- Uganda is home to around half of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas; thanks to conservation efforts the global population is now slightly above 1,000 and the species has recently been re-graded by the IUCN as “endangered’ rather than “critically endangered.”
- Many indigenous groups in Uganda have traditional beliefs that encourage ape conservation. However, rapid population growth in the 20th century increasingly brought humans and gorillas into conflict.
- Today, conservation groups are working to harness traditional knowledge to protect apes, and to develop new techniques that allow humans and gorillas to peacefully coexist.
BWINDI IMPENETRABLE NATIONAL PARK, Uganda — On a misty morning, a small group of critically endangered mountain gorillas led by a silverback known as Makara walks majestically into our view. Makara strides on his hind legs and carries a handful of foliage. He looks confident, and the saddle-shaped patch of silver hair on his back stands out. He quickly puts down the foliage and gestures as if to tell his troop to move ahead.
Makara leads the Habinyanja gorilla family, one of 36 in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park; his is one of 18 that are fully habituated to the presence of humans. The park measures just 321 square kilometers (124 square miles), a quarter of the area of Rome, but packs in about 430 mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei), out of a global population of around 1,000 spread between Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Uganda alone holds 54 percent of the total population.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park straddles the three districts of Rubanda, Kisoro and Kanungu in Uganda’s southwest. For a long time, the gorillas and chimpanzees in the area co-existed in relative peace alongside with the original human inhabitants of this region. There was no farming, no large-scale cutting of trees, no burning of wood to make charcoal.
But this state wasn’t to last forever. The early 1900s ushered in an era of development for the region, bringing with it more people. Over time, the number of conflicts between the human population and the gorillas increased.
Challenges to gorilla-human co-existence
“Our forefathers never touched the forests,” says David Nsabimana, an elder in Kisoro district’s Rubuguri village. “They gathered, hunted small edible animals and birds, collected wild honey and left a low carbon footprint wherever they went.”
Nsabimana, 54 years old with salt-and-pepper hair, a square face and an inquisitive expression, is part of a team involved in rallying and educating the communities living near Bwindi about the importance of living in harmony with the mountain gorillas and other wildlife.
“The greatest challenge to gorilla-human co-existence in this region is the population explosion,” he says. “It comes with the need for more land for cultivation and grazing. This has led to the clearing of forests and encroaching on the habitats of our beloved animals [gorillas]. The cultivation exacerbates the problem since the animals love to come out and eat the crops.”
That’s a view shared by Bashir Hangi, communications manager for the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA): “Crop raiding by the gorillas is one of the biggest challenges because it affects the community livelihoods, and the population around the park think that the gorillas are favored against the local population by the government.”
Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka is a National Geographic explorer and founder and CEO of the grassroots NGO Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH). She is also a former veterinarian for the UWA, and sees a more insidious threat from the close proximity between human communities and wildlife. These communities, she says, are some of the poorest, most isolated and most densely populated in Uganda, with what she calls “poor health-seeking habits.”
They share some of the same water sources on the park’s periphery as the gorillas, which in turn also venture out of Bwindi into the communities’ farms in search of food. This frequent overlap, Kalema-Zikusoka says, means that the gorillas, which share up to 99 percent of human DNA, are increasingly becoming infected with parasites such as intestinal parasites and protozoans found in contaminated water sources and livestock and human feces.
They are also at risk of contracting diseases such as colds and other viral illnesses including Ebola and respiratory infections from humans.
Indigenous conservation tricks
The first inhabitants of the region where Bwindi is located practiced cultural traditions that promoted wildlife conservation, says the UWA’s Hangi.
Those still hold for many of those clans today, which regard some animals as totems that have spiritual significance. For example, the Bazigaaba clan are not supposed to kill or eat a bush buck, or even see its blood; they believe that doing so can bring calamity to the whole clan. They also consider the leopard their friendly animal. They believe they can stop one in its tracks by telling it that they belong to the leopard clan. For the Basigi clan, similarly, the duiker, a type of small antelope, is a totem animal.
The Batwa clan hold that any encounter with gorillas during a hunt is a bad omen. If they sight one, they stop the hunt, allowing the gorilla to escape unhurt.
The indigenous people around Bwindi also don’t eat primates, which they believe are related to humans. This is a strong bedrock for primate conservation in Uganda in general and Bwindi in particular. The UWA and local conservation activists have drawn on these traditions to enhance their outreach and conservation efforts.
Tourism revenue for conservation
A growing wildlife tourism industry is also playing a role in both conserving gorillas and enhancing gorilla-human co-existence.
Annual tourist numbers have soared from fewer than 650,000 in 2007 to more than 1.3 million in 2016 — a growth rate of 106 percent over a decade. That chimes with Uganda’s overall increase in tourism foreign-exchange receipts from $375 million to $1.37 billion during the same period.
Since 1995, $10 from each gorilla permit fee and 20 percent of each park entrance fee has gone to the five districts bordering the Bwindi and Mgahinga national parks: Kabale, Rubanda, Kisoro, Kanungu and Rukungiri.
These proceeds are used to fund various projects, most of them aimed at reducing gorilla-human conflict by improving the livelihoods of the local communities. In the past, this included the construction of schools, health centers and roads
The community projects being funded today by those same permits include the rearing of goats and pigs, tree planting, bee keeping, potato farming, and assisting community groups to construct commercial accommodation facilities for tourists, says Stephen Asiimwe, chief executive officer of the Uganda Tourism Board. “The objective is to show the local communities the benefits that will come with their active participation in the conservation efforts,” Asiimwe says.
Among those who say they have benefited is David Twine, a resident of Buhoma village in Kanungu district. “I got one goat which has given me four more goats, and now I can use proceeds from my goats to pay school fees for my children,” he says.
“I used to think that the gorillas are being favored by the government, but now I know that they are here to benefit all of us. I now educate my children about the importance of conserving our animals [gorillas],” he says.
Sustainable conflict resolution
The conflicts between humans and gorillas arise when the apes leave the forest to forage for crops, or when villagers enter the protected areas to gather water, firewood, and material with which to make handicrafts.
The first problem, an obvious source of distress to the farmers, turned out to have a simple solution. In the early 1990s, a team from the UWA happened to be present when a group of gorillas emerged from the forest to eat some crops. The community appeared to mobilize for a fight with the gorillas. But in the end, simply by following from a distance of 20 meters (66 feet) while blowing whistles and beating drums, the villagers were able to safely and effortlessly drive the gorillas back into the park. From there, the idea of Human Gorilla (HuGo) conflict resolution teams was born.
“Today, there are about 18 HuGo teams in areas surrounding the park,” says Kalema-Zikusoka from the CTPH. “These teams can mobilize themselves very quickly to send the gorillas back to the forest in a friendly manner whenever they come out to eat crops. We envision people, wildlife and livestock living together in balance, healthy and in harmony, with local communities acting as stewards of their environment.” To preserve this balance, HuGo members also work to educate local people about the importance of respecting and staying out of protected areas.
The HuGo teams are also trained by the UWA to collect droppings from gorillas, livestock and humans as samples for disease monitoring. Keeping tabs on the health of all three groups enhances conservation managers’ ability to quickly detect the warning signs for zoonotic disease outbreaks.
HuGo members also play a role in promoting the importance of constructing pit latrines and practicing family planning and birth control. This helps prevent a population explosion around the national park, says James Nsengiyunva, a HuGo member from Rubuguri.
Another solution to keep the gorillas from straying into human settlements came with the introduction in 2008 of tea to this region. Gorillas, it was discovered, would not visit any areas where tea was grown.
“This knowledge has been used to prevent gorillas from coming out of the park in areas where tea has been planted as a belt around the park, especially in Nteko and Rubuguri parishes in Kisoro district, which can be replicated in other areas surrounding Bwindi for sustainable conservation,” says the UWA’s Hangi.
Conservation activists firmly believe that measures like these will allow humans and gorillas to co-exist for centuries to come.
“If we succeed at educating and informing the communities around the park about the importance of gorilla conservation and harmonious co-existence, our beloved animals will be a source of great livelihood for future generations, and in due course we shall conserve them for posterity,” says Davis Munyaneeza, 50, a conservation activist from Buhoma village.
“It is something I have lived for and it’s something I intend to achieve, before I die.”
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