By Morris Mumbere, The Daily Monitor
Mr Emmanuel Basaza is the Director of Rwenzori founders limited, a tour company in Kasese district, Western Uganda. He says he has spent most of his life in the tourism industry and observes that in the last couple of years, the increase in elephant population at Queen Elizabeth National park has boosted the tourism sector.
“Several tourists who visit Kasese mainly love to see elephants. The number of tourists had decreased in 2020 due to the Covid-19 outbreak but the business is picking up, including from local tourists,” he says.
Basaza adds that most tourists love sculptures of elephants and the demand is always higher compared to other elements in their sculpture display centres within Kasese district.
Mr Thembo James, the Station Manager at Kasese town based UBC Ngeya –explains: “Several learners would spend a lot of money paying guides but due to the increase of elephants and those that stray into human settlements , the masses are now advantaged to freely view them without any cost being spent while moving into national parks.’’
Elephants are a component of the original ‘Big Five’ games that attract tourists from around the world. In September 2020, six stray elephants invaded Kasese town from the nearby Queen Elizabeth National Park throwing residents into panic but Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) staff drove them back to the park.
Thembo adds that the elephants are key species which most tourists get attracted and this has forced most hotels and tour sites to use large sculptures on several doors and gates aimed at attracting elephant loving tourists.
“In these lodges, guests enjoy the sounds of wild animals especially at night, the sounds include those of hyenas, leopards, owls, elephants, hippos and lions,” he adds.
Mr Walhuba Kule, the team leader Kiwa heritage springs in Kasese says that they currently depend on local tourists from Mbarara, Kabarole, Bushenyi and some foreigners who were caught up in the district at the time of the Covid-19 outbreak.
Walhuba explains that most foreigners who come from America and Israel always task them to take them to places where elephants can easily be accessed.
Why elephant numbers have risen
Mr Ezuma Pontious, the Chief Warden of Queen Elizabeth national park says that the elephant population is currently high based on the 2018 wildlife census where UWA registered 3,953 elephants in Queen Elizabeth national park up from 2,913 elephants in 2015.
Ezuma explains that the rise in elephant numbers has been occasioned by human settlements that have blocked the old elephant corridors used by the giant animals to migrate to other areas in the same ecosystem.
He says these corridors where they used to move easily from Queen Elizabeth to Virunga national park in DR Congo and to Mount Rwenzori and Kibale national parks and come back freely through the same corridors have been gradually blocked by human settlements.
“Of recent years the human population has increased and constructed in the corridors which has blocked the free movements of wildlife and this has caused the elephants to stray into people’s gardens enhancing conflicts within the community but on the other hand it has boosted tourism and Queen Elizabeth is one of the top tourist’s destinations in Uganda.”
Ezuma says such settlements in the elephant corridors include sub counties of Isango, Nyakiyumbu, Mukunyu, lake Katwe, Karusandara and Nyamwamba division in Kasese district.
“The destruction of animal habitats due to human activities compels the wild animals to enter human settlements in search of food and water leading to conflicts,” Ezuma observes.
However, to reduce on the human-wildlife conflicts, Ezuma says UWA has set up an electric fence in some parts of the park and also trained the communities at the periphery of the park to rear apiary that stays some problematic animals from straying into people’s gardens.
“Human population growth and periodic insurgencies have gradually curtailed the movement of elephants and other species, with villages and communities developing close to National Parks and migratory corridors. This has led to isolated elephant populations in the parks. As elephants struggle to meet their dietary needs in this restricted environment, instances of crop-raiding are on the increase” Mr Nicholas Muhesi, the project officer at Uganda Wildlife Research and Training Institute says.
He says at the local level, the greatest threat to elephants is habitat loss which is driven by Uganda’s rapid human population growth and demand for agricultural land.
Muhesi argues that the elephant remains one of the most treasured animals in the national park and thus the need for all people in Kasese to jealously protect it.
Other factors for the growing numbers
The National Geographic maintains that despite a widespread decline of elephants across Africa in recent years, Uganda has reported a rise in the latter’s population.
“Elephants in Uganda have increased by 600 percent, to more than 5,000 individuals, from a low of 700 to 800 in the 1980s” reports a combined May 2015 survey by the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Great Elephant Census and the Uganda Wildlife Authority.
The report says that the elephants were once plentiful across Uganda but rampant poaching has fuelled their decline. The Wildlife Conservation Society cited better protection across Uganda’s ten national parks as a major factor in their recovery.
Elephants face a grave threat of poaching pressure, particularly in Queen Elizabeth National Park the report noted.
Why do they migrate?
According to Mr Nicholas Muhesi, the project officer at Uganda Wildlife Research and Training Institute, in the early 1960s, most of north and western Uganda was wild and sparsely populated. Elephants used to migrate between parks and forest reserves with little hindrance.
Wild animals share the same ecosystem across geographic borders and can shift from habitat to habitat and take refuge in a safer place according to the threat or challenge they face at the time in their current habitat, reasons Mr Nelson Guma, the Chief Warden of Bwindi/Mugahinga Conservation Area.
The threats or challenges range from poaching as some animals are hunted for food or treasure, climate change, to insecurity in a particular country like wars among others. For example, during Idi Amin’s regime and during the ADF war in Western Uganda, the population of elephants in Queen Elizabeth National park is said to have reduced after hundreds of them migrated to DR Congo for safety.
Mr Nelson Guma observes that “Elephants mainly in Ishasha side, part of Queen Elizabeth National park, usually, cross to DR Congo and back, the same as Bongo, an antelope in Semuliki national park usually crosses to Virunga national park and back because it is the same ecosystem”
He adds, “these animals are like humans, they also seek refuge where they find contort and where conditions are very conducive for them, so trans-boundaries always happen”
Where to find the elephants easily
According to Mr Godfrey Twimukye, a Tour Guide at Mweya Safari Lodge in Kasese, ‘’Elephants can easily be found by way of a game ride with vehicles that use the road network inside the park, but the most effective way is by boat ride at 3 pm which is charged Shs30,000 per head for local tourists. He says the boat rides are scheduled for 11am, 1pm, 3pm, and 5pm advising that booking be conducted at least 5 hours prior.
With the boat ride, it is very easy to see the elephants along Kazinga channel especially in the afternoon on a hot day as they come to quench themselves. The boat brings you closer to them than on land,” he notes.
Efforts to safeguard elephants
Mr Keren Muhindo, a staff with Uganda Wildlife Research and Training Institute observes that since the tourists fell in love with elephants, the institute has received funding from the United Nations Environmental Program through the African Elephant Initiative which will train communities along national parks on how to effectively reap from apiary while at the same time mitigating human-elephant conflicts.
Muhindo says, “In 2012 alone, 35,000 elephants were butchered for their tusks in Africa: that is 96 elephants each day. Because of weak law enforcement, Uganda is a major transit route of illegal ivory from other African countries. To combat this threat, Wildlife Conservation is working with the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and other partners to develop and implement a strategy to curb the ivory trade and trafficking in Uganda to make Queen Elizabeth a better safe home for elephants.
Kasese district is one of the top destinations in Uganda’s tourism as visitors come to tour the three national parks (that are the richest in biodiversity in the country), hot springs, snowcapped Rwenzori Mountain, fresh and salty lakes, and several rivers.
According to the Kasese district portal, tourism is a significant economic activity within the District given its natural resource endowment including mountains and national parks. It has given employment to a number of people who act as tourist guides as well as working in hotels like Mweya Safari Lodge, Margherita Hotel etc.
Tourism plays a big role in national development and in this regard, UWA has been contributing to the District development in form of revenue sharing (20 percent) an arrangement that covers primary school block construction, health units and community halls in various areas of the District.
Kasese district enjoys more benefits of the tourism industry than other districts that surround Queen Elizabeth national park as per the revenue sharing records at UWA. The districts that border the park include Kasese, Rubirizi, Kamwenge, Rukungiri, Mitooma, Kanungu, and Ibanda.
UWA in 2017 gave over Shs 936 million that was shared among the seven districts and 81 parishes that share Queen Elizabeth Protected Area (QEPA). The money is part of the mandatory 20 percent of the revenue collected from tourists on the gates of the park.
The gate collection at QEPA rose from over Shs513 million in 2016 to Shs936 million in 2017 as a result of increased tourists visiting the park, according to Ms Olivia Biira, the Community Conservation Warden then.
Kasese then got the biggest share of Shs362 million of the funds because it covers the biggest part of the park, followed by Rubirizi Shs155 million, Kamwenge Shs128 million, Rukungiri Shs90 million, Mitooma Shs 89 million, Kanungu Shs81 million and Ibanda Shs21 million. Kasese also shares on part of Rwenzori Mountains National park.
National Parks that border with Kasese District include: Queen Elizabeth, Mount Rwenzori and Kibale. Wildlife sanctuaries include: Katwe, Kasenyi, Hamukungu while bird’s sanctuaries are located on the Kazinga channel with over 6,000 species.
According to the Kasese district portal, there has been tremendous increase in the total number of tourists visiting various wildlife conservation centers in Kasese District from 9,238 (2000) to 47,085 (2005).
Boost to national economy
According to the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities, currently, Tourism is the leading foreign exchange earner for Uganda generating US$1.453 bn and contributing Shs6.8 trillion to Uganda’s GDP (7.3% of GDP) in 2017, followed by remittances from Ugandans working abroad to a tune of about $1.2b (about sh4.5trillion) in 2017. The sector was responsible for 6.3% of total employment (605,500 jobs), while tourist arrivals grew from 539,000 in 2006 to 1.4 million in 2017.
Uganda has at least 10 National Parks, 12 Wildlife Reserves, 10 Wildlife Sanctuaries, 5 Community Wildlife Management Areas and 506 Central Forest Reserves each with unique endowments.
Uganda’s tourist arrivals increased from 1.197 million in 2012 to 1.32 million people in 2016 then to 1.4 million people in 2017. This is still very low compared to 4 million arrivals that were targeted for by 2020 before Covid-19 struck. Tourism is a fragile sector- sensitive to safety, disease outbreaks, and security among others.
Government has planned to upgrade upcountry aerodromes/airfields including Kisoro, Kidepo, Pakuba, Mbarara, Arua, Gulu, Kasese and Jinja to create an opportunity for new arrival points for tourists and bring them closer to the principal tourist attraction sites. The sector also plans to establish Cable Car System and Ancillary Facilities in the Rwenzori Mountains National Park so that tourists can easily and safely view wild animals and reach sites.
Based on 2013 estimates, there are about half a million elephants left in Africa, where over 60 percent of the populations reside in Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Tanzania. (UNODC World Wildlife Crime Report, 2016). Uganda has both Savanah and forest elephants which just differ in height and body mass.