Last week the saddest news I received was the death of Rafiki. The name suits well for it means friend for the Kiswahili speaking people. The great ape was known to be a favorite of tourists, and according to a postmortem report, a spear was put into his belly, penetrating deep into Rafiki’s internal organs.
Conservation efforts put in to increase these species which have undergone a great revival in recent years, following decades of devastating civil war and poaching that reduced their population to around 350 animals in the 1980s to more than 1000 individuals that they are today.
In fact, in 2018, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) upgraded its statusfrom critically endangered to endangered. It should be noted that the last time a mountain gorilla died at the hands of humans was in 2011 that makes it about 10 years ago.
Generally, conservation of species in Uganda has been going on well apart for the lions that still face imminent danger. The improvement must be attributed to the gains Uganda has been making through tourism.
Tourism and ecotourism in Uganda have created jobs that include crafts and wood carving, basketry and weaving, tailoring of African print clothing, tour guiding, honey-selling, cultural dance and drama, farming of vegetables for tourist lodges, casual laboring as porters for tourists, and as cleaners, cooks, and waiters in tourist lodges among others.
Some of the people involved in these jobs are actually ex-poachers. These jobs have improved livelihoods for people that stay near protected areas.
With the suspension of international flights and in fear that there could be the transfer of the virus from people to the animals, parks were closed.
Uganda Wildlife Authority is trying to lift the lockdown on the parks as it opened savannah parks recently. However, being aware that we have less in-country tourism, these jobs are at stake for a long time.
This means that people that are adjacent to national parks are actually helpless in these times and could resort to poaching and illegal wildlife trade. To minimize this, the government should actually give them economic relief and this can’t be only food supplies as they tried to do for Kampala. So the following will be important economic relief for these people;
They could be aided by involving them in; conservation that is monetary for example planting of bamboo and pastures benefiting the environment by maintaining soil quality, reducing soil degradation and erosion, and saving water hence increasing the biodiversity of the area by providing a variety of organisms with healthy and natural environments to live in. This will help in having money but also in avoiding habitat loss which is the greatest danger to wildlife in Uganda.
These communities should be empowered further with skills to enable them to practice virtual tourism and build for them a virtual site to make them operate differently in the absence of the traditional tourism. This will allow them to sell products via the internet instead of over the counter and offer takeaways.
Giving them quick maturing crops and vegetables to do sustainable agriculture could be another important relief given to these communities.
These activities need to start as soon as possible for if they are not worked upon the gains made in the conservation sector could be wiped out in months. Losing Rafiki should be a wakeup call to the stakeholders.
Brian Atuheire Batenda
Director of Research And policy At AIFE-Uganda.