara.
|Murchison Falls National Park|
So, Uganda's national parks are a precious precious resource. The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), which is mandated to manage the country's 10 national parks and 12 wildlife reserves, may have had its ups and downs as far as its own governance is concerned. However, it is doing a very important job in terms of protecting the country's natural resources, with the help of organisations like the Uganda Conservation Foundation (UCF). This isn't easy. Local communities get understandably nervous about wild animals which don't recognise park boundaries. UWA only has 1,200 rangers across the whole country, far fewer than the 3,300 it claims it needs.
Only the other week, lions from QENP invaded villages in south-west Rukungiri devouring 18 goats and driving the locals to take refuge in the sub-county headquarters. Recent fires in QENP drove smaller wild animals into Ishasha town on the DR Congo border, to be followed by the lions which normally prey on them. Instead they ate 100 goats and 50 cows. This week it was leopards causing trouble in Teso over in the east. The locals have started hunting them after they killed scores of goats and sheep. In central Uganda, Luweero District's Vermin Control teams have killed 200 monkeys which had been destroying crops. In Murchison Falls, a pregnant woman was killed when she tried to stop some elephants from eating her cassava crops. On Mount Elgon, many of the animals are reported to have moved over the border into Kenya because of the encroachment into park land by illegal settlers who cut down trees, plant crops and hunt wild animals for game meat. These are just examples of wild animals doing what wild animals do. National parks are not zoos.
|Ishasha National Park|
In February, an article in the Monitor quoted a small scale farmer, Agnes Ndyomubandi, living on the border of QENP and dependent on her crops of cotton, cassava, maize and banana. 'For several years, I have lost all my gardens to elephants and baboons from the park. I could not support my family.'
Malaria caught when families sleep out of doors to try to protect their crops is a significant cause of death in areas bordering the parks. In 2010, more than 460 farmers in Kasese unsuccessfully tried to sue UWA for damages caused by wildlife.
The UWA and UCF do the best they can: stepping up ranger patrols and teaching villagers how to dig elephant trenches or plant chilli around the perimeter of their gardens. Tooro Botanical Gardens Fort Portal, supported by CARE International Uganda, encourages farmers to burn red pepper mixed with elephants droppings to discourage elephants. An imaginative project supported by the NGO Volcano Safaris Partnership Trust, encourages communities in western Uganda to build bee hives into natural fences. Malaika Honey has trained Kasese farmers on bee keeping which not only discourages elephants and increases crop yields but enables the honey to be used to produce alternative medicines. A formal agreement has just been signed between community leaders in Kyenjojo, Kibale National Park and the UWA to allow residents to carry out bee farming and collect firewood, on condition they do not engage in poaching or deforestation, another major threat to the national parks and their animals.
|Queen Elizabeth National Park|
Nevertheless, despite these steps, a recent audit of wildlife in the national parks published in the Daily Monitor makes depressing reading. The Auditor General announced that between 2006 and 2010 in QENP alone, the number of lions had gone down by 81%, Uganda kob by 69%, buffalos by 45% and hippos by 43%. Last year alone, auditors said 25 elephants were killed in Murchison Falls, which also lost 55% of its hippos. The wonderful and remote Kidepo National Park in the far north-east had lost 79% of its ostriches and 74% of its zebra. It has even been stated that some animals, like lions, zebra and ostriches, are likely to become extinct.
Now, there is a real danger of over-reacting here. Considering many Ugandan schools cannot easily account for a dozen textbooks, it is hardly likely that the hapless auditors dispatched into the bush managed to track down and tick off every single wild beast. Indeed, the UWA said the Auditor General's claims are exaggerated. Instead of the animal population declining by 81%, UWA state that its has 'only' declined by 50%. The worst decline in population came in the 1960s and 70s, when almost all animals were in danger of extinction. Numbers have fortunately increased since then, though they have not regained their pre-independence levels.
And it is not just Uganda, it is all over Africa that animal numbers are reducing. It was recently announced that 600 elephants have been killed in two months in the northernmost national park in Cameroon, a park Stuart and I have visited and where we saw our first, and never-to-be-forgotten, herd of wild elephants.
So, the UWA and international and national NGOs and animal rescue groups like Save the Elephant are doing their best to achieve a careful balance between protecting the livelihoods of communities and protecting the population of animals and Uganda's tourism industry.
Which makes last week's headlines even less believable. For the last two or three years, the Madhvani Group, one of Uganda's most successful Asian-owned businesses, has been attempting to get permission to build a golf course, firstly in QENP, and, when that bid failed, in Murchison Falls National Park. It was a major news story in autumn of 2010. What has made this Donald Trump-like enterprise even more piquant, is that over the years Uganda's President has issued more than one directive ordering the authorities to give way to the Madhvanis. The most recent directive came last week.
Now the Madhvani family, into its fourth generation in Uganda, is not just one of the country's foremost investors, having rebuilt its more than 100-year-old sugar empire following expulsion by Amin in the 1970s, as well as expanding into brewing and luxury safari lodges. It is also a major benefactor of education and health services. The group's Busoga Sugarcane Growers' Association initiated the Kakira Outgrowers Rural Development Fund in 2005 which improves the quality of community life within 30km of the Kakira sugar factory and provides soft loans to farmers. The group employs 75,000 people in the Busoga area and many more in their enterprises elsewhere.
More important even than their business acumen and charitable work, is the fact that the family are personal friends of the Musevenis.
The current situation is that the Marasa Group of companies, owned by the Madhvani group, is waiting for the results of an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). Interesting, in the meantime that Mr Mani Khan, director of operations and tourism for Marasa, has been appointed to the board of the UWA. Some environmental groups have claimed that this represents a conflict of interest.
The upshot is that the President has given the UWA and the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) one month to explain why they have blocked the Madhvani group from developing the golf course.
'Now I have given Nema one month to tell me how the golf course which is just one hundred acres will damage a whole park of over three thousand square miles. Those people of UWA, if they don't tell me, then I will know what to do,' the President said.
Speaking at the elder Madhvani's funeral, the President is quoted as saying that in 1982 he had received from Madhvani 'some ammunition for our ... struggle [the bush war]', not in the form of bullets but money. So the links between the families are certainly close.
|Murchison Falls National Park|
The needs of poor Ugandan farmers you can understand, but the whims of rich foreign golfers?
Well, we wait and see. Just think of the elephants.
(NB Thanks to Tim and Ruth for the elephant, lion and giraffe. Their photos are much better than mine!)
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