Coronavirus (COVID-19) has continued to spread across the world leaving death and economic devastation in its wake.
On 21 March 2020, Uganda confirmed its first COVID-19 imported case. The containment adopted to curb the spread of the virus in Uganda has affected business operations and the Bwindi conservation landscape hasn’t been spared either
The Lockdown triggered a global freeze on travel disrupting gorilla tourism that the Bwindi communities had depended on for close to three decades. Many worked as tour guides, gorilla trackers, hotel workers, potters, etc, and lost their jobs with immediate effect.
As if this wasn’t enough, those that had worked in Non-Governmental organizations lost jobs since international NGOs that had funded conservation and other activities out of the pandemic pressure had to retreat from the business since they were equally hit by the pandemic.
This global shock meant that these communities lost their jobs in a blink of an eye. The lockdown brought back students and pupils into the local communities and those that worked in the transport sector in major towns in Uganda came back to the local communities through an increased Urban-Rural migration that became the order of the day in Uganda.
The Bwindi Conservation landscape, therefore, had a drastic increase in population yet with lesser resources and opportunities.
These people had to survive on the resources available indeed while collecting data from Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), it was revealed that the use of snares for poaching in the Bwindi Mughinga conservation area increased from 50 snares discovered per month to 400 in the month of April 2021 alone.
And no wonder we lost a mountain gorilla (Rafiki) to the effects of this pandemic. With the loss of this gorilla then park authorities heightened patrols and security around the protected area. Poaching activities, Illegal wildlife trade, and even Human-wildlife conflicts have since been minimized.
But as these are minimized the population has gone for private forests around the conservation area for survival. The local communities have increased in numbers because the Urban-Rural Migrations have a big demand for energy and that has led to high levels of deforestation in the private forests. Charcoal and wood fuel has also become a serious trade as people look for alternative incomes away from the fallen tourism business in the area.
So, it has become a job that is earning money communities adjacent to the park and private forests are suffering at the hands of charcoal and wood fuel traders.
More to the above, communities have also gone for agriculture and many of them who haven’t been in this economic activity are doing it unsustainably. The farmers are clearing forest indiscriminately and apply bush burning. Unlike in Kabale and Kisoro where there is mulching and terraces to cub soil erosion the Buhoma area is being tilled without these control measures leaving areas adjacent to the park bare.
Some are using pesticides, herbicides, and inorganic fertilizers and could introduce invasive species with the fake seedlings and fertilizers on the Ugandan market. These practices are dangerous since they could end up polluting the waters that the great apes depend on. The growing of crops adjacent to the parks could also trigger Human-Wildlife conflicts in the area due to the fact that there are wild pigs and other primates like baboons that will try feasting on the crops grown.
More to this, it means these private forests which have been a buffer between the park and the people are going to dwindle and with the decline of resources people could be tempted to encroach on the park resources. But also, with these fires and bush burning going on near the park, the park risks fire attacks from these fields.
The other activity that has come as a result of the lack of tourism revenues is lumbering. The lumbering in private forests is indiscriminate and young trees are being cut into timber. This could leave the areas adjacent to the park with minimal tree cover exposing the Impenetrable park further. The branches from these fields are sold as fuelwood or turned into charcoal. There are also reports that there is a relationship between the lumbering and increased number of snares as some of the poachers have covered as lumbers increasing Illegal wildlife activities around the conservation area.
This Article is A product of the PCLG Small grant Initiative from the ‘People for Gorillas Program’ Being Run by The African Initiative on Food Security and Environment (AIFE-Uganda)
By Brian Atuheire Batenda. Director Policy & Research at AIFE-Uganda.