Tag Archives: tourism

HIGH POWERED DELEGATION FROM MINISTRY OF TOURISM VISITS ITFC

This is not an April fool’s day joke! The day was on the 3rd April 2014, a day that will always remain memorable for the Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation (ITFC). ITFC was honoured to host a high powered delegation from the ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities. The delegation was led by none other than the Minister of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities, Hon. Dr. Maria Mutagamba and comprised of the Permanent secretary, Ambassador Patrick Mugoya, Commissioner Mrs Grace Aulo Mbabazi, Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) board chairman,  Mr. Benjamin Otto and the Executive Director of UWA Dr Andrew Seguya. Other high ranking officials from the ministry of tourism also attended including all members of the UWA board and staff. The delegation was on a tour of the Bwindi Mgahinga conservation Area (BMCA) and was later scheduled to launch the BMCA management plan (2013-2023) that ITFC played a crucial role in formulating. The management plan is scheduled to be launched on the 4th of April 2014.

The ITFC director  explaining to the minister how ITFC works

The ITFC director explaining to the minister how ITFC works

The delegation was welcomed to ITFC by the director Dr Robert Bitariho and staff. The director then introduced ITFC staff to the delegation and gave the visitors a tour of ITFC offices and facilities.  In his address to the delegation, the director gave a brief background of how ITFC started as a project in 1987 researching on Mt Gorillas, the Impenetrable Forest Conservation Project (IFCP).  He mentioned that the IFCP project was led then by a researcher from the New York Zoological Society Dr Tom Butynsky. The project was later to be established as a research station of Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST) as ITFC with the help of Professor Fredrick Kayanja. The director stressed that because of research on the Mt gorillas, ITFC influenced together with Prof. Kayanja the creation of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in 1991. He mentioned some of ITFC donors as Uganda Government (through MUST), WWF, WCS, USAID and other partners. The director mentioned that ITFC works very closely with UWA in answering park management questions. The director talked about the accomplishments of ITFC since it was started and the challenges it faces. The main challenge mentioned was sustainable funding of ITFC activities.  He also talked about ongoing programmes and ITFC’s plans for the future.

 The Director addressing the delegation

The Director addressing the delegation

The delegation was impressed with the work ITFC carries out and was very enthusiastic with questions and suggestions for sustainable funding of research. To bluntly put it, the minister jokingly said that when she retires, she will have to come to ITFC for research since the facilities available were conducive for research and writing. She cracked the joke in good humour, and asked the director to let her come back for research in future. The Minister playfully stated that this would be on condition that she would be exempted from paying park entry fees. The director jokingly responded to her banter by asking her to be friendly with the Executive Director UWA if she wants free entry to the park. Dr Seguya shyly brushed off the joke.

Dr Andrew Seguya (UWA, ED) put the “icing on the cake” he commended ITFC’s work in research and training that facilitates UWA in managing Bwndi and Mgahinga National parks. He stressed that ITFC has been and continues to be an important partner with UWA more especially in Ecological and socio-economical research and monitoring.  Dr Seguya was enthusiastic for more and expansive work between UWA and ITFC in the future.

The minister signs the visitors’ book as the Executive Director of UWA look on.

The minister signs the visitors’ book as the Executive Director of UWA looks on.

The minister thanked ITFC staff for their commitment to conservation in the Albertine region and Uganda at large.  She also thanked MUST and other funding partners to ITFC for their support. The overall feeling of the delegation about ITFC was overwhelming, with praises of ITFC work and all of them promised to come back for a longer visit.  In the words of our beloved ITFC accountant, Mr Desi: “This visit strengthens ITFC’s partnership with government in conservation and sustainable development”.

The full list of delegatation is included here:

Name                                                                      Title

Hon Dr Maria Mutagamba                               Minister of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities

Ambassador Patrick Mugoya                           Permanent Secretary of Ministry of Tourism

Mr Benjamin Otto                                            Chairman board of Directors UWA

Dr Cladys Kalema Zikusoka                            UWA board Member

Mr Mani Khan                                                  UWA board Member

Captain John Emily Otekat                               UWA board member

Mrs Crace Aulo Mbabazi                                  UWA board member

Mr Boniface Byamukama                                 UWA board member

Dr Andrew Seguya                                            Executive Director UWA

Mr John Makombo                                            Director Conservation UWA

Mr Charles Tumwesigye                                   Deputy Director Conservation UWA

Mr Chemonges                                                  Director Legal UWA

Mr Edgar Buhunga                                            Director Planning and EIA UWA

Mr Pontius Ezuma                                             Conservation Area Manger BMCA

Mr Christopher Masaba                                     Senior Warden in Charge of Mgahinga

Emmanuel Akampurila and Robert Bitariho

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

Special visitors to ITFC: cyclists from Johannesburg!

Last weekend, two young South African guys arrived in Ruhija … on bicycles! Alex and Murray have cycled some 6000km now on a tour from Johannesburg to Nairobi that started in early February, an amazing feat! I took the photo below when they left Ruhija again, after two days of walking in the forest, birding along the road and having a good rest. They gave a talk at ITFC too, telling an astonished audience about their epic journey: slides of bicycles on a canoe crossing a small river, or being pushed on a very muddy track alternated those of people they met along the way. They were not just clocking up the kilometers: they hope to raise awareness (and funds!) for water needs along their route and visited many projects that bring water closer to communities. Sponsors pay them by the kilometer or when they reached the equator and already some 5000 U$ was raised.
 
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Alex and Murray, posing in their RFCG T-shirts and about to set off in the direction of Queen Elizabeth National Park
 
And what were some of the lessons they learned about water provision in Africa?
“Providing water for people’s livelihoods is only partly an issue of infrastructure and availability, and culture and education are at least as important factors to take into account for successful water projects”, says Murray. “In Zimbabwe we actually saw some of the most successful examples: systems set up and managed by government, with locally produced pumps and taps that can be repaired in-country, a good management structure. They both feel that here in the SW of Uganda, there is a lot of potential for intelligent capture of rain compared to the much drier areas they passed through.
 
Alex, who is keen on birdwatching, said it had been a childhood dream to come to Bwindi and the Albertine Rift at large, knowing how rich in bird and other species the area is. His contacts with people of the Rare Finch Conservation Group (RFCG, see blog on the search for Shelley’s Crimson Wing, that ITFC hosted last year) resulted in them supporting the cycle tour. The RFCG suggested the team would pay us a visit to see what ITFC is and meet with Benson -who had led the Crimsonwing search. That all worked out!
 
Having seen so many different places and landscapes along their route, I asked them what was special for them about coming to Bwindi and both of them said without hesitation that it was the first place on the tour where they had felt to be in ‘Disney land version of tropical Africa’. Cycling the 13 km through the park, from Ndego gate to Ruhija they already saw l’Hoest monkeys, a black fronted duiker, Great blue turacoes and even a jackal along the road!
 
We wish Alex and Murray good luck and safe travels on the remainder of their journey, which will come to an end in Nairobi, in August.
 
If you want to follow these guys, have a look at the blog/website that they update regularly www.amanziawethu.org.

 
Greetings, Miriam

Experiencing the Batwa trail in Mgahinga National Park

I am just back from a week in Kisoro, a town on the foot of the volcanoes that straddle the border between Uganda and Rwanda. This trip -with colleagues Medard Twinamatsiko and Fredrick Ssali- was a second one in the context of our new ‘Batwa Cultural Values project’ I wrote about in the last blog. ITFC is tasked to work with Batwa communities around Bwindi, Mgahinga and Semliki to understand their forest based culture better and to identify the most important cultural aspects for which access could be negotiated with UWA.

An important activity of this week was to study the 3D models of Bwindi and Mgahinga parks that groups of Batwa created and populated with a wealth of knowledge about the locations of resources and special, important sites to them (see earlier blog). We were particularly interested in finding the locations of sacred sites, hot springs and caves on the models and discussed the meaning of the different categories with people who had been involved in the mapping process. This will be of great help in planning ahead for field visits.

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F.l.t.r.: John, intern UOBDU, Fredrick, Charlotte, Winfred and Medard next to the 3D model of Mgahinga.

To experience a ‘culture based activity’ and hear from Batwa themselves about their lives in the forest, we signed up for the ‘Batwa trail’ which was developed by UWA, IGCP, UOBDU and USAID in the last few years. A UOBDU staff joint us. Let me share the wonderful experience we had in photographs:

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F.l.t.r.: Fredrick, Justus (intern UOBDU), Medard, Mutwa guide, Charlotte (UOBDU), Batwa guides Gad and Steven

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The guides dressed in (goat skin) hides and ranger Benjamin -translator for Rufumbira to Rukiga or English, talking to Fredrick.

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We were shown how a traditional Batwa home (‘Emiririmbo’) in the forest used to look like, inside and out. High up in the tree, children were kept safe from marauding buffaloes.

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Behind a Batwa home, there is always a shrine (Ndaro), where a morning prayer is made to bless the hunting and gathering of the day

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The walk on the lower slopes of the vulcanoes is a treat in itself and gave us a lot of time to talk with the guides

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The famous fire making with sticks that the Batwa are capable of

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With the smoke bees are chased from their hide-out and the honey combs are then collected.

In the Garama cave, the very important former meeting place of the Batwa, we were treated to a welcome dance.

…and there was more in store at the end of the trail!

We highly recommend any visitors to SW Uganda to come and see the forest through the eyes of the Batwa and not only come for gorilla tracking! The website of the Batwa trail describes how to organise this.

Miriam

Tracking Mountain gorillas with Jonathan Kingdon and Laura Snook

We joined our friends Jonathan Kingdon and Laura Snook – see previous blog for background – for gorilla tracking to the Bitukura group just recently. It was only the four of us and Stephen from UWA as our guide. The morning was sunny and we did not need to walk far from the Ruhija ranger post. A radio call from the trackers told us that the gorillas were close, but… there were also elephants in the same area. Apparently the gorillas were avoiding them. We had to be careful too as meeting elephants in dense forest is not advised. We had to skirt around the valley and wait.

Before setting off: Raymond Kato (Warden Research), Jonathan Kingdon, Miriam, Laura Snook and Stephen

Finally we got an “all clear” and we moved to the gorilla group. They had been only a couple of hundred meters away. They didn’t react to our arrival other than to glance briefly at us. They were peacefully chewing on dead wood and the usual shoots and leaves. There was no sign of the elephants.

Over the next hour we had a close view of most of the 14 Bitukura gorillas. Sometimes a good look meant hanging precariously on the thick vegetation that covers these steep slopes.

‘Silverback’ watching a Blackback!

Jonathan closely observed every move of the gorillas in view. He recalled that “In those days (the 1960s), when I was surveying and collecting here and in Mgahinga, gorillas had not yet been habituated and you would at most see a glimpse of a large black animal at a distance, hear grunts and chest beats but never had a chance to observe their behaviour close up for more than a moment”. This was a special experience even for a very experienced naturalist!

Happy gorilla trackers and rangers, on their return from Bitukura

Big smiles… after being presented with certificates

There had been a time, two decades ago, when the habituation of gorillas had been controversial. Habituation and daily visits would cause stress, make the animals vulnerable to poachers, and bring them into regular contact with human disease. But habituation also allows the gorillas to be seen and to provide a foundation for a major tourist industry. We asked Jonathan what he thought. He was impressed:

“I would not want to say that every gorilla group should be habituated, and be turned into a commercial commodity, but I am fully in favour of very tightly regulated tourism which allows people to have this experience. And I am very impressed by what I saw: it was strictly limited to one hour which I think is essential to maintain an acceptable level of stress of the gorillas. Careful judgement is essential. If, for any reason, a particular group appears harassed by the attention, then I think it should stop for a while while people try and understand what is happening, which individuals are being stressed and why. I think it is a question of endless learning, I do not think you will ever have answers to these things in a definitive way. It has got to remain flexible and judged against the ultimate objective — ensuring the welling of the gorillas.”

UWA’s guest-book now has the following entry from Jonathan: “The new skills with habituating gorillas are wonderful to experience. Stephen and his gang have transformed the experience. A far cry from my many trips in the 1960s”

Come and see the gorillas for yourself! According to Jonathan and Laura, this is an experience no-one should miss. It something everyone should do at least once in their lives.

As Jonathan said: “We people do not have a future if we do not respect gorillas and nature in general. And I think the required awareness is greatly enhanced by watching gorillas. I would press anybody from anywhere to make this a pilgrimage. Make a point in your life time to go and see gorillas.”

Miriam and Douglas

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?

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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

My enriching experience at Ruhija ITFC station

We received the below contribution from Frank Akampa, a Ugandan student, who just completed his MSc at a German University (congratulations!) and had come to ITFC some months ago during his fieldwork. Thanks for your appreciation, Frank!

“After finishing data collection in Nkuringo and Buhoma, I was now headed for Ruhija. On 3 August 2009 I boarded a motorcycle taxi (locally known as Boda-boda) to Ruhija, making sure that the boda man knew Ruhija since I had not been there before. And after a two-hour ride from Buhoma, there I was at ITFC around 4 pm.

Hey! You know what? When I reached there I asked for Miriam because she is the one I had been in touch with. Clemensia led me to Miriam’s office and there she was busy in the office but that could not stop her from attending to me. Thanks for the nice library, accommodation and meals. Your accommodation was another thrilling experience!

Immediately that evening of my arrival I started my literature search, since I knew my time at ITFC was only short. Thanks to all staff of ITFC; the researchers, the volunteers and interns (to Emilly, Emmanuel, Badru, Leah, Aventino etc). I really enjoyed staying with you however short my stay was. Emilly thanks for the guided walk around Ruhija to the campsites, I was really happy with that.

The following morning I was in the library again and this became my routine for the three full days I stayed at ITFC. The library was resourceful. I encourage all those doing research on ecotourism and conservation related issues not to miss this chance. My research was about “the impact of community participation in ecotourism towards income generation – a focus on BINP and the surrounding communities of Mukono, Ruhija, Nteko and Kyeshero Parishes”.

Miriam and Douglas thanks for taking time to guide me through and providing important ideas towards my research. My short discussion with you at ITFC was really enriching for my write-up. I also held discussions with some Ruhija community members regarding their expectations from tourism and also interviewed some campsite staff. Ruhija has a potential for ecotourism development now that gorilla trekking has started from its ranger post. Local communities may benefit from it, but appropriate planning is needed to ensure orderly and environmentally friendly developments, an attractive and appealing environment for a visitor to feel it worthwhile to stay some days longer and recommend others to visit. Harmonizing development and conservation is a challenge (Look at this picture).

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The famous hard border between Bwindi forest and the cultivated community land

During my study, I realized not only that local people’s involvement in ecotourism is helpful in changing their attitudes towards conservation but also that they can gain skills, and economic empowerment vital in ensuring sustainable development. It is clear that unless people living around these important conservation areas are empowered economically and socially, the future of these places is threatened. Succeeding in this endeavor is indeed a challenge but then should we give up? Not at all! Let’s embrace the value of commitment, hard work and dedication.

Frank Akampa

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An airplane full of Mountain Gorillas…

The second workshop I attended was called “Assessing prospects for growth of Bwindi’s Mountain Gorilla Population” and was organised by the Max Planck Institute (MPI), Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and the International Gorilla Conservation Program (IGCP). The workshop organisers had invited stakeholders from Uganda, Rwanda and Congo to share information of what is known about gorillas after years of monitoring, and set us the task to evaluate the effect of management on the gorilla population, formulate priorities and recommendations for management as well as for further research. The spirit was one of good will and determination to come up with strong and concrete recommendations for management.

Martha Robbins, MPI researcher who monitored the Kyagurilo research group with ITFC since 1998, set the tone for the workshop by reminding us that “all Bwindi’s gorillas could easily fit in one jumbo jet; that’s how few of them there are”. Given that, on average, more tourists visit gorillas per week than there are gorillas in Bwindi, the risk of disease transfer was highlighted.

We heard results from MPI’s decade long monitoring of the Kyagurilo gorillas (and from the recently habituated Bitukura tourism group), an overview of illegal activities like poaching, unauthorised collection of forest products, encroachment and pitsawing as well as of tourist numbers by UWA, a decade of veterinary cases and interventions from the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP), a study of experiments with different problem animal control measures, and experiences from the Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) project.

The Uganda Wildlife Authority presented their plans for habituation of two more gorilla groups in Bwindi and said they wanted ‘hard facts’ to defend a maximum habituation percentage (currently 40% of Bwindi’s gorillas are used to being followed). Due to the large profits that they yield, UWA is contstantly pressured by politicians and tourism agents to increase the number of groups for tourism and is being asked why Uganda cannot have the same percentage of habituated animals as Rwanda (high: 80%).

We discussed how habituation is a ‘two-edged sword’: on the positive side, only habituated animals are near continuously monitored and can be approached for treatment in case they are wounded or sick, while on the negative side the closer the animals allow humans to come, the higher the risk of disease transmission. All of us – researchers, veterinarians or tourists – should be aware of these risks and try to minimise it by following specific rules. For example, it was advised that wearing masks in the vicinity of gorillas becomes the norm and that existing rules should be enforced.

Interestingly, we learned that the habituated gorilla population shows a slightly faster growth rate than the overall population. However, a possible explanation of this may be in the selection of groups for habituation; multi male (more stable), larger groups are prefered, which are likely to produce more offspring than average.  In any cases the animal numbers are too small for definitive conclusions.

In Parque National de Virungas, wearing masks is already the norm for tourists and staff … (Thanks to ICCN for the photo)

Questions addressed by 4 workgroups were:

  • How many gorillas can Bwindi harbour (carrying capacity)? Is expansion or improvement of their habitat possible or even desirable?
  • How can conflicts between wildlife and humans be reduced?
  • How can we minimise the risk of disease transfer to Mountain Gorillas?
  • What percentage of the gorilla population should be allowed to be habituated?

Each of these groups will produce a summary of their deliberations and recommendations, to share with all.

I was interested to hear more about the successful and much appreciated ‘One Health’ approach introduced by MGVP in Rwanda. It involves monitoring the health of local staff especially those who spend time with the gorillas. The program includes attention to staff families and various aspects of hygiene; it would be great to have a program like that at Bwindi and CTPH has started around Buhoma, with their Population, Health and Environment approach.

Miriam

Concerted efforts to keep our closest relatives healthy

I am just returned from two back-to-back meetings; one international workshop about Great Ape Health issues in Entebbe, and one closer to home, in Kabale, about the viability of Bwindi’s Mountain Gorilla population. It has left me with a better idea of just how much effort is being done by national and international organisations to save these close relatives of ours, but also how much more needs to be done.

It is only in the last two decades or so that we recognised that transfer of human diseases to Great Apes threatens their survival. For a long time, our knowledge was based on studies of captive animals, because it was so hard to study them in the wild. But as more primates have been habituated, for research and tourism purposes, more data about wild populations has been gathered (from observations of clinical symptoms, opportunistic post mortems, and… kgs of poo!). Participants of the Entebbe workshop, some 80 experts in veterinary/health/tourism, presented research results and disease outbreak cases among Great Apes from all over Africa. Chimpanzees, our closest relatives, are particularly susceptible for human diseases. But also the Mountain Gorillas in the Virungas have been hard hit by outbreaks, particularly of respiratory dieases (4 deaths were reported in the last 2 years and recently (July 2009) 70% of one group was infected and seriously ill). So far, Bwindi’s gorillas have been largely spared though there was a scabies outbreak in 2001, effecting 17 gorillas of the Nkuringo group of 23, on the south side of the park.

Note the snotty nose? Also Mountain Gorillas catch colds (photo by MGVP).

Working groups formulated recommendations on what must still be researched to better understand pathways of transmission , how to monitor the apes’ health more closely and compare sites and what can and must be done more to reduce disease transfer and outbreaks. This includes improved rules (and enforcement!) for researchers, their assistants, tourists, guides and rangers. It was hotly debated whether to vaccinate apes against common human diseases.

We saw many slides of… poo, often the only way to get information on the health of wild apes

There are many potential pathways of disease trasnmission. These may involve rodents, baboons, birds or even insects, and obviously such transfers are often difficult to prevent. Increased understanding of disease transmission will make us better prepared, though. I was glad to report that ITFC has secured some funding for Ugandan Masters’ students to look into rodents and baboons as potential vectors and I met several people in the workshop who are interested to help us to design such studies and help supervise them.

The workshop was organised by a range of primate research and conservation organisations (including Budongo Conservation Field Station, Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund Int’l, Max Planck Institute, Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, Lincoln Park Zoo, Orangutan Conservation Project, Robert Koch Institute and Wildlife Conservation Society) and facilitated by the ARCUS foundation . I’ll discuss the second worksop in my next blog.

Miriam

An innovative tourist lodge: reconciling conservation and people?

Hi, we are just back from a reconnaissance to the southern side of the National Park. We first visited Rushaga outpost, where a new family of mountain gorillas (called the ‘Shongo’ group) has been habituated and will soon be open for trekking. Tibenda, one of our field assistants who has worked for many years with mountain gorillas, is based here for 3 months; he is training park rangers in identifying individual gorillas of the Shongo family and proudly told us that they have named 27 of the 34 gorillas already (yes, Shongo is a very large group). Rushaga’s parks edge location, is very scenic, with dense dark forest covering the steep slopes and apparently several waterfalls and a hot spring to be visited.

New briefing banda for mountain gorilla tracking, Rushaga, Bwindi

New tourist developments at Rushaga, with Bwindi in the background

We then continued with the rough but awe inspiringly beautiful drive westward to Nkuringo, a village that has been offering mountain gorilla trekking for a few years already. Just around sunset we arrived at the campsite where we would spend the night. But we had actually been travelling with a Nkuringo resident, former ITFC field assistant and now chairman of the Nkuringo Community Development Foundation (NCDF) – himself an example of ITFC capacity building. He insisted on taking us to ‘their lodge’, and introducing us to the manager. Despite being tired from the journey, we were curious and went along, as we had heard of this unusual initiative; a local community organization owning an upmarket eco-lodge managed as a limited-term concession by a private company, but from which considerable revenue is derived for community activities.

Nothing had prepared us for the stunning 5-star lodge, with what must be one of the best views on this planet. Strategically located at 2100 meter altitude, all the Virunga Volcanoes in Uganda, Rwanda and Congo were in view from the main lounge as well as from the dining area and guest rooms (the active Nyaragongo volcano was even casting a red glow against the clouds at night).

Volcano tops from left to right: Muhavura, Mugahinga, Sabinyo, Visoke, Karisimbe and Nyaragongo

The ‘Clouds Lodge’ was built and is run by Wild Places Africa. Most of its staff are local residents and are being trained by the manager,Gary Segal, to give high standard personal service to tourists who pay for the privilege. A training and capacity development plan is in place to ensure that after 15 years, the company can withdraw and hand-over all management to the community.

The lodge only started operating 7 months ago, but has already earned the NCDF thousands of dollars. The NCDF receives 30 U$ per night for each guest. Members vote to decide which community projects will be supported by this income. There is quite some spin-off from this enterprise as well, through locally bought produce and increased employment. Generous guests have also donated additional funds for school fees or for supporting other specific projects.

Basket weavers in front of the NCDF office, learning how to improve the quality of their crafts

Initial developments and agreements were facilitated and sponsored by the African Wildlife Foundation AWF the International Gorilla Conservation Program IGCP while USAID helped finance it through its ‘Wild West’ program. Bwindi’s park management (UWA) supports the initiative by reserving 6 of the 8 gorilla permits for NCDF bookings. They all work from the conviction that the people who live closest to the park boundary deserve extra support, as they were paying the price of crop raiding by wild animals from the forest, including gorillas (see Douglas’s blog of 22 May for more on this).

A sign at the entrance road of Clouds lodge acknowledges all contributors to the enterprise

Many approaches to improving livelihoods have been tried in the region. This links to conservation because it is hoped that this will reduce conflict between people and the park. The challenge remains to find sustainable solutions, or those which at least last longer than a limited term project. In Gary’s eyes, the key concepts to ensure that the lodge and other income generating activities can be taken over by local people in due time are education and capacity building. But this takes time and requires patience from all involved.

We at ITFC face a similar challenge: how to ensure sustainable capacity and support for conservation? Local capacity building, through post graduate student training and collaboration with the park authorities are our answers, but long term activities remain hard to fund.

Greetings from Miriam