KAMPALA, UGANDA - Uganda's wildlife authorities say the halt to tourism income caused by COVID-19 has pushed many people who depended on tourists into poaching the very animals the industry depends on. Uganda's national parks recorded a doubling of wildlife poaching during the pandemic compared to this time last year. Uganda's conservationists are looking for alternative income sources for the communities to stop the poaching.
Between February and June of this year, the Uganda Wildlife Authority recorded 367 poaching cases across the country, more than double the 163 cases recorded during a similar period in 2019.
John Makombo, the Uganda Wildlife Authority director for conservation, attributes the increase to the COVID-19 lockdown, lost income for people who work in the tourism industry and inadequate human resources to cover all the conservation areas.
Tourism is usually Uganda's leading foreign exchange earner, reaping $1.6 billion in the 2018-2019 financial year alone.
But, with the closure of the tourism sector due to COVID-19, Makombo says the tourism sector is not taking in any money, making the national parks vulnerable to poachers.
"That loss of benefit has led to job loss and unemployment of many stakeholders," Makombo said. "Some of the jobless community members have turned their spears against the wildlife as poachers."
The most recent incident was the killing of Rafiki, a beloved silverback gorilla in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in South Western Uganda.
Gladys Kalema Zikusoka is founder and chief of Conservation through Public Health, a non-profit wildlife group. She says most gorilla killings are accidental, but killings of other animals are not.
"They set snares for other animals that they want to eat. Like, the small antelope. Or a bushpig," Kalema said. "They'll go for those to eat them. And when they set these snares, gorillas can accidentally get caught in the snare. But worse still, we've had cases of people spearing gorillas. Yet they were not going for gorillas, they were going for diker and bush pig."
According to Uganda's Tourism Act, 20 percent of all revenue collected in national parks is directed to local communities, including $10 of all permits from Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
In the current circumstances, however, that money has dried up.
Kalema says to cut down on poaching, her organization and the Uganda Wildlife Authority have started an enterprise where farmers are given an above market price for their coffee.
"These are farmers who we engage so that they do not have to go into the park to poach to be able to feed their families," Kalema said. "We are encouraging them, we are trying to see how to get them seedlings for fast growing food so that they can at least eat. They are not starving while they wait for tourism to come back. These local communities, I think, they can co-exist with wildlife, but if they are hungry, it's very difficult for them to co-exist."
According to the Uganda Wildlife Authority, wildlife in Kidepo, Lake Mburo, Murchison Falls and Bwindi Impenetrable national parks remain vulnerable despite efforts to enhance patrols around protected areas.
The authority is ensuring its rangers spend more time with the gorillas - which are the main attraction in the parks -- to lessen the chance that they could wander off and be poached.