Tuesday, April 17, 2012

National parks, wildlife and golf

Uganda has had a pretty bad press over the years. Until recently, the only thing most westerners knew about the country was Idi Amin, who was ousted more than 30 years ago. It was gratifying then when Lonely Planet named the country the world's top tourist destination for 2012, an accolade most of us living here would happily support, as a few recent posts of mine may have indicated. We had a bit of a hiccup a few weeks ago when the video Kony 2012 went viral, but the furore seems to have died down again - still a terrible situation for DR Congo but, as most people now accept, no longer for Uganda.

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
Visitors to Uganda tend to come in their twos and threes as independent travellers, or with exclusive tour operators. As a result, we have some beautiful luxury safari lodges (expensive in Ugandan, but not really in international terms), together with plenty of campsites for the less well off. Large-scale tourism really hasn't taken off here, about which some of us selfishly breathe a sign of relief while also knowing that the country really needs the dollars which tourists bring in. Nevertheless, tourism, largely focused on Uganda's wildlife, contributes 3.2% of total GDP to the economy (Shs1.4 trillion) a figure the tourism authorities wish to see rise to 5.8% (Shs2.4 trillion) by 2021.

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
All these incidents of conflict between man and beast relate to food security. Poor communities are naturally angry when precious food sources are destroyed by animals. They are resentful when their families no longer feel safe while the UWA prioritises wildlife over people. Landless families see park land as empty wilderness into which they can move to grow their matooke and cassava. In a country which adds 1 million people to its population every year, tensions between animals and people are likely to become increasingly significant.

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
However, the threat to Uganda's wildlife doesn't just come from poor rural communities with whom most of us would have some sympathy. Increasingly it is coming from poaching by big business concerns. In one month 176 pieces of ivory, 189 hippopotamus teeth and a number of monitor lizard skins were seized from across Uganda as well as from Entebbe airport. A lot of the ivory goes overseas to China, with some of the many Chinese workers here being suspected of involvement in the trade. An organisation called Bush Meat Eastern Africa has recently donated equipment worth Shs7.5 million to the UWA to combat poaching, including ICT equipment, GPS gadgets, ivory detectors and security torches. The UCF has even offered employment to ex-poachers.

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
A lot will depend on the extent to which the EIA takes into account not simply the direct impact of the proposed golf course on the three thousand square miles mentioned above, but also the indirect impact of miles of fencing to keep the animals from eating the golfers, miles of road, increased traffic, increased housing, the use of pesticides and fertilisers, the reduction in tree cover and the effect on the water table of artificial watering. Somehow the idea of carefully manicured greens in the middle of a great wilderness area appears bizarre. It is difficult to imagine the rich Americans for whom this is being developed coming all the way into the middle of an area of wild savannah not to see elephants but to play golf, a game which is amply catered for, within easy reach of the airport, by the Uganda Golf Course in Kampala, Entebbe Golf Course 34 km away from the capital and the quintessential American golf course of Palm Valley half way between them both. Oh, and there's the golf course at Lugasi, developed by the Madhvanis' friends the Mehtas. As one correspondent has written, why travel all the way over to Murchison for a game of golf?

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!)

You may also be interested in the following posts.

Living together in Kibale Forest

Tropical forest, golf and sugar

More on Mabira

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