How conservationists are striving to protect the wildlife of Uganda’s national parks

A gorilla trek in Buhoma, home to Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka’s research lab. | Photograph by Sarah Marshall

By Sarah Marshall

Photographs By Sarah Marshall

Published 17 Aug 2021, 08:00 BST, Updated 17 Aug 2021, 10:43 BST

 

Waves swell with the force of five oceans as water charges and tumbles over rocks. Foaming with fury and roaring with rage, jets explode from every crack and crevice, clouding the area in white smoke.

Spilling over an escarpment at the northernmost tip of Africa’s Western Rift Valley, Uganda’s Murchison Falls has forever been in a state of turbulence. This mighty bottleneck in the Nile has swallowed bridges, thrown light aircraft off course and narrowly escaped a hydro dam development.

A boiling pot of controversy, where disagreements continuously bubble away, today her mood is darker than the depths of hell. Skittish butterflies skirt over the surf and rainbows fail to reconcile their arcs as the cataract consumes everything in its path.

Heavy rains have caused water levels to surge but her anger could be down to other reasons, suggests my guide, George, as we hike from the car to a nearby viewpoint.

Termite mounds sparkle with flecks of mica and the quartzite rocks shimmer like jewels. But other riches are currently determining the future of Uganda’s oldest conservation area and biggest national park, which sprawls across a section of land larger than Cornwall in the country’s north west.

“Oil is like a curse,” complains George as we reach the top. “Countries with it never do well.”

 

A gorilla trek with Nkuringo Walking Safaris, on the southwestern side of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, traverses ...
A gorilla trek with Nkuringo Walking Safaris, on the southwestern side of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, traverses local plantations. | Photograph by Sarah Marshall

 

A decision to drill for black gold in Murchison Falls and build a pipeline to Tanzania has been met with mixed responses in Uganda, a nation wealthy in natural assets but economically poor. While French oil company TotalEnergies has promised to minimise its footprint, lodge owners, guides and environmentalists remain sceptical.

Any concern is testimony to the value Uganda places on its wild spaces. Historically, the country has been praised for its environmental efforts, and behind the scenes of its 10 national parks and multiple reserves are individuals working hard keep them safe. Meeting them is as rewarding as viewing big cats on a game drive or tracking great apes in a primordial forest — something I learn first-hand on an itinerary exploring some of the most important conservation projects accessible to tourists.

Although the oil extraction is a done deal, with most infrastructure in place and the construction of a pipeline due to start this year, only 1% or the park will be directly impacted. Exploring by dirt road and river, I encounter a precious Eden: waterways heave with crocs and hippos; papyrus reeds twitch with the stealthy tiptoe of shy shoebills; and rare Rothschild’s giraffes stride across sweeping savannahs and hills.

NGO Uganda Conservation Foundation, in collaboration with the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), works diligently to protect this paradise. On a tour of its newly completed Law Enforcement and Operations Centre, founding trustee Mike Keigwin proudly shows off a complex where every cog of a well-oiled anti-poaching mechanism — from satellite-linked surveillance screens to temporary prison cells and a police station — whirs away under one roof. One hundred young people from the fringes of Murchison Falls were contracted for the construction, with many now training as rangers for UWA.

 

A resident of the Batwa community of Sanurio village, high in the hills of Nkuringo.
A resident of the Batwa community of Sanurio village, high in the hills of Nkuringo. | Photograph by Sarah Marshall

 

“It’s the first of its kind in Africa,” beams Mike, a sharp-thinking British problem-solver who ditched a job with consulting firm Deloitte to work in conservation. Detaining poachers on site speeds up the judicial process, he explains, while computers mapping incidents of crop raiding help rangers swiftly deal with problem animals straying from the park into community land.

From the late 1970s until 2000, elephant numbers in Murchison Falls — once the most visited park in Africa — crashed from 16,000 to 500, but in recent times the situation has stabilised, and tourism is returning.

An armoury packed with confiscated weapons, which are safer under lock and key than discarded, is a chilling reminder that illegal activity is still a threat. “Under every building in this complex, there are another 20-30,000 snares,” sighs Mike, picking through wire coils and hefty wheel clamps, some still with tufts of animal hair in their jaws. “We were running out of space.”

The cost of protecting Africa’s wild areas is enormous, but the potential losses are too overwhelming to contemplate. Although the trade in animal parts has largely been brought under control, the biggest threat now lies in the conflict between communities and wildlife, as populations grow and habitats shrink.

 

The peaks of the volcanic Virunga Massif, seen from Nkuringo Bwindi Gorilla Lodge.
The peaks of the volcanic Virunga Massif, seen from Nkuringo Bwindi Gorilla Lodge. | Photograph by Sarah Marshall

 

Into the woods

Budongo Forest, a 45-minute drive south of the falls along a newly paved, Chinese-built road, is ever-threatened by illegal logging and encroachment. A strict set of hunting rights issued by the King of Bunyoro safeguarded the tropical rainforest in the past, but now chimpanzee tourism is its key custodian.

Setting off at 7am, I join Amos Wekesa, owner of the Budongo Eco Lodge, for a full day chimp ‘habituation’ experience — providing an opportunity to discover how these great apes are acclimatised to humans. His simple wooden lodge and cabins, once used by the Jane Goodall Institute as a field base, sits at the mouth of several trails.

Silenced by thick walls of spiralling ferns and a canopy of latticed branches, human voices quickly drift away as we tumble into a fairytale forest beyond the imagination of even the Brothers Grimm.

Ancient mahogany trees form a colonnade of Corinthian pillars, supporting a temple more sacred than any man-made place of worship. Epiphytes balance on borrowed altars, while strangler figs grip their victims, performing a slow act of sacrifice. On the soft, spongy ground, decaying trunks sprout with wisps of ghost white fungi.

Alongside a stream, Amos picks up a freshly discarded seedpod. “Chimps use these as drinking cups,” he explains, indicating they must be nearby. On cue, we hear the thundering of ironwood buttress roots, followed by grunts of joy.

Perched contentedly like a Buddha on his plinth, 43-year-old chimp Jacko is munching on the ripe fruits of a fig tree.

“Watch out or you’ll be hit by the wadge,” warns Amos, as we narrowly avoid a bombing of chewed up pulp.

 

Chimpanzee trekking from Budongo Eco Lodge offers a window into the lives of the animals.
Chimpanzee trekking from Budongo Eco Lodge offers a window into the lives of the animals. | Photograph by Sarah Marshall

 

Sociable or otherwise, behaviour of the Kaniyo Pabidi chimp community has been studied since the 1960s, and now tourism revenue generated by visits to the habituated group guarantees their future.

Amos and his tour company Great Lakes Safaris, which manages the Budongo concession on behalf of the National Forestry Authority, helped generate US$300,000 (£217,000) per year before the pandemic struck — funds used to employ a team of forest rangers on the ground.

Equally impressive is Amos’s own rags to riches story, which he shares with me over dinner back at the lodge. Born into a destitute family on the Kenyan border, he was smuggling goods by the age of six.

An educational grant from the Salvation Army provided a stepping-stone out of poverty, but it was determination and tenacity that paved his way. Despite earning only $10 (£7) a month as a sweeper, progressing to $1 (£0.70) a day as a tour guide, he still managed to stash some savings, starting Great Lakes Safaris 20 years ago with only $200 (£145) in his pocket.

Amos is extremely likeable: a businessman whose heart lies in conservation. When the Ugandan government considered plans to dam Murchison Falls, Amos threatened to protest naked, and his Facebook page (with more than 75,000 followers) functions as a platform to educate young minds.

“We’re not the last generation,” he complains, scrolling through a deluge of social media comments that could put some of the biggest influencers in the shade. “We can’t live like we’re the last people to leave.”

Amos owns three lodges in Uganda, including the newly revamped Elephant Plains Lodge in the northern section of Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP). It takes me six hours to reach the long, thin park, which shares Lake Edward with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). But driving through the country’s wildly varying climatic zones is an experience, enlivened by a cast of daredevil drivers and sideshow attractions on the way.

 

Dr Ludvig and his team from Uganda Carnivore Program search for collared lions in Queen Elizabeth ...
Dr Ludvig and his team from Uganda Carnivore Program search for collared lions in Queen Elizabeth National Park. | Photograph by Sarah Marshall

 

Swathes of green forest fan out into grasslands and settlements rise from fields of orange dust. Boda boda electric bikes carry cargo ranging from sacks of bananas to a three-piece suite. One ambitious driver has a longhorn cow strapped to the back.

“That’s so Uganda,” laughs my guide and driver, Robert, shaking his head.

Rising up to the Albertine Rift Escarpment, we reach the lakeside lodge, a collection of eight elegant cottages built to some of the highest Ugandan standards, gazing out on the Blue Mountains of the DRC and the Ruwenzoris — a range of other-worldly peaks aptly described by ancient geographer Ptolemy as ‘mountains of the moon’.

It’s a short drive to the park gate the following morning, where I have an early appointment for lion tracking with conservationist and vet Dr Ludwig Siefert from the Uganda Carnivore Program. Initially created in response to a feared outbreak of a distemper virus killing the park’s lions, the project subsequently switched focus to community intervention when it became clear poisoning was causing the deaths.

Tourists can pay a $110 (£80) fee, which goes towards law enforcement and the community, to join Dr Ludwig and his team as they track collared lions and leopards, offering a rare opportunity to game drive off-road in the park. Seeing big cats in the wild is always exciting, especially in a setting of crater lakes and curious cacti bursting from Martian-red soil, but the real highlight is an opportunity to learn about the challenges facing conservationists in QENP.

Dr Ludwig holds aloft a telemetry device from the roof of his four-wheel-drive vehicle as we weave through prickly candelabra trees whose embracing stems often provide beds for leopards. There are around 40,000 people living in the park, and 90,000 on the periphery, with numbers swelling daily as refugees seek solace from armed conflict in neighbouring DRC and South Sudan.

“The mindset of the Congo is different; they eat more things,” states Dr Ludvig. Illegal fishing and bushmeat poaching are exacerbated by superstitious beliefs, he explains, citing a custom for women eating hippo meat to become fertile. But the biggest issue is crop interference and retaliation killings, carried out by lacing carcasses with poison. As animals and humans continue to battle for space, there’s no easy solution.

 

Murchison Falls, one of the world’s most powerful waterfalls, spilling over an escarpment at the northernmost ...
Murchison Falls, one of the world’s most powerful waterfalls, spilling over an escarpment at the northernmost tip of Africa’s Western Rift Valley. | Photograph by Sarah Marshall

 

“Sometimes I want to leave this planet,” sighs the exasperated vet, his brow furrowed by several decades of frustration. “It’s so difficult.” Having located his lions, Dr Ludwig can at least rest easy for another few hours, knowing they’re a good distance from danger zones. But it’s a never-ending job.

In March 2021, six lions were found dead and dismembered after a suspected poisoning in the southern Ishasha section of the park. To get a better understanding of what happened, I visit farmer and herbalist Deo Karegyesa, who’s started a Save Our Lions campaign in response. Working with tour operators, he invites tourists into his homestead to see the various methods he’s deployed for keeping wildlife at bay.

Short and slight, he hardly looks a match for elephants and predators, but his inventions are working: a straw hut where he sleeps to ward off bush pigs, a treehouse to keep an eye out for elephants and a deep trench to prevent any invaders from crossing.

“I teach the people in this community how to live with the animals without hurting them,” he proclaims, scrambling up a ladder to his leafy watchtower. “They think the animals are devils, but we need to teach them that these animals are theirs.”

 

Farmer Deo Karegyesa, who launched a Save Our Lions campaign this year, uses chillies to keep ...
Farmer Deo Karegyesa, who launched a Save Our Lions campaign this year, uses chillies to keep predators away from his crops. | Photograph by Sarah Marshall

 

Silverback safari

Taking ownership of wildlife has been crucial to the success of gorilla conservation, focused mainly around the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, a 90-minute drive south in a cool, damp, high-altitude environment a world away from the dry, scorching savannahs of QENP.

When I arrive at Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp in Buhoma, the only property inside the park, mist has already wrapped the treetops in a loose-knit shawl. Built by Geoffrey Kent, founder of tour operator Abercrombie & Kent, after he convinced now-president General Museveni to set aside Bwindi as a national park, the safari-style tented camp cascades down Bwindi’s famously steep slopes.

The following morning, I set off at 7am to trek to the gorillas with researchers from Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH). Founded by former UWA vet Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, the NGO stresses the interdependence of community and wildlife wellbeing. After linking an outbreak of scabies in gorillas with human clothes left on scarecrows, Dr Gladys proved how easily diseases can jump to some of our closest cousins. The pandemic has made her message even more pertinent, and in cruel twist of fate, she’s isolating at home, recovering from Covid-19 when I visit.

Unable to trek, she leaves me in the capable hands of her team who visit all 22 habituated gorilla troops once a month to collect faecal samples for testing. Searching for nests belonging to the Rushegura family of mountain gorillas, we hike into the belly of the dense forest, where branches tangle like entrails and roots thread a network of veins. After measuring faeces deposited at every nest (a silverback’s is around 7.4cm long, for anyone keen to make a comparison), lab technician Annaclet Ampeire uses a spatula to gather scrapings into a pot.

“Searching for nests belonging to the Rushegura family of mountain gorillas, we hike into the belly of the dense forest, where branches tangle like entrails and roots thread a network of veins”

Continuing with the gorilla trek (fully masked), we’re surprised to find the group are only a few minutes’ walk from their vacated nest — an indication, I later learn, that something’s wrong.

“That wasn’t there yesterday,” exclaims one of the trackers, pointing to a newborn gorilla clinging to silverback Kabukojo’s chest. It becomes apparent the vulnerable bundle has been rejected by its mother, a wild gorilla who’d recently joined the troop. Watching a tiny hand grip at the chest of a creature 50 times its size is heartbreaking, especially after I’m told the baby stands almost no chance of surviving.

Back at CTPH’s lab in Buhoma, in sombre mood, we analyse the pieces of faeces under a microscope to check for signs of parasites. Stored at -20C, the remaining samples will soon be sent away for Covid-19 testing, providing a clearer picture of the impact of the virus on gorillas in Uganda for the first time. In the absence of a park buffer zone, social distancing with gorillas is hard.

In 1991, Batwa tribal communities were forcibly and controversially removed from Bwindi when it became a national park, although many are desperate to return. Ostracised, bullied and beaten, the ‘pygmy people’ have struggled to find a new home.

On a four-hour hike across the forest with Nkuringo Walking Safaris, using a trail originally built during Idi Amin’s regime, I understand why they were so reluctant to leave. Vines finer than angel hair flow into waterfalls creating a heavenly setting, and a peppery rush of fresh ginger mingles with the earthy scent of recent rain.

 

A giraffe in Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda’s oldest and largest protected area.
A giraffe in Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda’s oldest and largest protected area. | Photograph by Getty Images

 

“I miss the honey most and the meat,” reminisces elderly Batwa lady, Jerlina, when we sit together later that afternoon. The 244 residents of Sanurio village, high in the hills of Nkuringo on the southwestern side of the forest, greet me with celebratory songs and dances, once used to welcome hunters returning from the forest. Supported by the Nkuringo Bwindi Gorilla Lodge, the community has learned to weave baskets, stitch clothes in bright kitenge fabrics and make their own honey — although they insist it’s not the same.

Owned by dynamic Ugandan Lydia Nandudu, the eco-lodge is a champion of community healthcare, education and arts projects. It’s beautiful too, with cottages floating above the forest and offering views of the eight peaks of the Virunga Mountains. At night, I fall asleep listening to drumming and singing in the village, watching the glowing tip of the Congo’s Mount Nyiragongo torch a star-studded sky. Borrowing Lydia’s words: “This is where the world ends.”

At nearby Rushaga Gorilla Lodge, I’m given a walking stick engraved with my name, something every guest receives as part of an initiative to support local craftspeople. The chance to spend longer with the gorillas here (costing $1,500/£1,090) was launched in 2014. Only available in Uganda, these extended sessions aim to generate more revenue for conservation while also helping to familiarise gorillas with foreign faces and give visitors an insight into the work involved.

The extra time is worth every penny. It allows me to settle into the gorillas’ rhythm, noting behaviour from nuanced to crude by human standards. Grunting is an expression of happiness, while farting, I’m informed, is a sign of feeling comfortable. Most of all, the experience opens my eyes to the difficulties rangers face: the danger of falling trees or the threat of a charging silverback. “If a gorilla ran at you, you wouldn’t like them anymore,” insists Miel.

Joking aside, his words ring true. The reality of protecting animals and communities is neither glossy nor glamorous, and anyone interested in the natural world should understand what’s involved. Eternally complex, it’s a constant struggle. But Uganda’s conservation heroes — from rangers and hoteliers to academics and farmers — are glittering examples of what’s possible. When oil wells dry out and dams eventually collapse, these are the prized natural assets that will be worth their weight in gold.

 

Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka picks ripe berries on a coffee safari, visiting a farm benefiting from the ...
Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka picks ripe berries on a coffee safari, visiting a farm benefiting from the Conservation Through Public Health Gorilla Conservation Coffee scheme. | Photograph by Sarah Marshall

 

Essentials

Getting there & around
Kenya Airways flies to Entebbe International Airport via Nairobi and Emirates via Dubai, both daily.

Other operators include Egypt Air via Cairo, Ethiopian Airlines via Addis Ababa, Qatar Airways via Doha, Turkish Airlines via Istanbul and KLM via Amsterdam.

Average flight time: 11h.

Few internal flights operate in Uganda, so travel is mainly by road. Link runs buses between major towns.

When to go
Uganda’s dry seasons run from December to February and June to September with average temperatures of 26C. January can be extremely hot, reaching 40C in the north.

More info
Uganda Tourism

Where to stay
Budongo Eco Lodge, Murchison Falls. Doubles from $250 (£183), full-board.

Elephant Plains Lodge, Queen Elizabeth National Park. Doubles from $315 (£231), full-board.

Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp, Buhoma, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Doubles from £300, full-board.

Nkuringo Bwindi Gorilla Lodge, Nkuringo. Doubles from £215, full-board.

How to do it
Audley Travel
 offers a 16-day trip to Uganda from £8,245 per person (based on two sharing), including flights, transfers, accommodation and wildlife activities.

Saving Gorillas one sip at a time Lawrence Zikusoka TEDxIUEA

Mr. Lawrence Zikusoka tells us a story about Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, Uganda’s first wildlife veterinarian who noticed a problem affecting both humans and mountain gorillas around Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. She came up with a social enterprise that not only conserves endangered mountain gorillas, but also improves the lives of farmers around the forest.

Mr. Lawrence Zikusoka is Founder and ICT Director at Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) and husband to Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka. He was inspired to set up the 1st award winning CTPH Telecenters in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (2006) and Queen Elizabeth National Park (2007) bringing computer and internet access to the rural communities. Mr. Lawrence Zikusoka tells us a story about Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, Uganda’s first wildlife veterinarian who noticed a problem affecting both humans and mountain gorillas around Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. She came up with a social enterprise that not only conserves endangered mountain gorillas, but also improves the lives of farmers around the forest. This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at https://www.ted.com/tedx

The Ugandan Vet Saving Gorillas & Empowering Communities

Local veternarian, Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka in Uganda © | JMcArthur/Unbound Project

At the Gorilla Conservation Café in Entebbe, Uganda, I order a latte while I wait for Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka. It’s not just any coffee in my cup, and as the name of the locale implies, this is not just any coffee shop. Both the café and the coffee are part of Kalema-Zikusoka’s collection of social enterprises that support her non-profit organization, Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH).

Kalema-Zikusoka, known to most as Dr. Gladys, is a pioneering wildlife veterinarian who has dedicated her career to saving the endangered mountain gorilla. She does so by improving the lives of the people who live on the edges of the gorillas’ habitat in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Kalema-Zikusoka’s unique approach to conservation embraces the inherent difficulties of motivating a community to reserve concern for animals when they, themselves, are struggling.

Kalema-Zikusoka arrives wearing a black T-shirt featuring the Gorilla Conservation Coffee logo and the slogan: “Saving gorillas, one sip at a time.” She’s become a savvy businesswoman—she earned her MBA with a focus on social entrepreneurship in 2016, and she’s often photographed in shirts that highlight her initiatives.

Kalema-Zikusoka tells me she’s been interested in helping animals since she set up a wildlife club in her Kampala high school some 30 years ago. She attended the University of London’s Royal Veterinary College in the early 1990s, where about half of her classmates were women. When she returned to Uganda at age 25, she was hired as the first female veterinary officer for the country’s national parks. But when she spoke to local veterinary classes, she realized all the students were men.

“When I first started working with wild gorillas, there were no female rangers—hardly any women at all,” she explains. “Now, about a third of the rangers, trackers, and wardens are women. There are more vets as well, but there is a long way to go.”

At around the same time that Kalema-Zikusoka was studying in London, the Uganda Wildlife Service was beginning to recognize the tourism potential of its large primates—mountain gorillas and chimpanzees. Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are the only three countries with wild mountain gorilla populations, and none live in captivity. There are just over 1,000 mountain gorillas left in the world, and about 60 percent of them remain in Bwindi.

There are just over 1,000 wild gorillas left in the world © | Christina Newberry

Conflict between humans and gorillas has always existed on the edges of Bwindi. Gorillas come out of the forest to feed in the banana plantations, destroying the farmers’ livelihood. The animals pick up human diseases from dirty clothing on scarecrows. When the farmers are struggling, they enter the forest to hunt and gather wood for fuel, disturbing the gorillas’ habitat and creating more opportunities for disease transmission.

Kalema-Zikusoka identified human scabies as a fatal problem for the gorilla community during her early research in 1996. She realized that in order to improve gorilla health, she had to improve human health. When communities are healthy and thriving, there’s far less risk of disease spreading between the two species, which share 98.4 percent of the same DNA.

As a vet, Kalema-Zikusoka had the most health education of anyone in the organization, which had become the Uganda Wildlife Authority by the early 2000s. She created CTPH to provide sanitation and family-planning options for locals, who, at that time, had an average of 10 children per family.

“Family planning fit in very well with our mission in Bwindi,” Kalema-Zikusoka elaborates. “Only 20 percent of women were using modern family planning methods. Now we’re up to 60 percent. We present it as a way of balancing the family budget, so even the men in the household become interested. The women are happier. They feel liberated. It’s good for maternal health not to have babies every year.”

Dr. Gladys with Gorilla Conservation Coffee lead farmers, Vincent and Sam Karibwende © | JMcArthur/Unbound Project

At the same time, Kalema-Zikusoka helped create a cooperative of about 75 coffee farmers, which provides production, training, and marketing support to brand their Gorilla Conservation Coffee as a premium product, and pay them a living wage. They earn 50 cents per kilo above market price for their beans, which are processed in Kampala, and $1.50 from every bag sold directly supports the work of CTPH. Participating farmers also offer a coffee safari program that teaches tourists who have come to Bwindi for gorilla trekking about how coffee is produced, and how the social enterprise supports community and gorilla welfare.

Bags of beans are for sale in the café as well as 60 other locations, including the duty-free shop at Entebbe International Airport. CTPH distributes trademarked Gorilla Conservation Coffee in the European Union, Switzerland, and the United States, where the beans are available from Pangols, a wildlife and sustainability-focused e-commerce site. Each bag of Arabica beans features the image of Kanyonyi, a silverback from Bwindi. His image also looms large in the café.

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka founded Gorilla Conservation Coffee, which both supports the local community and saves gorillas © | Christina Newberry

Through her work, Kalema-Zikusoka has strengthened the bond between gorillas and the people who live alongside them, improving the health of both parties along the way. In October 2018, she received a Sierra Club Award for her “Unique contribution to international environmental protection and conservation.”

In November 2018, mountain gorillas were removed from the critically endangered species list, though they are still endangered. The World Wildlife Fund cited “Community engagement, prevention of disease transmission and law enforcement” as key factors in the gorilla population rebound. “Gorillas are so similar to us,” Kalema-Zikusoka adds. “We want people to feel inspired to protect them forever.”

This story originally appeared in the 4th issue of Unearth Women magazine, now available for purchase in our online store.

From human-wildlife conflicts to a human-gorilla friendship

Ruhondeza, the gorilla that lives on in the hearts and minds of the Bwindi community

The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is a national park in Uganda, an Important Bird & Biodiversity Area, and an Eastern Afromontane Key Biodiversity Area. The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, through a small grant facilitated by BirdLife International, supports Conservation Through Public Health in their effort to reduce human-gorilla conflicts in and around the park, and avoid the transmission of diseases. This story describes how a potential drama turned into a unique friendship between local people and a legendary animal…

By Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka – Founder and CEO, Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH)

I have been working with mountain gorillas since 1994, when there were only two gorilla groups called Mubare and Katendegyere, habituated for tourism at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Now 25 years later, there are 17 gorilla groups habituated for tourism. Mubare gorilla group was headed by the silverback Ruhondeza, given that name because he liked “sleeping a lot”. Though Ruhondeza was smaller than the other silverbacks, he had the largest number of adult female gorillas to himself and was calmer than the Katendegyere gorilla group and therefore easier to habituate.

Katendegyere gorilla group eventually reduced in size, because there were too many males and only one female, and two years later the lead silverback, Mugurusi, meaning “old man” and named because he was very old when habituation began, eventually died of heart and kidney failure. I was called to check on Mugurusi when he could no longer keep up with the group and did a post-mortem on him a few days later. Fortunately, he did not have an infectious disease, however, a few months later his group developed scabies, a highly contagious skin disease more commonly known in animals as sarcoptic mange. This resulted in the death of the infant and sickness in the rest of the gorillas that only recovered after we gave Ivermectin anti parasitic treatments. The scabies was ultimately traced to people living around the national park who have inadequate access to basic health and other social services.


Kanyonyi, son of Ruhondeza © CTPH

In 2012, Ruhondeza also became too old, and he eventually could not keep up with the rest of his group. The Mubare gorilla group left him in search of food and he decided to settle outside the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in community land. When the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) park management called Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) to look into the possibility of translocating Ruhondeza back to the safety of the forest, we checked on him and saw that he was really settled and even if we moved him back, he would likely return to community land. We spoke to our Village Health and Conservation Teams (VHCTs), volunteers who liaise between CTPH and their community, about tolerating Ruhondeza in the village – particularly since his calm and accommodating nature had enabled gorilla tourism to begin in 1993, changing the lives and future for many people in the Bwindi community for ever. In the meeting the VHCTs assured us that even when their own elderly become very weak, they look after them, so why should this not apply to Ruhondeza as well?.

This resulted in Ruhondeza being accepted in the Bwindi community where they tolerated him eating banana plants or the occasional coffee berry. When the fateful day came and Ruhondeza was laid to rest, the Bwindi community members all came to pay their last respects to a legend. To this day he is remembered through the Ruhondeza village walk and other community experiences and also through his son, Kanyonyi, who took over the Mubare Gorilla Group after he died. CTPH named the first blend of our Gorilla Conservation Coffee after him.

Ruhondeza truly signifies how far conservation efforts have paid off in Bwindi, and that true friendship between people and wild animals is, indeed, possible.

Watch Dr. Gladys Kalema Zikusoka talk more about how CTPH is working with local farmers to reduce threats to Endangered mountain gorillas around Bwindi Impenetrable National Park KBA 

BirdLife International runs the Regional Implementation Team (RIT) for the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) investment in the Eastern Afromontane Hotspot (2012 -2019). See the interactive map of all projects implemented under the CEPF Eastern Afromontane Hotspot programme here.

The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund is a joint initiative of l’Agence Française de Développement, Conservation International, the European Union, the Global Environment Facility, the Government of Japan and the World Bank. A fundamental goal is to ensure civil society is engaged in biodiversity conservation. More information on the CEPF can be found at www.cepf.net.

Please see original article as shared by Birdlife International Africa.

Coffee helps protect Uganda’s endangered mountain gorillas

Poor communities in Bwindi national park have long depended on what the forest can provide. But with gorillas under threat, coffee now offers a more sustainable living.  

Robert Byarugaba, now 45, began poaching with his father in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest at just eight years old.

“My dad would force me to follow him to go in the park because I was his only son,” Byarugaba says. “We poached and hunted from Monday to Sunday. Every day we would be in the forest.”

The father and son weren’t the only ones, there were many hunters who combed the forest for bushpigs, antelopes, goats, and sometimes gorillas. The great apes might be killed to feed local families, or their meat and body parts could fetch high sums on the market for bush meat or traditional medicine.

Read more: Dian Fossey: Gorilla researcher in the mist

Uganda is home to almost half of the world’s estimated 1,000 surviving mountain gorillas. In 1991, when the primates’ population fell to an estimated 300 animals, the Ugandan government made Bwindi a national park. That meant increased protection and regulation of access to the park. But many poachers continued to hunt all the same because their livelihoods depended on it.

Read more: Gorilla population in Africa rises

After five years, Byarugaba gave up poaching and began to grow coffee, but he couldn’t sell enough to make a living and supplemented his income taking tourists bird spotting in the forest.

Robert Byarugaba, poacher turned coffee farmer in Uganda's Bwindi forestRobert Byarugaba began poaching with his father when he was just eight years old

Since 2017, that’s changed. Thanks to the work of Gorilla Conservation Coffee, Byarugaba says he now makes a reliable living from his coffee plantation. The social enterprise advises coffee growers and buys their crop, so they don’t have to resort to pillaging the forest.

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Making coffee profitable

The project was started by Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka. A wildlife veterinarian, she first came to Bwindi in 1994 and was struck by the poverty blighting villagers in the national park. Later, she founded the NGO Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) to tackle disease transmission between humans and wildlife. Tracking gorillas through the forest, she would cross coffee farms. That got her thinking.

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Not all coffee farmers were supplementing their meagre income with legal occupations like bird spotting. “We found that some of them were poachers and were going into the forest in order to just get food to feed their families and firewood to cook, and they didn’t have enough money to buy meat,” Kalema-Zikusoka says.

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, wildlife veterinarian and founder of Gorilla Conservation CoffeeVeterinarian Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka realized that to protect gorillas, people had to be lifted out of poverty

One farmer who fitted that profile was Safari Joseph. He began growing coffee in 2007 but like Byarugaba, for many years he didn’t make enough from it to live on. He got together with others in his community to find a solution. “Our challenge was that when we started coffee growing, our coffee had no market,” he says.

“That’s when we went to Dr. Gladys and convinced her to work with us and market our coffee.” She said yes, on the condition that they stop poaching. In 2015, Kalema-Zikusoka founded Gorilla Conservation Coffee.

Today, the brand supplies shops in Uganda, Kenya, New Zealand, Canada and the United States. It currently pays the equivalent of €0.31 ($0.34) for a kilo of red coffee cherries, almost twice the regular market price. The 500 farmers benefiting from these premium prices are members of the Bwindi Coffee Growers Cooperative, to which Joseph serves as secretary.

Safari Joseph and Sanyu Kate of the Bwindi Coffee Farmers Collective in Uganda Safari Joseph and fellow member of the Bwindi Coffee Farmers Cooperative, Sanyu Kate

Musiimenta Allen, 32, oversees compliance for the cooperative, making sure its members adhere to practices that protect the forest. She is also one of two women on its committee — a position she uses to ensure the voice of female coffee farmers is heard.

Since her husband died in 2014, Allen has had to support herself and her two boys from her coffee plantation. She used to depend on the forest for daily essentials like firewood, but since joining the cooperative in 2016, she can afford to buy firewood instead.

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Struggling with cash flows and pests

Despite the gorilla logo that distinguishes Allen’s coffee on supermarket shelves, neighborly relations with the endangered primates aren’t always smooth. Occasionally, they invade her farm and destroy her crops. She also wishes Gorilla Conservation Coffee could provide its farmers with loans so they could increase production. “Sometimes I want to grow more coffee but I don’t have [enough] money,” Allen says.

Musimenta Allen of the Bwindi Coffee Farmers Cooperative, Uganda Musimenta Allen would like to be able to invest more money in her coffee plantation

And Joseph is concerned that Gorilla Conservation Coffee cannot always afford to buy all the coffee from its farmers, leaving them frustrated.

Kalema-Zikusoka concedes this is a problem. Gorilla Conservation Coffee relies on donor funding to buy coffee up-front and cut out the middlemen. But that means it doesn’t always have the cash to buy as much coffee as it could sell. “Because we don’t have enough money to buy coffee from the farmers, we aren’t able to fulfil the demand,” she says.

Byarugaba would also like to see the social enterprise provide more technical support. It teaches farmers better practices, but doesn’t provide experts to evaluate their farms. “Sometimes there are pests and diseases that we don’t understand, and the coffee trees get dry,” he says.

Read more: Africa’s Green parties bet on international help

An ethical choice over the thrill of the chase

And there’s something else about Byarugaba’s life as a farmer that leaves him wanting. He misses the old days, the thrill of the chase as his dogs gained on an antelope, the sound of hunting bells, and days trekking through a forest he rarely visits nowadays.

Coffee cherries, Bwindi, UgandaThe ripening cherries of a Bwindi coffee plant. Commanding a premium price, the crop offers viable alternative to poaching

“I like poaching, most of the things I enjoyed in my life was poaching,” Byarugaba says, looking out over Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and breaking into a chuckle. Yet, on balance, he says it’s worth the sacrifice: “With coffee farming, I can always be assured of school fees for my children.”

Bwindi’s gorilla population has now grown from fewer than 300 in 1995 to over 400 . So, as well as paying a decent living, Byarugaba feels his decision has contributed to a greater good.

“In past years, I regretted [my decision] because we could get much from the forest,” he says. “Then I started earning some money and I don’t regret anymore: this life is better than the first.”

Author: Caleb Okereke-DW.COM