By Alex Gahima
Gorilla Doctors Field Veterinarian Dr. Fred Nizeyimana has revealed that all human habituated Mountain Gorillas that are currently in 20 groups, in Mount Mgahinga and Bwindi Impenetrable National Parks totalling to 240 individual gorillas are generally in good health except for some with cuts and wounds.
The revelation was made yesterday during the celebrations of the World Gorilla Day, slated for September 24th every year.
The theme for this year’s celebrations was, “Balancing Mountain Gorilla Conservation and Community Livelihood”.
While addressing a Stakeholders meeting at Bamboo gardens, Dr. Nizeyimana explained that the injuries sustained by the Gorillas is often during the courtship process leading up to the mating and siring of infants.
Gorillas live in groups also known as troops, which consist of one dominant male silverback, other males, juveniles, females and their young.
“It is no easy pick for the Mountain Gorilla who has peaked his sexual maturity and desires to sire an infant. The injuries we often encounter are those sustained during fights with males. Some wounds can be managed by us while others are left to heal on their own, Dr. Nizeyimana explained
He further commended the Uganda Wild life Authority (UWA) for their effective management in conserving the natural habitat of the Mountain Gorilla especially during the Covid-19 Pandemic which resulted in a baby boom of the Mountain Gorillas in Mgahinga and Bwindi national Parks.
The Estimate total number of Gorillas in the Virunga mass currently stands at 1063.
The Virungas region includes Mgahinga Gorilla National Park (Uganda), Parc National des Volcans (Rwanda) and Parc National des Virunga (Democratic Republic of Congo).
The In-charge of Mount Mgahinga National Park Richard Muhabwe explained that the Mountain Gorilla is the flagship species that attracts more than 70% of tourism earnings into the country.
Muhabwe revealed that due to the continued efforts of sensitizing the communities bordering the protected areas of Mgahinga, cases of poaching and illegal entry into the park have greatly reduced.
He noted that the biggest culprits, who have now become the champions of Conservation are the Batwa communities of Nyagakenke and Rukeri villages, located in Muramba and Nyarusiza Sub counties respectively.
“We are aware that the Batwa have not been able to directly earn a living because they can no longer participate in guiding, dancing and singing for tourists therefore, they must be in a very bad state, we have donated food items to the Batwa because we recognize them as key stakeholders in conservation”, Muhabwe explained
Courtesy Call to Nyagakenke and Rukeri Batwa Communities
A small but dignified delegation comprising of (UWA) staff, Kisoro district Local Government representatives, Hoteliers and members of civil society, in line with the Covid-19 Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), paid a visit to the Batwa communities.
The chief Walker Alex Ndambajimana, the LCV councilor for Central division, who represented Kisoro district LCV chairperson Abel Bizimana said the Batwa communities have, in recent years excelled in supporting conservation programs in the protected areas of Mgahinga National Park.
He noted that they are still vulnerable because they do not own land of their own.
Safari Monday, the Chairperson of the Nyagakenke Batwa Settlement said his community is made of 21 households.
Safari explained that due to Covid-19, tourists in the area are very few adding that life has been difficult. He thanked the Stakeholders for remembering them.
He requested the UWA authorities to include them in recruitment for positions as potters, tour guides and rangers in the future so as to support their families.
Rukeri Batwa Chairperson Serutoke Steven explained that his household community of 15 families are committed to protecting the natural habitat of the Mountain Gorilla.
Festo Kamanzi, one of the lead facilitators said the Batwa community has benefitted from gorilla tourism. He explained that the Batwa youth have been given close to 250 scholarships at various learning levels, including a multipurpose building that serves as a class room and clinic.
It is more than two decades since Batwa pygmies were chased out of their native forests in Uganda to make way for the country’s mountain gorilla tourism.
Eviction of the Batwa dates back to the 1930s when the British colonial government declared vast swathes of the south-west to be forest reserves.
In 1991, President Yoweri Museveni with support from the World Bank, officially gazetted the land into a series of national parks leading to a booming gorilla tourism, the country has become accustomed to.
Revenue Sharing Plunges due to Covid-19 Pandemic
Community Conservation Warden Mgahinga Gorilla National Park Aulea Kyarimpa Tumwebaze explained that through the Revenue Sharing arrangement, 20% of the gate collection fee is collected from the two National Parks.
She further noted that another 10% on Gorilla tracking fee was included due to the booming gorilla tourism bringing the total to 30%, meant to benefit villages and parishes bordering the protected areas, under the revenue sharing arrangement.
In the financial year of 2018/19, a total of 4 billion Ugandan shillings was collected for Kanungu, Kisoro and Rubanda.
Only 933 million shillings was channeled to Kisoro district, of which 147 million shillings was meant to cater for 12 villages bordering Mountain Mgahinga National Park while 786 Million shillings went to cater for 96 villages bordering Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
Kyarimpa Tumwebaze explained that due to the low turn up of tourists from 2020/21, the revenue sharing for communities bordering Mountain Mgahinga National Park will only be 20 million shillings.
She further noted that, conservation efforts by stakeholders has helped communities benefit directly and indirectly adding that more efforts needs to be directed towards Community sensitization.
The comments come almost one year since, Uganda’s best known gorilla, Rafiki was killed by a poacher who has since been sentenced to 11 years in prison.
The poacher, in his statement said he Killed Rafiki because his family was hungry and tourism had not benefitted him at all.
Stakeholders speak out.
Gorilla Organization Programs Manager for Uganda and Rwanda Dr. Samson Werikhe challenged every human being to be accountable for whatever happens in the environment and wildlife.
“If the Gorillas could speak, they would tell us to keep them safe, but they cannot so we need to advocate for them because their lives are still in danger, Werikhe said
In 2018, the mountain gorilla was removed from the list of critically endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), after intensive conservation efforts, including anti-poaching patrols, paid off.
The IUCN now classifies the species as endangered.
Dr. Werikhe’s dissertation titled, Can the Mountain Gorilla Survive, Population and Habitat Viability Assessment for Gorilla gorilla beringe, back in 1997 resulted in the Government decision to gazette Mgahinga National Park.
Bwindi Mgahinga Conservation Trust (BMCT) Programs Officer in-charge of Community development in Kahunzire Claire said Batwa communities were not targeted because their vulnerability only but also because they closely understand the eco-system and have been friends of the gorillas for decades.
Kahunzire explained that the Batwa need to be empowered more to realize how vital they are in the grand scheme of things.
Chairperson of Tour operators and Hotelier in Kisoro Gerrard Nkusi said it would not be possible to navigate the wild forests without the support of the Batwa. He however advocated for more efforts towards conservation of the environment.
Gorilla Highland Coffee Proprietor Rugaya Richard explained that the two leading foreign earners to Uganda include Gorilla tourism and coffee exports.
Rugaya noted that it is imperative to support Batwa communities who are a big part of the tourism experience.
“I am guaranteed that if a tourist enjoys his day in the forest gorilla tracking and visiting the Batwa communities, he will definitely enjoy a good cup of locally source coffee which is a win- win for everyone involved”, Rugaya explained
Kisoro district tourism officer Richard Munezero said it has been more than three years since the gorilla groups have remained on the Ugandan side and that is because the forests have regenerated due to reduced human wildlife conflict.
“The communities often entered the forest looking for water but thanks to Water 4 Virungas and National Water, people have access to piped water, which means less people in the park, less trouble for our gorillas”, said Munezero