Category Archives: threats

Badru’s story nominated for a Film Festival Award!

I have been off for a while. I congratulate Andrew and Lucy for a job well done. They kept you updated with the on-going ITFC research and other activities through a continued flow of blogs.

Here is an update of what has happened during my absentia. Some of you must have already watched/heard about it. I am talking about the ‘Badru’s story’……….

Sometime last year, Benjamin Drummond and Sara Joy Steele visited Bwindi. Benj and Sara are a documentary team ( that specializes in multimedia stories about people, nature and climate. During their visit, they followed Badru and his team through the rugged terrain of park, capturing every detail of the camera trap setting, tree measurement and climate station maintenance procedures.  A product of their trip was a short movie documenting the TEAM Network’s activities in Bwindi.

The approximately six-minute movie titled ‘Badru’s story’ starring ITFC and TEAM Network’s very own Badru Mugerwa can be watched in HD for free on line This is the first in a three-part series that are yet to be produced. The movie also featured Dr. Douglas Sheil (ITFC, CIFOR and Southern Cross University), Raymond Kato and Job Nahabwe (Uganda Wildlife Authority) and ITFC field assistants (Lawrence Tumuhagirwe and Avetino Nkwasibwe).

The great news is that ‘Badru’s story’ was nominated for the 40th Telluride Film Festival Award. This is very exciting to Badru,, ITFC, UWA and the TEAM Network.  We hope the movie wins the award. Fingers crossed!!!

Below I present to you some of the highlights from the movie  ‘a pictorial movie trailer’. Please enjoy.

The ITFC/UWA/TEAM Network camera trapping team in Bwindi. From left to right: Avetino, Badru, Lawrence (ITFC) and Job (UWA). Standing at the back is Moses (local guide).

The ITFC/UWA/TEAM Network camera trapping team in Bwindi. From left to right: Avetino, Badru, Lawrence (ITFC) and Job (UWA). Standing at the back is Moses (local guide).

On all four:  Badru doing a 'walk test' in front of a camera trap during camera trap setting

On all four: Badru imitates a walking animal by doing a ‘walk test’ in front of a camera trap during camera trap setting.

Measuring a ‘problem tree’: Badru demonstrating how to take diameter measurements of a buttressed tree.

Measuring a ‘problem tree’: Badru demonstrating how to take diameter measurements of a buttressed tree.

Uuhm,  Bwindi’s  beautiful rugged landscape covered by the early morning mist

Bwindi’s beautiful rugged landscape covered by the early morning mist


How would we ever live without Bwindi? Ecosystem services along the boundary of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.

 Ecosystem services along the boundary of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.





Publish or perish

Science is incomplete if the findings are not communicated. Collecting biological data from the forest is one part, and communicating the science is the other.  My career as a scientist can be made or broken according to how much I publish, this is supported by the “publish or perish” catchphrase.

A 2012 publication by ITFC and UWA staff

I therefore take publishing of my research findings  very seriously. More recently, my colleagues at the Institute for Tropical Forest Conservation (ITFC) and I published a scientific paper in the African Journal of Ecology.  This paper reported the first large scale, systematic camera trap based evaluation of Bwindi’s  ground dwelling animal’s distribution with relation to distance to park edge and elevation.  The implications of these results on habitat protection and animal conservation in Bwindi were also discussed.

Badru setting a camera trap

We placed automatic cameras (camera traps) at sixty locations for a month each. Locations where each species was and was not detected were compared to determine the influence of distance to park edge and changes in elevation.

The 15,912 images recorded had a lot to tell. Twenty mammal and four bird species were identified. The Black-fronted duiker (a forest antelope) was captured the most times. The images also included over 600 images of the elusive, rare and poorly known African golden cat from fifteen different locations. More surprising images included the Sitatunga (an antelope common in swamps), which was recorded in Bwindi for the first time. The Yellow-backed duiker (a forest antelope) and Handsome Francolin (a bird) were more common in the forest interior. On the other hand, the L’hoesti monkey was more common at the park edge. Images of illegal hunters (poachers) were also captured.

The Black fronted duiker was captured most times

The world’s second and Africa’s most poorly known cat – the African golden cat in Bwindi

These results highlight the significance of the TEAM Network activities in Bwindi. These activities not only inform management decisions, but also highlight conservation challenges . For instance, the L’hoesti monkey  (categorized as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature) is associated with community land close to the park edge where it damages food crops. This is a recipe for conflicts between humans and wildlife. At the same time, species that avoid the edge of the forest may already be indicating their vulnerability to human activities. Furthermore, interior species, like Handsome Francolin is typically restricted to high-altitude undisturbed forest, which is declining elsewhere in Uganda.

Handsome Francolin is restricted to high elevations in Bwindi, where it is threatened by hunting for food and cultural values. High altitude forest is declining else where in Uganda.

The camera trapping started by ITFC/Uganda Wildlife Authority with the support of the TEAM Network of Conservation International (CI) and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) offers significant progress in monitoring terrestrial vertebrates in Bwindi. We anticipate more fascinating scientific discoveries from this activity.

Till then, I will let you know when we publish our next paper.

With best regards,

Badru Mugerwa

ITFC receives funds for compiling a lessons learnt report on Human Wildlife Conflicts in the Greater Virunga Landscape from GVTC

The Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation (ITFC) is happy to announce acquisition of a grant from the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration (GVTC) for compiling a report on lessons learnt on Human wildlife Conflicts (HWC) in the Greater Virunga Landscape (GVL).

HWCs occur when the needs and behavior of wildlife impact negatively on the goals of humans and vice versa, resulting into conflicts and animosity between wildlife and the local people. ITFC has previously done research on HWC mitigation measures around Bwindi and Mgahinga National parks including learning experiences elsewhere from Queen Elizabeth, Rwenzori and Semuliki National Parks under the USAID funded Wildwest Project.

A mountain gorilla in a banana plantation around Bwindi

Our previous blogs written on HWC around Bwindi and other protected areas in Uganda have included; who am I conserving for?, Raiding baboons and disease risks, Who pays the price? among others. It was from this experience that ITFC was contracted by the GVTC to compile a lessons learnt report on HWC in the GVL. ITFC is a member of the research, monitoring and Landscape committee of the GVTC and is happy to undertake such an important task.

The Greater Virunga Landscape (GVL) is Africa’s most biologically rich containing a variety of wildlife including elephants, hippos, lions, birds and the only population of the mountain gorillas. The high human population settlement in this region is a recipe for clear-cut conflicts between humans and wildlife. HWCs have been one of the biggest conservation challenges in the GVL for over two decades, posing a serious threat to wildlife, human livelihood and conservation.

Several mitigation methods against HWCs are being implemented in the GVL (see photos below). It is therefore important to document and recommend such mitigation measures to protected area managers. Along these lines, ITFC continues to be at a forefront of conducting research geared towards availing information needed to address this conservation challenge. Your thoughts on managing HWCs will be appreciated. We look forward to hearing from you.

The stonewall is used against Buffaloes in Mgahinga National Park (Uganda), Virunga National Park (Congo) and Volcanoes National Park (Rwanda)

Baboon traps have been used around Bwindi to control baboon raids on crop gardens

Our best regards,

Badru and Robert

A research to policy approach for reducing illegal activities in Bwindi

Remember the questions raised in Badru’s blog on poachers and hunting dogs? These questions are now being addressed by the new  ITFC’s  project- Conservation Through Poverty Alleviation (CTPA). CTPA project is a conservation and development social research project funded by  Darwin initiative in collaboration with the International Institute of Environment and Development in UK.

ITFC and ACODE are leading the research and policy components of the project respectively.  The Jane Goodall Institute, FFI, CTPH, BMCT,ICGP and village enterprises are the other partners involved on the project.

The overarching goal of CTPA project is to improve Integrated Conservation and Development (ICD) guidelines in Bwindi and see possible replication to other Protected Areas. It will therefore focus on unauthorized resource use in Bwindi by looking at the profiles and motivations of illegal resource users. The assumption is, despite previous and ongoing ICD interventions in Bwindi, illegal activities have continued to take place. This can be answered by a well grounded research which is evidence based on targeting the verified unauthorized resource users with a major focus on bushmeat hunters (see Badru’s recent blog on poaching).

So far, interesting steps have been achieved, a monthly arrest form was designed and now implemented by UWA rangers to collect field data. Several people have been caught to be illegally accessing resources in Bwindi. We are yet to identify their profiles and motivations. We have also documented contextual data on places more affected by illegal activities in Bwindi. We anticipate more findings vital for UWA’s park management and to the questions that motivates illegal resource access in Bwindi. ITFC will be attempting to answer these questions during the next three years of the project’s lifespan. The images below provide  some examples of  the illegal activities in Bwindi.

Poaching is a major conservation threat in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. A duiker trapped in a poacher’s snare

Freshly cut tree for poles used for house construction around  Bwindi

Tea harvesting baskets (red arrows) made out of an illegally accessed woody climber  from Bwindi. This woody climber continues to be illegally harvested from the National Park due to its hard wood and durability.


Yours sincerely,

Medard, Badru and Robert

Poachers and hunting dogs on Bwindi’s candid cameras

Remember my last blog about our camera trap photos of the mystery duiker in Bwindi? Our camera trap images are never short of surprises. Unfortunately, some of these surprises come with sad stories to tell. In December 2010, we presented to you the first line-up of poachers ‘culprits’ in Bwindi (see Homo sapiens). This time around, I include the non-human version – the hunting dogs.

Duikers (small forest antelopes) and bush pigs continue to be targeted by poachers in Bwindi. Our images call for an understanding of the drivers and motivations of poaching in Bwindi. Some of the crucial questions include; what incentives do poachers derive from poaching? Is it really worth the risks of arrests, fines and imprisonment? These and other questions have puzzled many conservationists and park managers; yet, answers have remained elusive for decades. ITFC is currently running a socioeconomic study to understand the motivations of poaching and other illegal activities in Bwindi. We hope that this study will generate results and recommendations vital for addressing the threat of  illegal activities in Bwindi.

Some interventions by Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and its partners to end poaching have included law enforcement efforts and local people livelihood improvement. The latter has been through supply of livestock (pigs and goats) as alternatives to bush meat. Conservation and development NGO’s have also implemented several household income generating projects. Despite of these interventions, poaching remains a big threat to park management and biodiversity conservation.

Two months ago, our camera traps captured two men with spears and machetes as well as bags (probably for carrying bush meat). Our cameras also recorded hunting dogs at five different locations. Furthermore, Job Nahabwe (a Park ranger assigned to the TEAM Network activities in Bwindi) retrieved two live snares during our recent field trip. We also managed to disorganize a pack of over 30 hunting dogs and poachers on the same trip.

We are happy that our TEAM Network camera trapping activity continues to generate data vital for park management and conservation. These images are important contributions towards the ongoing discussions of ending poaching in Bwindi. Your thoughts on what can be done to stop or reduce poaching will be very appreciated. Below I present to you a line-up of the wrongdoers, in both human and non-human forms. Faces of the former have been censored for security reasons.


Yours sincerely,

Badru Mugerwa

The culprits-poachers holding spears and bags running past the camera trap

A hunting dog on one of the camera traps

On duty- four hunting dogs on Bwindi candid cameras

Game reveals complex links between poverty and threats to apes

Written by  Mike Shanahan

There were 50 ape experts in a room and a quick game to play to break the ice. “If you agree with the statement, go to the left side of the room,” said the facilitator. “If you disagree go to the right.”

She then unveiled eight simple words that split the room in two: “Local poverty is the main threat to apes.”

On the right side, speakers said the primary problem for orang-utans in Malaysia and Indonesia is not local people, that hunters there tend to target other species. It is the private sector that destroys the forests that both orangutans and local people depend on, added a third speaker, and this deforestation itself creates poverty.

Someone else added that it was the wealthier people from local populations, not the poor, who were encroaching on the national park he worked at in Indonesian Borneo.

A speaker from Democratic Republic of Congo said it was rich people in urban areas – not poor communities near forests — who fuelled the market for ape meat. Another from Cameroon said that in some places local people do hunt chimpanzees for meat but at such low levels that this is not a major threat – logging and mining activities that destroy ape habitat were bigger concerns.

The ape experts had gathered at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in Bogor, Indonesia for a three day workshop on the links between great ape conservation and poverty, because it just so happens that all of the world’s great apes – gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans – live near people who are poor.

The workshop, organised by IIED (where I work) and hosted by CIFOR on 11-13 January, was designed to share lessons learned in Africa and Asia and to identify practices that benefit both apes and local communities. And while the people on the right side of the room felt that local poverty was not the main threat to these apes, those on the left side of the room — mostly from Africa — disagreed.

People kills apes because they are poor, said one. Conservation creates costs to local people and this is an issue of justice, said another. If you solve local poverty you solve a lot of problems for great apes, added a third.

Of course, the statement itself was flawed – as the workshop organisers designed it to be. In reality, the situation varies from location to location and the many threats apes face are all interconnected.

My favourite answer, though, came from one of the Indonesian experts. He said that if the ‘poverty’ in the statement referred to a lack of money then the answer was no, but that if it referred to the mind and a lack of information, then the answer was yes.

As an ice-breaker, the contentious statement did its job well. It made me wonder… if every poor person who lives near an endangered ape was suddenly ten times richer, would the apes be safer or would they just face new threats that affluence and indifference can bring?

[*The workshop — webcast here — was organised as part of IIED’s Poverty and Conservation Learning Group initiative with support from the Arcus Foundation, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Great Ape Survival Partnership]

Mike Shanahan is a Press officer at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)

Blog first posted on

Local communities – Friends or foe to conservation?

“We have lived with the wildlife since time immemorial. You were not here and yet we spared the forest. How come you are now the ones giving us instructions on how to conserve it?” This is one of the many challenging questions conservation managers have to face when dealing with communities neighboring conservation areas.

While the motivation for conservation of wildlife may seem quite obvious to many of us, they are not always the reasons that resonate with local communities. For example in the case of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, the mountain gorillas and the big numbers of endemic species of wildlife in the park is perhaps a major motivation for conservation. For surrounding communities however, the motivations for conservation range from preserving of sacred worship sites in the park to having restricted hunting grounds for some species, and upholding the value of certain species for ornamental and fetish purposes.

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. The sharp boundary between the park and cultivation land reflects the continual tension between forest conservation and local communities

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. The sharp boundary between the park and cultivation land reflects the continual tension between forest conservation and local communities

Many local communities still hold negative perceptions about official protected areas. They complain that the wild animals compete with their livestock for scarce grazing and water resources. Aside that is the risk of transmitting diseases to their livestock, frightening and harming them, and destroying their crops among other complaints. They also consider protected areas as land grabbed from them without having anything in return. Despite efforts by conservation managers to counter such perceptions through conservation education programs and revenue sharing protocols, very little seems to be of result.

Under the Multiple Use Program, communities are allowed restricted resource use harvest from some national parks (photo take from Bwindi)

Under the Multiple Use Program, communities are allowed restricted resource use harvest from some national parks (photo taken from Bwindi)

An example of interventions put in place by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) working with conservation NGOs (like CARE) and the local communities was the buffalo wall set up in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in a bid to stop crop raiding by wild animals from the park. However, unscrupulous community members purportedly had sections of the walls strategically brought down in order to cunningly seduce wild animals out of the park into their crop gardens. The unsuspecting wild animals (buffaloes, bush bucks etc) would then cross from the park to crop raid, only to be ensnared for a feast by the community members. Well invented. Isn’t it? Albeit, the same community members will complain about recurrent crop-raiding by the other (not worthy to hunt) animals and blow the coals live for compensation from the park managers.

A suspected poacher superbly armed for mission. This photo was taken by an ITFC/TEAM camera trap in Bwindi (December 2010).

A suspected poacher superbly armed for mission. This photo was taken by an ITFC/TEAM camera trap in Bwindi (December 2010).

Indisputably, by using indigenous mechanisms these communities have been able to conserve wildlife from ages immemorial, times when the present-day “new-fashion” conservationist was not anywhere in their vicinity.

What is the way forward then, when the local population believes that they are being denied what was freely theirs?

Conservation managers ought to realize that the local people must be considered and fully involved in the planning, management and utilization of wildlife resources if there is any hope to be for ecological stability of protected areas and sustainable socio-economic development of the local communities. Manager should therefore consider the use of integrated protective measures with a bias towards local people participatory approach. With both local and international support, intensive community conservation should be emphasized for the tangible benefit of the local people.

Nonetheless it worth noting that although such initiatives are being implemented by protected area management and conservation organizations, their methods, policies and attitudes (towards the local communities) often leave a lot to be desired with only flyspeck results on ground. Unless there is a total revision in the way this is done, local communities shall always seem as a burden rather than partners in conservation.

Let me know if you have any ideas.


1 Dead Lioness, 3 angry factions, 1 mzungu

Today we have the honour to run a guest blog by Mark Laxer who visited ITFC recently. Mark is President and co-founder of Chimp-n-Sea Wildlife Conservation Fund, Mark Laxer invented virtual ecotourism–known as vEcotourism–a real-time, interactive educational system designed to mitigate ill effects of ecotourism. He is also author of The Monkey Bible.

In August, 2011, I traveled in western Uganda to a health clinic–the Kibale Health & Conservation Project–that serves as a model for improving park-people relations. Villagers feel anger toward the parks for a variety of reasons, including their inability to hunt or gather wood within park boundaries, and the fact that dangerous animals too often destroy their crops, livestock, and homes. The health clinic is a way to mitigate the anger. Supported in part by the Ugandan Wildlife Authority (UWA) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the clinic provides accessible, inexpensive health care to people living near Kibale National Park. My wife and I help support the clinic. I had the opportunity to meet the nurses and observe the clinic and its outreach program in action. It seemed like a great idea though my understanding of park-people relations was in its infancy and I saw none of the anger I had heard so much about. I said goodbye to the clinic staff and continued the journey south to Ishasha.

Ishasha lies at the southern tip of Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP), Uganda, bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is home to tree-climbing lions. I planned to meet a WCS lion researcher who I hoped would drive me around, show me his work, and teach me something about wildlife conservation.

I arrived at Ishasha at 2:30pm and checked into an UWA banda–a simple, round hut.

“Mustafa is expecting you,” the UWA ranger told me, “but he will be delayed. There is an emergency in the village.”

I left my things in the banda and ordered lunch. Thirty minutes later, Mustafa appeared. “There’s a lion in the village,” he said calmly. “It has attacked nine goats: three yesterday, six today. The villagers are prepared to kill it.”

The UWA rangers–armed with AK-47 rifles–sought to protect both the villagers and the lion. It was not in UWA’s interest to kill the lion. A good measure of Uganda’s economy depends on tourism revenue and a large percentage of tourists want to see lions. In Queen Elizabeth Park, 140 of them were still alive.

The villagers–armed with spears–had a different view. “I am going to kill the lion,” one villager had declared to an UWA ranger. “And when I am done, you can kill me.”

Mustafa explained the situation to me. “There’s not much time left,” he said.

UWA had tried to locate a functional dart gun and now it was our turn to try. We called Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka of Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), a high-powered veterinarian and conservationist whom I had met with over breakfast that same day. I was sure she could make things happen but I quickly learned that in this part of the world dart guns and appropriate cartridges were a scarce commodity. We continued making calls. We grew increasingly impatient. 140 lions left. Human lives were at risk. The park-people issue had become more than an abstract model I had come to Africa to study. My heart pounded. My throat felt constricted. Kampala, where an appropriate dart gun had been located, was at least a seven-hour drive but we needed to act now. I wanted to offer to do something but didn’t know what to do.

Mustafa’s phone rang. The lion, which turned out to be a lioness, was dead. Come to the village, Mustafa was told, and pick her up.

Brian (who had driven me to Ishasha) and several UWA rangers got in the back of the Land Cruiser, I got in the passenger seat, and Mustafa drove about twenty minutes and pulled up beside the dead lioness who was surrounded by several hundred villagers.

“Keep smiling,” Mustafa told me as the crowd closed around the car. Many of the young men carried spears. Villagers pressed against the car. UWA rangers pushed them back and a shouting match ensued.

The villagers, furious that they wouldn’t be compensated for the loss of the nine goats, wanted to keep the lioness. UWA said no. The Ugandan military showed up and Mustafa, standing by the lioness, encouraged the three armed factions not to use force. Despite his calming influence, one could sense the shouting, resentment, and testosterone levels rising and Mustafa patted me on the back and said, “Please, Mark, get in the car.”

From inside the vehicle, I noticed the villagers staring at me, mzungu, the white foreigner. I learned later that many villagers think the parks are controlled by mzungu. I learned that many villagers think the twenty percent of park entrance fees that are supposed to come back to the villages never quite shows up.

I spoke with some of the men through the open window. I felt bad for the villagers. Nine goats seemed like a large loss. It didn’t seem fair that the parks, which generated the revenue, didn’t compensate for damage caused by roaming animals. Village children, women, and men had been put at risk. I thought of my wife and two children. How would I have felt had a powerful lioness been stalking my farmhouse in northern Vermont? I felt bad for the lioness. She was a beautiful creature and now there were 139 left. How long would it be before all the lions in Uganda were killed? I felt bad for the UWA staff. Caught between an angry lion and angry villagers, one got the sense they were underfunded and under appreciated.

Some photos  …

Mob justice brought her down. How long will it be before the remaining 139 face a similar fate?

Mob justice brought her down. How long will it be before the remaining 139 face a similar fate?


Mustafa climbed in the vehicle, as did Brian, a few UWA rangers, an UWA liason officer (Warden In-Charge of Ishasha sector), and an UWA community conservation officer.

“Is it true,” I asked, “that villagers don’t get compensated for the loss of their goats?”

“Correct,” said the UWA liason officer. “UWA doesn’t do that.”

If UWA can’t compensate the villagers, I wondered, what about mzungu?

I asked each person in the car what they thought of the idea. Each agreed that if they had the money, they would do the same.

I climbed out and stood on the rear fender of the Land Cruiser and, with the UWA liason officer translating, spoke to the village.

“I came to Uganda,” I said, “to see the wildlife and to understand the culture. This is my first trip to Africa. I’m coming from the United States of America. I’m very sorry about what happened to the village, to the goats…and to the danger of your children, your women and your men. I salute UWA for trying to help in a very difficult situation. On behalf of my wife and I, and my four and six year olds, I would like to offer a gift to compensate the people who had the goats so that they’re compensated fairly for each goat. And to help the men who carried the lion from one place to another. I’m sorry that this happened and I hope that in the future we can have less of this sort of conflict where the wildlife is coming to your village and threatening your children and I hope that we can be very smart and come up with ways…to protect you and also to protect Uganda’s beautiful treasures–the people and the wildlife.”

I touched my heart and said, “Thank you.”

The villagers clapped, tempers cooled, and some of the men shook my hand.

That night, Mustafa, Brian, and I brainstormed over dinner ways to protect people and wildlife. Does one build fences around the parks? Isolating the park animals, genetically speaking, may not bode well for their futures. Fences can be hugely expensive and require ongoing maintenance. Multiple beehives forming an inexpensive virtual fence may repell elephants–and create honey–but would the bees repell lions? Buffalo? Hippos? Does one build fences around livestock and crops instead? The situation was complex.

Dinner was over and we had more questions than answers. Why aren’t villagers compensated for loss from wildlife incursions? Why aren’t there more dart guns accessible to villages bordering the parks? What kind of fence or virtual fence makes sense?

The next morning, Mustafa drove me around, showed me his work, and we continued to brainstorm the park-people issue. The education and the adventure had just begun.

by Mark Laxer

Mountain Gorilla Killers convicted, fined $20 and $40

We have just received an official statement from UWA (the Uganda Wildlife Authority) that the three men charged with the killing of Mizaano, the only black-back in Habinyanja group (see our past news) have been fined $20 and $40. This blog is based on UWA’s official text.

UWA with the help of the Uganda Police sniffer dogs managed to track and arrest the suspected killers in Karambi Trading center, Kanungu District. In addition, machetes and spears soiled with blood (purported to be) Mizaano’s were discovered from the suspects’ homes. Subsequent examinations on Mizaano’s body revealed that the gorilla had been speared in the lungs, which eventually caused its death.

Everyone round the world waited to see a deserving punishment for the killers and the court process took its toll. To our dismay however, the presiding magistrate almost dismissed the case for lack of strongly incriminating evidence to specifically link the men to the death of the mountain gorilla. On the premise that there was never a DNA test carried out to link the blood on the spears and machetes to the dead mountain gorilla, the magistrate found no absolute evidence to link the death to the men. Besides neither was UWA invited to render the necropsy results in court nor were the doctors who carried out the post mortem invited to give their testimony. The magistrate also noted that neither of the accused was found at the scene of crime.

In fact, two of the men could only be found guilty of resisting arrest (each with a fine of Uganda shillings 50000 or $20), while the other could only be charged with possession of weapons presumed capable of harming wildlife and illegal park access with a fine of Uganda shillings 100,000 (about $40).

Highly endagered and rare - there are just slightly about 780 mountain gorillas remaining on earth (D. Sheil)Highly endangered and rare – there are about 780 mountain gorillas  on earth (D. Sheil)

How much do we really care about the mountain gorillas? Do we really care that there are just about 780 mountain gorillas remaining on earth?

In 2009,  gorilla tourism raised $225m, providing 37% of Uganda’s annual earnings from tourism, and more than half of the wildlife authority’s internally generated revenue. The same year, about 842,000 tourists visited Uganda, and a majority of them visited the gorillas. Gorilla tourism in Uganda alone employs about 5,000 people in tours and travel, while national tourism accounts for 17 percent of available job opportunities countrywide.

All told, we have a 12-year old mountain gorilla, a highly endangered rare species killed by humans in a protected area, leaving the Habinyanja group with 16 individuals and without any other black backs to lead them. In 2009, a mountain gorilla (while ranging outside the park) was accidentally killed by a woman who threw a stone at it in an attempt to chase the mountain gorilla back into the forest. And in the early 1990s, four mountain gorillas were killed at the hands of poachers on the Ruhija side of the park.

How frustrating to be on one side viewing the conservation of the mountain gorillas as a top priority and therefore throw in all you can to achieve your best, yet on the other side things just seem not to be happening at all.


Could poachers have hunted Bwindi’s Leopards to extinction?

Hunting poses a major threat to many large mammals.  It can also have a lasting impact. Just last month, a black-back mountain gorilla (in Bwindi) was brutally speared to death by suspected poachers for a reason that it had attacked their hunting dog. With only a few hundred animals it wouldn’t take much hunting to drive these gorillas to extinction — and they would be gone forever.  Even now in one of Africa’s best protected forests we see the shadow of hunting.  Some impacts though may be less obvious.

The solitary leopard is extremely difficult to spot in the wild. It is renowned for its sharp vision and keen sense of hearing, and for its ability to avoid detection. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the most prominent forests in Africa in terms of mammal diversity, supporting at least 120 known species. The park supports Elephants, Bush Pigs, Giant Forest Hog, Black-fronted Duiker, Yellow-backed Duiker, Clawless Otter, Side-stripped Jackal, Civet and numerous other species although it’s most prominent for the rare Mountain gorilla.

Although the park covers 321 km²  and a broad altitudinal range (1160 – 2600 m) several notable large mammal species are absent (buffalo and leopard) or only have a restricted range (elephant, giant forest hog and bushbuck). Recent photographs from our camera traps set in different zones of have only revealed the Golden cat to be the largest cat in the park.  So what about leopards?  Why don’t we have any?

The Golden Cat  (from our recent camera traps in Bwindi)

The Golden Cat (from our recent camera traps in Bwindi)

Northeast of Bwindi, just about 30 km away in Maramagambo forest (ranging between 900 – 1050 m ASL), the five species mentioned in the previous paragprahp are al still present — leopards included. Bwindi’s northern most forest part which is closest (30 km) to Maramagambo is at 1050 m ASL. These two forests therefore were probably once connected and it seems reasonable to suppose that leopards like the other four species in Maramagambo once occupied Bwindi.

A study by Pitman (1935) reported that leopards had been seen in Bwindi in 1933/1934. Another ecological survey of Bwindi (Thomas Butyski 1984) indicated that they had last been seen by local communities in the early 1950s ranging in the Northern sector of the park and that they had disappeared from the Southern sector in about 1972. This survey also indicated very low densities of leopard prey species such as duikers, bushbucks, wild pigs and giant forest hogs. This was largely due to heavy poaching of these species. These low prey densities may have indirectly exterminated the leopard though poaching could also have had a direct negative effect on leopards. (We acknowledge that some authorities, including Jonathon Kingdon, do not accept these past leopard records as well founded and do not believe there is any good evidence that these cats persisted/existed in Bwindi in recent decades or even centuries).

At the time of the 1972 survey  poaching was still common and widespread. About 45% of the people who entered the forest were conducting illegal acts there (mainly removal of wood, bamboo, livestock forage, minerals, honey and meat).

People should know that a leopard’s skin is more valuable on a living animal than it is on a wall. In their hunt for the beautiful skins, profit and food, poachers threaten more than the animals they are hunting for. They also threaten to destabilize entire ecosystems by removing a top predator which would have dramatic consequences for a host of species lower on the food chain. It is certainly because there are no leopards to keep populations of baboons in check, for instance, that we now have rampant crop raiding around some areas near Bwindi.