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Decades of poaching and regional conflict in and around Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park has decimated one of Africa’s most prolific wildlife hotspots. Some species, such as the northern white rhino, were driven to extinction, elephant numbers crashed from 14,000 to less than 800.

The instability and insecurity not only had a devastating impact on wildlife, the communities living around the parks were severely affected too. Development and investment in the region all but stopped, and tourism income, vital to the continued survival of the parks and communities, dried up. Currently, only 5 percent of the park is visited by tourists.

But all that has changed. The Ugandan Wildlife Authority (UWA) together with a handful of small NGOs such as the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation (DSWF), an organisation that has been supporting projects in Uganda for 20 years, and the Uganda Conservation Foundation (UCF) have embarked on an ambitious recovery plan that aims to restore the park and surrounding areas to its former glory, once the most visited park in Africa.

The placid Nile at dawn, home to hundreds of hippos, crocodiles and waterbirds. (credit David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation)

Reclaiming the Park from Poachers

The national park, named by Sir Samuel and Florence Baker, is named after the then President of the Royal Geographical Society in London. The falls forces the mighty River Nile that bisects Murchison Falls National Park through a 7-meter wide gap, bouncing off igneous rocks down 43 meters before continuing on its journey north. Some 300 cubic meters of water per second crashes through the gap.

The 1,500=square-mile park is the largest in Uganda and, even though poaching took a heavy toll, it is still home to lions, leopards, hundreds of species of birds including the rare shoe-billed stork, over three quarters of the endangered Rothschild’s giraffe, the second-largest population of elephants in the country, as well as a number of other herbivores including Jackson’s hartebeest, buffalo, oribi, waterbuck, Uganda kob antelope and reedbuck.

The first phase of the recovery plan was to reclaim the national park from poachers. From 2013, five new ranger posts were constructed. These were placed strategically along the banks of the river including the delta area at Lake Albert. The network of waterways around the delta were being used by poachers to access the park with canoes and boats to place scores of traps and snares.

This year, a further three new ranger posts were completed, but this time in the extensive and previously inaccessible southern and northern reaches of the national park. The first, at Got Lavor, which means ‘Land of the Lion’, and the second called Bulayaare, are both in the remote southern sector. The area was previously out of reach for rangers, but not poachers who set up several secluded camps in the vast wilderness. Now, a new access road and bridge links to an eight-man regional command centre, with radio communications and a repeater station. The third ranger station, at Kololo, is in the far north and commands an impressive view over the northern boundary of the park.

With additional investment in ranger training, equipment, legal department, a veterinary unit and armoury and a mobile ranger unit, the results have been immediate, if not astounding. Before, rangers would recover hundreds of traps and snares, now they are discovering just a few here and there. A separate project boosting ranger intelligence and evidence-gathering has resulted in a staggering 97-percent conviction rate in prosecutions. Thanks to the dramatic increase in UWA’s ability to protect the park, herbivore numbers have doubled, and all other wildlife numbers have also increased. As a result tourism has also been growing at 15 percent per year and, with it the 20 percent revenue-sharing from tourism that UWA provides local community projects.

Hundreds of poacher’s traps confiscated by Ugandan Wildlife Authority. (credit David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation)
A Ugandan park ranger carefully studies the footprints of a possible poacher. (credit David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation)

“We are now able to control poaching in over 70 percent of Murchison Falls,” says Charles Tumwesigye, UWA’s Deputy Director Field Operations. “Seeing the numbers of animals increasing is hugely rewarding and we are so pleased to now have developed some funds that we can guarantee to share with the communities, our partners in conservation.”

But that’s not all…

Investing in Local Communities

In 2016, the Dulverton Trust, a UK-based independent grant-making charity teamed up with UWA and the NGOs to boost funding and drive investment, not only into all aspects of park life, but also the impoverished rural communities that depend on the national park for their livelihoods. A series of community projects, sustainable livelihood schemes and education programs were initiated with the primary aim to secure a 30,000-hectare conservancy to the north of the national park. The area is an important wildlife corridor between Murchison Falls and East-Madi Wildlife Reserve further north, but here, as elsewhere, poaching is rampant.

Uganda has one of the fastest growing human populations in the world. More than 48 percent of its people are under the age of 15 and 30 percent live below the poverty line. The rural communities that live in between these two reserves struggle to find sustainable livelihoods, and decades of civil war and competing interests mean traditional methods of land-use have become untenable. Snaring and trapping wildlife for food is often their only means of survival.

To address these issues, UWA and the NGOs have launched an innovative conservancy initiative — the first of its kind in Uganda. The concept aims to bring together communities, government and businesses to create a Land Management Plan which allows communities to derive maximum benefit from land-use through the development of tourism and conservancy revenue-generating schemes, while at the same time ensuring that wildlife and natural resources are adequately protected and managed. Michael Keigwin, the Founding Trustee of UCF with a close and intimate knowledge of Uganda, having spent nine years living among its people, is currently identifying and meeting stakeholders and tribal leaders to get a series of projects off the ground.

One of the projects includes a grant to the Community College at Pakwach, a town on the edge of the national park and the commercial hub for the local communities. Apart from repairing the building and restoring the water supply, the project aims to establish new courses like car mechanics, carpentry, thatching, farming and tourism — all aimed at boosting local education and livelihoods.

“There is no greater pleasure than seeing a successful park, a developing and happy community and a positive partnership,” says Keigwin, who is about to be awarded an MBE for his tireless endeavours in Uganda. “Success stories in Africa are rare, let alone in conservation. Now finally we have one in the making!”

Other funding has been set aside for the creation of a community centre, a conservancy office and another possible ranger post. The location of these will be determined after the land management and tenure formalities have been finalised with the local heads of the communities. There will also be considerable investment into livestock co-operatives which are seen as the key revenue-generators in this area, as well as reproductive health schemes.

“This new and innovative approach to conservation and planning is well underway and the region is now open for business,” says Sally Case, Trusts and Foundations Manager at DSWF. “Murchison Falls National Park is now on the brink of re-establishing itself as a vibrant wildlife region ready for investment and tourism.”