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Uganda and Rwanda need birders…

If you do not visit one of the best birding forests in Africa over the next year or two, there will be no forests left to visit; reports Giles Mulholland. So please read on…

Uganda and Rwanda need birders?

If you do not visit one of the best birding forests in Africa over the next year or two, there will be no forests left to visit; reports Giles Mulholland. So please read on…I have just returned from a 5-week trip to Uganda and Rwanda, having driven up from South Africa. This note has been drafted quickly, prior to my proper trip report, which I will post on the internet over the next month or two.The issue I want to raise is not about the ’"normal’" problems experienced in Europe & America where the high tourist numbers are causing degradation of the environment - but rather the opposite: if more tourists do not arrive soon, the environment will be destroyed. Both Uganda and Rwanda are facing severe land shortages given that they are land-locked countries, and are totally reliant on producing all their food requirements internally. This land shortage means that forest areas are invariably surrounded by high-intensity agriculture - even on the steepest slopes or apparently inhospitable areas. Many people are even moving from these countries into the Democratic Republic of Congo in order to find more land - and where forest preservation is not such a major issue. In Uganda, a serious effort has been made in terms of community projects to save the major forests - supported by many organisations in Europe as well as the Wildlife Conservation Society & USAID in the US. Perhaps the most visible community projects are at the Bwindi (Impenetrable), Budongo and Mabira Forests - although there are many others. In these areas, the tourist facilities (campsites, cutting of trails and guiding services) have been carried out by the local communities. All income from these areas (other than gorilla tracking in Bwindi) go to the local community to allow them to maintain the tourist facilities and hence protect the environment. From the early 1990’'s until recently, this has proved sufficiently beneficial that the communities protected the forests, and only harvested enough wood for their own essential needs - and hence preserved some of the best birding forests in Africa.However, over the last couple of years, the tourist numbers have dropped off to such an extent that the communities want to give up their projects and chop down the forests to allow more profitable use of the land. Uganda (and Rwanda) have some of the most significant natural heritage in the world. In the 1960’'s, the Murchison Falls National Park had the highest biomass per hectare of anywhere on Earth. While much of this was destroyed in the 70’'s, the environment is rapidly returning to its previous status - because the local authorities and communities have the will to manage it.So what has gone wrong?

Quite simply, too many people have become neurotic over the security issues in Africa. Let me give one example of what happened while I was in the area a few weeks ago.

In early June, there was a single incursion by guerrillas in the north-west of Rwanda - in a Rwandan National Park that had been closed for some time due to these security problems. However, the Volcanoes tourist company (according to information supplied to me by the local authorities) sent out a message saying that they were closing all their operations in Uganda due to the risk to tourists. As a result, many other companies cancelled all their Ugandan operations, even though there was no problem in Uganda. The fact that no park in Uganda was affected, nor even closed as a precautionary measure was ignored. Given a single incident a few years ago, the Ugandan authorities have become so cautious about security issues that they will close a National Park (e.g. Semuliki) for up to 6 months after the last security-related incident, just to ensure the safety of tourists.The net effect of this one incident is that the Buhoma community campsite has been virtually deserted for weeks - and the gorilla tracking trips are virtually empty. Only 3 years ago there was a 30-day waiting list to track gorillas - now you don?t even have to book. I met several tourist groups with VERY unhappy clients who were not allowed to visit the gorillas by their tour companies - even though they had already paid for it. And yet there was nothing stopping them from going Gorilla tracking - other than the ’"western’" perception that it was too dangerous.And my personal experience? Well in Rwanda, the facilities were excellent, and the Nyungwe Forest reserve was quite unbelievable. I have never experienced better or easier birding. Yet the average number of visitors to this area was ONE PERSON PER WEEK. So how long can the existence of this huge forest - the good tarred road runs for 60 kilometres through the forest - be expected to continue. Probably less than 5 years. Security issues? None - even when I drove to within 100 metres of the DRC border.In Uganda, the same was true, although in Bwindi they offered a (free) armed soldier to accompany every walk, even though there has been no incident within miles for 2 years. The only area where security was taken seriously was in the Semuliki National Park, which is still officially closed. Here I was provided with a (free) 10 soldier guard - even though the last incident was over 6 months ago. (I will give details on visiting this fabulous reserve in my trip report).To conclude: tourism in Rwanda and Uganda has reached levels so low that the preservation of the environment is no longer economically viable. Unless tourist numbers increase NOW, the forests will be destroyed. Too many ’"western-centric’" (and especially western-owned) tourist companies react irresponsibly to rumours, without thought to the effect they are having on the environment. There are plenty of African-based companies which are more responsible, and actually know what is happening. If there is a genuine risk to their clients, they will cancel the visits to those areas. If the current trend is not reversed, Africa’'s best forests will soon be destroyed - not through vandalism, but because the ’"western world’" has told the locals that they don?t value the forests, so they might as well chop them down to feed themselves.For those that are interested in visiting, here is a list of the a few of the species I saw on my trip: Nahan’'s (Forest) Francolin, (Latham’'s) Forest Francolin, Red-chested Owlet, White-crested Hornbill, Black-throated Barbet, Green-breasted Pitta, Green (Grauer’'s) Broadbill, Violet-backed Hyliota, Yellow-footed Flycatcher (a first record for Semuliki NP), Gambaga Flycatcher (a first record for Murchison Falls NP), Red-collared (Mountain-) Babbler, Fox Weaver and Shelley’'s Crimson-wing. On passing through Kenya & Tanzania I was able to add the a few more species such as Sokoke Scops Owl, Malindi & Sokoke Pipits, Clarke’'s and Tanganyika Masked Weavers. In total I saw around 600 species during the trip.So please, visit this part of Africa soon. If you need any further information, please contact me, and I will try and help as much as possible - or will ask someone else here to assist.Giles Mulholland
Director: Operational Support
Gauteng Provincial Legislature,
Johannesburg, South Africa
Tel: +27 (11) 498-5902

4th July 2014