This interview was done in the month of August 2012 with Pontious Esuma, Conservation Area Manager Bwindi Mgahinga for Uganda Wildlife Authority. The interview was prepared by Costantino Tessarin, with the aim of answering to those typical questions asked by tourists and visitors about the gorillas. Special thank to Pontious Esuma, who spent so many years managing conservation in the Bwindi and Mgahinga national parks and gave us a very detailed insight over the current status of “gorilla conservation” in Uganda.
-How do you think your organization has contributed to the conservation of the mountain gorillas in Uganda? Explain best practices in gorilla conservation
Strict protection of mountain gorilla population and their habitats in Bwindi Mgahinga conservation area through direct monitoring and ground surveillance patrols. The ranger-force frequently go for patrols that gather resource base data. They use the global positioning system to geo-reference their findings in the field. By so doing they also apprehend any suspects they come across that are prosecuted in courts of law (Wildlife Act. 2000 CAP 200).
Maintaining a bigger population of gorilla families un-habituated. Only 08 gorilla families (Mubare, Habinyanja, Bitukura, Nkuringo, Kyaguriro-research, Nshongi, Oruzogo & Kahungye) out of its estimated 31 families are exposed to tourism. The existing other groups (of Rushegura, Mishaya etc) are splinter groups. In case of disease out breaks perhaps in the habituated families, the wild group remains un-affected as most of these diseases are likely to be emanating from human presence.
Regulation of tourism on gorilla experience. Only 8 tourists are allowed to visit each habituated gorilla group for 1hr per day. This enables the families to continue their normal life after. This also reduces the stress level among the individuals that could be as a result of human presence. Enforcing this and other gorilla rules and regulations aimed at minimizing disease spread and stress to gorillas has been a powerful tool for the long term survival of the gorilla tourism.
Enlisting community support in gorilla conservation. Human Gorilla Conflict resolution (HUGO) a volunteer group from the community members mobilized to guard and drive gorillas from private land to minimize human wildlife conflicts was formed. This group of people has been trained in gorilla behavior and is currently being used to reduce crop raids by gorillas.
UWA together with her partners (IGCP) in 2001 purchased land from the local communities. This is critical habitat for the gorillas as they spent over 60% of their time on this land after habituation. On realizing this, communities willingly sold this area of 12km x 350m so that the gorillas can freely range in the area. This land was later to become the only buffer zone around Bwindi National Park. A joint management initiative of this land was developed with the same community association (Nkuringo Community Conservation Development Foundation -NCCDF) this has further strengthened the relationship between the local communities and the park management and hence the appreciation for gorilla conservation. What is clear is that this land is not part of the park, but it is jointly being managed as a buffer zone and the current manipulation that allows the community to grow tea as a problem animal management strategy thus cements the conservation efforts in totality. Gorillas ranging in this area and others are no longer at risk of being killed.
UWA gave 6 permits of tracking this group of gorillas to the local association so that they can benefit from protection of the gorilla group. This association also through partners (IGCP/AWF) got support from the American people who donated $250,000 to develop an up market lodge that later turns out to be the Clouds lodge. The association entered in an agreement with a private partner where the partner contributed an equal amount to put up this lodge. The lodge now employs 46 local community members and they receive $35 for every tourist bed-night.
Regional trans-boundary initiative – the Greater Virunga Trans-Boundary Collaboration in protection of trans-boundary species especially endangered mountain gorillas in Uganda, Rwanda and DRC is a vital part of the conservation effort. Gorillas do not know any boundaries and as such freely move across borders. Because of this collaboration, the gorillas are protected whenever they cross borders. This good relation among rangers in these protected areas offers a huge chance for the protection of the gorillas and their habitat. Coordinated patrols are being carried out so that cross border poaching is curbed.
Close coordination and collaboration with other conservation NGO’s e.g. the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP), International Gorilla Conservation Program (IGCP), Conservation through public health (CTPH), Gorilla Organization (GO) Bwindi Mgahinga Conservation Trust (BMCT)in furthering community support and protection of gorillas cannot be over emphasized. These NGOs have played a pivotal role in catering for community welfare through various innovative approaches including community based enterprises development, capacity building, building schools, health centers and house construction for the Batwa. These all culminate into buying community support for conservation in this region.
-What are the projects or areas of concerns in which you are currently working on in terms of conservation?
Working with conservation NGO’s to improve hygiene in frontline communities to minimize disease spread to gorillas. Hygiene is important for both humans and the gorillas. Since they are closely related to humans they are prone to human diseases. They are 97.4% genetically similar to humans.
Monitoring of mountain gorilla health through collection of fecal samples for analysis to detect pathogens. On daily basis the trackers pick fecal samples from the night nests of the habituated groups. These samples are analyzed in labs to detect disease pathogens. And if the pathogen levels exceed the normal ones, that may dictate veterinary intervention. This monitoring is crucial for the long term survival of the gorillas.
Identifying best practices to minimize human wildlife (gorilla) conflicts as well as exploring interventions to limiting gorilla movements outside the Protected Area. Several interventions ranging from use of barriers, (Buffalo wall, Mauritius thorn) trapping, planting un-palatable crops, scare-shooting, use of repulsive means (red-pepper), biological means (placement of bee hives which are prone to elephants) among others are being put in place.
Continuous community sensitization about wildlife in general and gorillas in particular is essential. The community conservation department play a key role in passing over conservation messages to the communities. These are general conservation
Conservation becomes irrelevant if it cannot contribute to the people of this country in tangible terms. Revenue sharing that offers communities opportunities to improve their lives. 20% of the tourism gate collections are ploughed back to community projects. These projects are identified by the communities who interface with the wildlife. When this it has to be in the parish development plan, which in turn has to appear in the Sub-county development plan and finally in the district development plan. These funds are given to the CAOs as the accounting officers in the Districts of kabala, Kisoro and Kanungu. For instance these districts will shortly receive 661,000,000/= from Bwindi impenetrable National park as revenue share and gorilla levy which is $5 out of every gorilla tracking permit sold. While Kisoro will earn an extra of 138,000,000/= from Mgahinga Gorilla National Park as it is solely located in Kisoro District.
-How is the structure of UWA in Bwindi National Park so that it helps the protection of mountain gorillas?
The organization structure of BINP comprise of the Conservation Area Manager spearheading the planning and coordination of PA operations with potential NGO’s and the surrounding district local governments in support of mountain gorilla conservation. Other departments interface differently in gorilla protection e.g. Community conservation caries out community sensitization and education on the values of the gorilla conservation, hygiene, resource access, problem animal management among others while law enforcement enforces the wildlife Act 2000 CAP 200 to protect gorilla habitat and gorillas from illegal activities through constant patrols in the field, apprehending suspects arrested and prosecuting them in courts of law. Monitoring and research provides research based information to management emphasizing best practices in gorilla protection while tourism enforces the adherence to gorilla rules and regulations to guard against disease transmission and stress levels. In addition controlled tourism has also helped to raise money for the effective conservation of the very park and the gorillas.
-Can you give us a brief history of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park?
Bwindi initially existed as Kasatoro and Kayonza Crown forest reserves in 1932.These were later joined to form a central crown forest that was later gazetted as an animal sanctuary in 1961 to enhance the protection of the critically endangered Mountain gorilla population. It was then upgraded to a national park in 1991 and gorilla tourism started in 1993 with habituation of the Mubare and Katendegire gorilla groups.
Due to the presence and protection of the more than half the world population of endangered mountain gorillas and the rich afro-montane vegetation, the area was enlisted as a world Heritage property in 1994 by UNESCO. Due to its diverse habitats ranging from 1,160 to 2,706 m in altitude, location at the intersection of the Albertine, Congo Basin and Eastern Africa ecological zones, and probable role as a Pleistocene refugium, Bwindi is the most important area in Uganda for species due to an exceptional diversity that includes many Albertine Rift endemics. This forest is believed to be a mere remnant of a very large forest which once covered much of western Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The property has the highest diversity of tree species (over 200 species including 10 endemics) and ferns (some 104 species) in East Africa, and may be the most important forest in Africa for montane forest butterflies with 202 species (84% of the country’s total), including eight Albertine endemics. The forest is very significant as a home to almost half of the population (about 340) of the critically endangered mountain gorilla With over 347 species of forest birds recorded in the Park, at least 70 out of 78 montane forest bird species occurring in the Albertine Rift region are found in the forest, and 22 of the 36 endemics. Overall, Bwindi hosts numerous globally threatened species including high-profile mammals such as mountain gorilla, chimpanzee, l’Hoest’s monkey and African elephant; birds such as African green broadbill, Grauer’s swamp warbler, Turner’s Eremomela, Chapin’s flycatcher and Shelley’s crimson-wing; and butterflies such as African giant swallowtail and Cream-banded swallowtail.
-What do you think should be the priority ideas or projects in the perspective to give a future to the mountain gorillas?
Identifying the likely impacts of climate change to the gorilla population and mitigate them. When you consider climate change it is probable that they may have the worst impact on their population aware that their environment is expected to be a cold one. With rising temperatures expect their food as well to get depleted.
Understanding the reasons why gorillas are frequently ranging on private land. Of late the gorillas are ranging outside the gazette area as such they encounter and get exposed to several humanly disease risks. A way to keep them inside the park should rigorously be sought and implemented to ensure that they do not move out of the forests.
Exploring possible interventions to limit habituated gorillas from frequenting hotels and camps in Buhoma in order to minimize the risk of disease transmission.
Problem animal management to reduce conflicts with the local communities. The most critical challenge we get with communities is the conflict as a result of problem animals that destroy and raid crops. This brings in animosity that antagonizes conservation efforts around the park. Communities can easily turn their anger to the gorilla population as they are aware of the conservation value we have attached to these animals.
Continuous enforcement of the gorilla rules during tracking. As mentioned earlier due to the close relationship we have with the gorillas, it becomes prudent to ensure that the rules are strictly followed during tracking or else we transmit diseases to them. If these rules are enforced well and kept, that means the long term survival of the gorillas will be ensured.
Increasing local community benefits from conservation to tangible economic development thus demonstrating the economic potential of conservation. Poverty will make communities to erode the habitat of these animals. Increasing community benefits through programs that enable them to fight poverty we shall be contributing to the long term survival of the gorillas in Bwindi.
Continuous sensitization of the local communities of the importance of the gorilla protection. Awareness creation should not cease as it is an important tool to stop communities from killing the animals, realization of the values of protecting them for the future generations.
-What are the main challenges you faced/face in your work?
Human wildlife conflicts as a result of crop raiding, injury of people.
Frequent movement of gorillas outside the park.
Overwhelming community demand for resources.
Poverty in the communities that makes them to look for alternative survival through utilization of natural resources.
Poaching using wire snares.
Limited park infrastructure.
Lack of field equipment.
-What are the achievements of UWA so far you would outline in your work?
Being part of the Greater Virunga Trans Boundary collaboration initiative, that promotes conservation of trans-boundary species like mountain gorillas.
Proper management of gorilla tourism as an eco-tourism based activity. That means the controlled tourism will sustainably generate funds for the long term protection of the gorillas and wildlife in general in Uganda.
Collaboration with other NGO’s (MGVP, IGCP, CTPH etc.). Strengthen gorilla conservation.
Curtailing all sorts of illegal activities (habitat destruction & poaching) that would threaten gorilla population.
Enlisting community support in management of mountain gorillas especially when on private land. The formation of HUGO and Nkuringo Community Conservation Development Foundation, Buhoma Community Development Association, community groups enhanced protection of gorillas.
Sharing of revenues with the local communities that make them to appreciate the economic importance of the park.
-How do you see the current trends in gorilla tourism? Do you see the risk that it can become too much commercial?
The prime objective of UWA is conservation; therefore tourism comes secondary to demonstrate its economic values in support of Protected Area sustainability and future survival.
Gorilla tourism in Uganda was initiated in 1993 after habituation of its oldest gorilla family (Mubare) and Katendegyere family in 1991. At the time, gorilla tourism was localized in Buhoma. To diversify gorilla tourism, spread benefits to communities surrounding the PA and also increase UWA’s internally generated revenue, more gorilla groups (6) were habituated in Ruhija, Rushaga and Nkuringo. But fortunately, some of the bigger families e.g. Habinyanja , Nshongi have since split forming viable groups for tourism. Bwindi currently offers 72 permits per day. We only allow 8 tourists per day for one hour visit. This controlled numbers and the limited numbers habituated explains the fact that it has become too commercialized. We strictly follow ecotourism principles and guidelines to ensure the long term survival of the species as our main role is conservation.
-How is it planned and done in practice the habituation of mountain gorillas?
Habituation in simple terms refers to systematic reduction of human fear from wild gorillas in order to tolerate human presence. This is done by a professional team of rangers well vast with animal behavior for a period not less than 2 years. The team presents itself to a group of gorillas (normally beyond five individuals) on a daily basis. At the beginning they suffer series of negative behavior (charging) from gorillas but with time it diminishes as they get friendlier to staff (trackers).
-How do you judge the current system of protection in Bwindi National Park? What could be improved or / and changed?
Current protection of gorillas in Bwindi is quite well and multi-sectoral. All stakeholders are enthusiastic in the protection effort. NGOs, local governments, local communities and UWA.
What could be improved though is to strengthen the UWA legislation in order to offer deterrent penalties to perpetuators of illegal activities that end up victimizing gorillas, venturing into acquisition of land to act as buffer zone in areas of frequent crop raiding e.g. Nyamishamba and also identifying feasible interventions to crop raiding by gorillas.
-What are the strengths and weaknesses?
Bwindi national park’s strength in gorilla conservation include, presence of NGO’s supporting gorilla conservation, overwhelming community support, political will to conserving gorillas, Bwindi as a world heritage site and capacity to physically protect the Protected Area and gorillas. Weaknesses include: inadequate finances to support all programs aimed at gorilla protection, failure to quickly change community attitudes in favour conservation, limited resources to address all community issues related to conservation.
-Do you think can be feasible to have External Protected Areas in Bwindi so that to involve the communities in conservation as well as reforestation and so that to expand the gorilla habitat?
The feasibility of having other protected areas contiguous Bwindi is not feasible given the high population density in the neighboring area as well as in the country. But acquisition of small pieces of land to form buffer zones could be feasible especially when communities are well sensitized. Extension of protected area without solutions to the existing causes of human wildlife conflicts would be a mere postponement of challenges to gorilla conservation.
-Do you think the gorilla permits directly benefit the gorilla conservation and the gorillas themselves?
Yes, permits directly benefit gorilla conservation and the money generated is ploughed back to support community developments and programs drawn to protect gorillas in and around the park.
-Can you explain how the communities benefit from gorilla tourism?
Through revenue sharing (amount deducted from each gorilla permit sold).
Formation of associations who directly support tourists during gorilla tracking. Each community member hired by a tourist to carry his or her bag earns US$ 15 per day.
Sale of crafts and curios to tourists
Services from community developments e.g. Hospitals, schools supported directly by donations from visitors and funds from gorilla tourism.
Sale of agricultural products to camps and lodges
Cultural performances at a fee.
Sponsorships to a number of children in institutions of learning
Improved infrastructure developments and service delivery e.g. roads and electricity, banking etc.
-Which communities are involved? What is the problem of “compensation” which we hear many times from local farmers?
Communities involved are majorly in frontline villages. Protected areas and wildlife basically exist for the benefit of the people of Uganda due to this; any damage caused by wildlife is not compensated. No compensation policy exists in Uganda and if it existed implementation could be challenging especially in valuing the costs involved e.g. death.
-What are the law protecting gorillas against killing and poaching in Uganda? Is there a favorable and specific law? What happens if someone is accused of killing a gorilla?
The Uganda wildlife Act provides for protection of wildlife species and details penalties against various offences committed. Currently the act is not backed by appropriate regulations thus providing the judiciary with autonomous powers to take decisions of their choice. The case involved in killing a gorilla is currently comparable with killing of any wildlife due to lack of economic value attached to valuable of key wildlife species. This should be looked into in future.
-What other organizations do you think are doing well in the direction of gorilla conservation and in the direction to attract interest for the protection of the gorillas?
Conservation NGO’s like International Gorilla Conservation Program, Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation, Gorilla Organization, Bwindi Mgahinga Conservation Trust, Conservation Through Public Health among others, are doing much in protection of mountain gorillas.
-Do you have opportunities for volunteering in case there are people who wish to see closely the field work?
UWA Human resource manual provides for volunteering opportunities but depends on whether such services are beneficial to both parties upon which an agreement will be signed and approved by UWA top management.
-What someone could concretely do to support you and the cause of mountain gorillas?
Improvement of community livelihoods living adjacent the PA in order to reduce pressure on the forest products.
Acquiring land to work as a buffer zone in areas frequently visited by gorillas.
Funding economic valuation of the park including mountain gorillas
Supporting development of feasible interventions to crop raiding by gorillas.
Funding a study to investigate why gorillas range outside the park.