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Silverback gorilla Rafiki was the leader of a 17-member group in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. Image:Uganda Wildlife Authority
by Julia Fine, ODP Contributing Writer
Due to the impact of the pandemic, poaching has “surged” in Uganda, as Dina Fine Maron reported last week in National Geographic. Using illegal wire snares and steel traps, poachers are able to catch unsuspecting animals such as antelopes, giraffes, and lions. According to National Geographic, “thousands” of these traps have been used in Uganda’s national parks since mid-March.
As Halima Athumani reported in Voice of America, Ugandan authorities have said “the halt to tourism caused by COVID-19 has pushed many people who depended on tourists into poaching the very animals the industry depends on.” Indeed, according to NatGeo, it seems like local communities facing starvation are setting these traps, rather than organized crime networks. Because of the collapse of tourism, which created the need for alternative income sources, the amount of wildlife poaching has doubled as compared to last year.
Why This Matters: Yesterday, we reported on the story of Ophiocordyceps sinensis, better known as Himalayan Viagra, and noted that it “demonstrates the need for a people-centered conservation strategy that thinks not only of the region’s survival, but also on the people dependent on the land’s resources.” So too do we need a people-centered vision of conservation in Ugandan parks. That means providing alternative income sources to communities in order to deter them from poaching, as many conservationists in Uganda are calling for.
Recent Casualties: Local communities, according to NatGeo, are attempting to catch animals like antelopes and wild boars. They either sell the meat of the animals or use it to nourish themselves. But these steel traps are, of course, not discerning. Lions, giraffes, and, most recently, a silverback gorilla have all died in the traps or through accidental spearing.
Tragically, last month, the famous mountain gorilla Rafiki was “killed by a sharp object that penetrated his internal organs,” as BBC reported. A suspect admitted that he and three others “had been hunting smaller animals in the park and that he killed Rafiki in self-defense when he was attacked,” according to the Uganda Wildlife Authority. The mountain gorilla, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, is an endangered species.
Need for Community Engagement: Before COVID-19, tourism helped create jobs and bring income into local communities. As NatGeo reported, permits for gorilla-viewing tours cost $600. The resulting revenue sharing agreements meant local communities got a portion of permit sales, as well as some of the gate fees. The loss of tourists, in turn, has meant a loss of a major income source for many community members.
Biologist Martha Robbins, in an interview with NatGeo, said it best: “Conservation needs to have multifaceted approaches, and the needs of local communities require more attention so the whole house of cards doesn’t fall apart when global tourism comes to a halt.” To protect both local communities and Uganda’s biodiversity, a conservation plan with buy-in from and protection for local communities must be implemented.
Taking a Stand: There are examples of how protected areas are succeeding in the fight against poaching during the pandemic. For instance, the Mala Mala Game Reserve is one of the oldest and largest private game reserves in South Africa and is working with local communities as well as the South African government to ensure park rangers and staff get paid during the pandemic. Though conservation understandably varies from country to country in Africa, empowering community-based conservation is perhaps the most powerful tool to deter poaching.
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