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.

Buy Gorilla Conservation Coffee anywhere in Uganda on Simbi Mall

500g Kanyonyi Coffee - Medium Roasted Ground Coffee
Single origin, 100% Arabica coffee from farmers living around Bwindi. Photo: Gorilla Conservation Coffee

PRESS RELEASE

Entebbe, Uganda

29 October 2020

Gorilla Conservation Coffee has partnered with Simbi Mall, an online eCommerce platform that allows you to buy our single origin, 100% Arabica coffee, that supports smallholder farmers around Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and conserves endangered mountain gorillas.

Click here to order 125g, 250g and 500g Kanyonyi coffee medium roasted (ground and beans) for delivery in Kampala and across Uganda on Simbi Mall.

Started in 2015, Gorilla Conservation Coffee is a social enterprise of award-winning Conservation Through Public Health NGO founded by world-renowned wildlife veterinarian and mountain gorilla expert, Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka.

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka has this to say about the collaboration: “We are thrilled to announce this new partnership with Simbi Mall which brings Gorilla Conservation Coffee even closer to our customers in Uganda so that even more people can enjoy our sustainable coffee, while saving gorillas one sip at a time”.

Simbi Mall Co-founder and Chief Sustainability Officer, Ms. Christine Ainabyona, echoed her sentiments: “More and more customers want to use their phones to order groceries and use contactless payments, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. We set up Simbi Mall to meet this need, and to provide exceptional service while doing so. It is a privilege and honour to get Gorilla Conservation Coffee online with Simbi Mall as it not only bolsters our beverages selection but also ensures that we are supporting the sustainable development of the Bwindi region”.

Now you too can do your bit to protect the gorillas and support communities around Bwindi. With Simbi Mall, you can now purchase the award-winning Gorilla Conservation Coffee Kanyonyi brand coffee online – from the comfort of your own home or office – and have it delivered to your doorstep.

For inquiries, please email: info@gorillaconservationcoffee.org or call +256777171421.

For inquiries, please email: simbi@simbimall.com or call +256788650135.

#SavingGorillasOneSipAtATime #SustainCoffee #ConserveGorillas #GorillaConservationCoffeeXSimbiMall

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.

Read more: The wilderness and the war

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.

Read more:  10 facts you probably didn’t know about great apes

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.

Read more: Can renewable energy save Uganda’s Rwenzori glacier?

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

#ThePowerOfOne: Dr Gladys Kalema- Zikusoka on Conserving Gorillas, One Sip at A Time

Recently, a Thursday midmorning found me at the office premises of the Gorilla Conservation Coffee (GCC) at Kiwafu, Entebbe. Curiosity had pushed me to have a conversation with Dr. Gladys Kalema- Zikusoka, the CEO and Co-founder of GCC to learn about their work as a social enterprise in the coffee business.

Upon getting there, one thing struck me; the writing on the wall. If the literal meaning is to go by. The walls have been plastered with different media stories telling the story of Dr. Kalema- Zikusoka. Her role as the pioneering gorilla veterinarian in the country is the common denominator of all the stories written. Twenty three years ago, her journey as a vet began. It still goes on to date. However, she has broadened her wings to fly higher together with her dear husband Lawrence Zikusoka with whom they are co-founders at Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) and GCC. In all the life of CTPH, the organisation has worked with the communities around Bwindi to improve the health of both the gorillas and the communities as a means of combating diseases that could easily wipe them away.

With the passing of time, there was a problem. Human population was growing and the land was not expanding. The communities around Bwindi were invading the forest and in turn causing a health hazard to the gorillas. With this came the exposure of the human contact with the gorillas. The gorillas would easily pick up everything the human beings left behind and that meant transfer of diseases and all. One such a case was a scabies outbreak in 1996 which was Dr. Kalema’s first assignment at Bwindi.

The scabies outbreak was found to be caused by gorilla interaction with the poor hygiene among the communities. “Gorillas are curious animals that they touch everything they come across. They can easily catch diseases once they have human interaction,” tells Dr. Kalema.  “In the case of Bwindi, the gorillas are found to be in the proximity with human settlement unlike other places like the Virungas where they’re up in the forests and people in the valleys. The hygiene among the communities was wanting.”

With a growing human population that looks at the forest for survival, there was need to come up with a solution to avert this interaction. There was a high birth rate with a minimum of 10 children in each household. Children were looked at as service providers to the work being done at home.

Mothers staying up in the hills lacked access to maternal health care and were consequently faced with health challenges. Worse of it, they lacked money to go to health centres. For the conservation of gorillas to be realised, there was need to distract the human population from invading the gorilla space. There was also need to put money in the pockets of the locals to which they had to have a direct contribution. This meant involving them in income generating activities

That is how Gorilla Conservation Coffee was born three years ago. Coffee came out as an idea that was worth exploiting. The routes to gorilla tracking passed through scanty coffee trees. With GCC, the coffee was prioritised. The communities were taught about sustainable agriculture. They were introduced to intentional farming techniques to provide them food and also earn them an income.

The idea was simple yet it had a very big impact. The story is changing lives. “It is such a beautiful thing when you get everyone involved. In situation where you had children waking up to go to the garden to act as scarecrows, they now wake up going to school.”

Men are working with their wives tending their coffee gardens. The most interesting bit is that human interference with gorillas has greatly gone down. Since gorillas do not eat coffee berries, this harmonised the co-existence of the two.

Most importantly though is that there is money trickling down in the pockets of these farmers. They are earning from their coffee. They are minding their business just as the gorillas. It is what you could say to each their own.

The coffee grown by these communities is processed, packaged and sold under the Gorilla Conservation Coffee brand. The sales from the coffee go directly to the pockets of these farmers.

“The idea of conservation has to include the interests of everyone involved. As you conserve the gorillas, you should be able to conserve the people in communities. It is important the co-existence is conserved as well.”

From every pack of coffee, a percentage goes to CTPH which helps with facilitating community and gorilla health. They are currently working with 500 farmers around Bwindi. Coffee reminds the farmers to be self-sustaining other than expect to survive on hand-outs.

“To drink coffee is to be a responsible consumer. The benefits trickle down directly to the household farmers.”

Today, for every pack of coffee, a child is able to go to school. For every cup of coffee, a mother is able to afford a hospital bill.  For every sip of the gorilla conservation coffee, a gorilla is conserved.

It is through that one pack, one cup and one sip that a new story is being told in the effort to conserve gorillas at Bwindi.

You deserve a sip of Gorilla Conservation Coffee

Buy a pack of Gorilla Conservation here.

Photo taken by www.unboundproject.org

Written by DAVID KANGYE

Hotel Stuff South Africa – Online Directory Helps to Promote Gorilla Conservation Coffee

Lorraine Jenks met Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka and Lawrence Zikusoka at a Sustainable Travel summit in Kenya last week and was blown away by their work. Gorilla Conservation Coffee stands for everything we believe in. It ticks every conservation, sustainability and greening box possible. Coffee farmers were identified as being some of the poachers, so in helping them grow top quality coffee and find good markets; the previous poachers are now the guardians of the mountain gorillas. Is that not a wonderful story?

Gorilla Conservation Coffee is 100% premium Arabica that is selectively harvested from only red ripe cherries, hand picked, wet processed and dried under shade. The coffee is tested for quality parameters at every level. It is roasted medium and packed to the highest quality standards. Each cup has a unique aroma with hints of caramel, butter notes and almond, with a citrus taste and a sweet finish.

The team at Hotelstuff and Greenstuff would really like to help promote this product so that it becomes an example for other conservationists to emulate.

www.hotelstuff.co.za/suppliers/entry/gorilla-conservation-coffee