When nature conservation goes wrong

Kyambura Gorge in Queen Elizabeth National Park, seen on Feb. 4, 2020, is home to an array of primate species, including chimpanzees, baboons, vervet monkeys, and the black-and-white colobus.

KYAMBURA, Uganda—The dry season had only just begun, but Muhammad Bwambale was already running out of options. Money and decent work were always in short supply for villagers in the Ugandan community of Kyambura, but a bad harvest had pushed them to the edge. One tantalizing option remained.

Bwambale and his neighbors lived atop a dramatic escarpment overlooking the vast savannah of Queen Elizabeth National Park—a diverse mosaic of grasslands, lakes, and forests teeming with big game. The community understood its conservation value and welcomed its stream of tourists who occasionally visited the village to buy handicrafts. But there were tensions.

Villagers felt snubbed by the authorities when they failed to get compensation after crop-raiding elephants trampled their valuable produce. And those whose desperate living conditions compelled them to venture into the park and hunt game faced being arrested—or worse.

But if Bwambale could just sneak in and return with a few antelope or buffalo, he could help his malnourished daughter and terminally ill wife stave off hunger, selling the remaining bushmeat to make some money. According to his neighbors, he and four others armed themselves with a rudimentary arsenal of machetes, spears, and traps—guns were far too expensive—and headed into the park before dawn.

Two days later, he was dead.

Wildlife rangers patrolling the park had stumbled on the group, allegedly shooting Bwambale and causing the other four to scatter. Eventually, they returned to Kyambura with the tragic news. Soon afterward, his wife died, leaving their young daughter, Bira, without either parent. The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) did not refute the allegations, instead of saying it was “not aware of the case of Bwambale’s shooting.”

But Bira would not be the last child from her village to be orphaned by parents who tried hunting to keep their families fed. As hardship drives villagers to poach, a sisterhood has formed to raise Bira and other orphans whose fathers were killed while hunting. Some of these women are themselves, widows of the poaching crisis, having lost their husbands in this park—yet forced to mourn in secret.

Anger toward so-called subsistence poachers often outweighs empathy for their difficult circumstances and the families they leave behind. But the pressures on this tiny village point to a wider conflict unfolding globally that divides environmentalists on the most effective and appropriate solution to a complex puzzle that resists easy answers.

As the climate crisis intensifies and wilderness areas are lost at a precipitous level, mainstream conservationists are calling for the expansion of protected areas to safeguard the survival of threatened species and halt the fragmentation of habitats in which they live. But protected areas typically promote the enforced division of people and nature—an ideology that has proven disastrous for Indigenous communities. It raises an uncomfortable question that can no longer be ignored: Conservation of nature may be necessary to save the planet—but what if it creates human disasters of its own?

One humid, overcast morning last February, Dan Namara walked briskly down a muddy track atop the scenic escarpment above Queen Elizabeth National Park. A few hours earlier before dawn, groups of tourists had set off in the opposite direction, packed into four-by-fours for the chance to spot the park’s dazzling array of wildlife. But this wiry, smartly dressed 35-year-old wasn’t interested in the view. He had a meeting scheduled with Martha Kabugho, who had adopted Bira, and her fellowship of foster mothers and had agreed to take me with him.

Three years earlier, Namara had founded a charity called the Kyambura Orphanage Needy Development Centre. Despite the antiquated name, its mission was urgent: to help children whose parents had died from disease or while hunting and to encourage the community to diversify livelihoods and coexist with wildlife. “People living around the park face serious challenges,” Namara said. “They rely on farming for survival, but if their crops are damaged, they struggle to support their children. We help them find alternatives so they don’t retaliate against the animals when their crops are destroyed. If they keep hunting, there will be no park left.”

Namara’s small organization supports 75 children—a third of which are orphans—along with more than 40 widows and single mothers living in hard-up households across five villages. He monitors their welfare and runs traditional dance courses for the youngsters, who perform at surrounding hotels to pay their school fees. When meeting with villagers, he explained the importance of conserving this wildlife-rich area, highlighting its draw to tourists from whom these families can derive an income.

Although his charity dates back to 2017, Queen Elizabeth National Park traces its origins to 1952, 10 years before Uganda won its independence from British colonial rule. Straddling the equator and spanning more than 700 square miles, the area has become a thriving ecosystem encompassing fertile wetlands, grassy plains, and a forested gorge.

Dotted with volcanic craters and framed by the jagged Rwenzori Mountains, it is home to some 95 species of mammals, including 10 types of primate and more than 500 species of birds, from the African emerald cuckoo to the pink-backed pelican. Pods of hippos mingle on muddy banks among buffalo and elephant, while the park’s famous tree-climbing lions lounge in acacias after stalking herds of duiker, reedbuck, and topi antelope. Whether first light or sundown, this majestic landscape appears blessed with awe-inspiring magic.

Yet, as with so many national parks, the idyllic impression of an untouched Eden hides a troubled past of conflict, displacement, and social injustice. These rolling plains once formed the traditional territory of a pastoralist group called the Basongora. Under imperial rule, this community of cattle herders fell victim to outbreaks of sleeping sickness and rinderpest, spread by way of European colonization. They then lost 90 percent of their grazing land to the national park, according to Minority Rights Group International, which describes how they “were evicted, their animals destroyed and huts torched, and no alternative settlement was provided, all in the name of wildlife protection.”

Post-independence governments intensified pressures on this vulnerable, landless group. Facing constant eviction and intercommunal clashes, the Basongoras were forced into the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Compounded by the onslaught of modernity, this protracted exile has eroded the group’s cultural heritage and storytelling tradition—a cornerstone of the group’s collective memory—to the brink of extinction.

The Basongora’s original territory was also changing in dramatic ways. In the decade following the park’s creation, an estimated 30,000 elephants roamed this and Uganda’s other large reserves during the 1960s. However, during the tumultuous 1970s and 80s, as the coup followed the military coup, poachers decimated the population of these magnificent creatures to a low of 700 to 800 elephants, while Uganda as a whole lost an estimated 50 percent of its biodiversity from hunting and habitat destruction. During the 1990s and 2000s, the spillover effects from the Rwandan genocide and the insurgency waged by the Lord’s Resistance Army intensified pressures further, as poaching escalated alongside a drop in revenue, staff morale, and visitor numbers.

The combination of growing political stability and increased ranger patrols eventually produced a resurgence of elephants in Queen Elizabeth National Park. In 2014, its population surpassed the 3,000 elephant mark, even as the continent’s total elephant numbers continued their decline. Ivory poaching at the park was dropping in tandem with the arrival of refugee elephants fleeing the DRC’s drawn-out war where rebels traded tusks for guns.

In 2006, the Basongora was forced to flee the DRC, and the herdsmen began returning to Uganda with their cattle. Shortages in communal grazing land prompted some to enter the park, bringing them into direct contact with predators like lions, leopards, and hyenas. In retaliation to attacks on their livestock, they started killing off lions and other carnivores by lacing the carcasses of dead cows with toxic pesticides.

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