Curbing human-wildlife conflict could boost efforts to conserve the mountain gorilla
Growing up in the hills of Kisoro in South Western Uganda, Gard Mbonimpa always knew one way to survive, farming. He watched his parents every morning in the gardens by the foot of the Mountain Muhavura, growing Irish potatoes and other vegetables for subsistence.
Now 43 years old, Mbonimpa has taken on the realm of his deceased parents. Having dropped out of school in primary three, he too now grows Irish potatoes by the slopes of Mountain Muhavura just at the edge of the Mgahinga National Park, and has recently adopted growing wheat which he and several farmers here sell to a leading beer company in the country.
Over 200 people in this Kabande village have small partitioned gardens just by the edge of the park on which their livelihoods depend; growing wheat, millet, onions, and Irish potatoes which they sell to middlemen who in turn sell them in Kisoro town, Kigali and as far as the capital Kampala.
“It is from this farming that I have managed the welfare of my family and to pay school fees for my children some of whom are done with school,” Mbonimpa, a father of six said through a translator.
But it’s not all rosy for the farmers of Kabande village. Their gardens just adjacent to the park have been prone to attacks from wild animals which destroy most of the crops. Some retaliate and animals are killed. This has not been happening only in Kabande village but in five other villages surrounding the park.
When attacks persisted, the farmers made groups that would patrol the gardens at night to keep animals away.
“We would put up makeshift tents and sleep in the gardens for the sole purpose of keeping animals away from the gardens. It was both tough and dangerous,” Mbonimpa said.
One rainy night, a storm blew away his makeshift structure and he fell terribly ill the next day because of the cold while on another night an attack by a buffalo left his right leg injured.
Mbonimpa would expect to earn $1,100 from his about three acres each season but with the animal attacks, he simply made away with only $400 each harvest.
There has however been some relief for Kabande village following the reinforcement of a 1.2km stone wall to separate the park from the gardens and prevent animals from invading them.
Working with the Uganda Wildlife Authority, the wall was built by the International Gorilla Conservation Programme, an organization ensuring the conservation of mountain gorillas and their regional Afromontane forest habitant in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo together with Wegeningen University in the Netherlands.
According to the farmers here, since the wall was built, there have been few cases of conflict between the park animals and the communities living around it.
“So far the results are very good, if you look around, the plants are flourishing. Some of these gardens had been abandoned but currently farmers have come back and we expect a much higher yield at the end of this season,”Mbonimpa said.
Over the years, the community here has clashed with animals in the park mainly for survival. While the animals invade gardens, the people in turn invade the park for either revenge attacks, poaching, firewood and water.
Kabande village for example which has over 20,000 people according to the area chairperson has had no established water source in years. The villagers here found it easier to sneak into the park and collect water from its streams than walking nearly 7km to another village with an established water source.
According to Mr Duhimbaze Gad, the LC1 chairperson of Kabanda village, many villagers who took that risk were either shot at by Uganda Wildlife Authority rangers, or arrested and fined amounts they could not afford.
Through the water4virungas project, implemented by International Gorilla Conservation Programme, interventions like the stone wall and provision of water sources to about 21,000 homesteads to communities here is reducing human wildlife conflicts and easing pressure on the park.
The interventions are part of a wider effort to conserve the endangered mountain gorillas which live in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo through ensuring minimal human-wildlife conflicts.
According to official data, the world population of the endangered Mountain gorillas is estimated to be at slightly more than 1,000 with more than half living in Uganda.
The mountain gorillas survive in only two regions in the world, Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and the Virunga Massif, a chain of volcanoes stretching nearly 174 square miles across Rwanda, Uganda and DRC.
The Mountain gorillas are popular amongst tourists and they contributed the biggest chunk of the $1.6 billion that Uganda earned from the tourism sector two years ago before the Coronavirus pandemic struck.
According to Ms Anna Behm Masozera, the Director of the International Gorilla Conservation Programme, there is a need to find win-win solutions for Wildlife in protected areas and people especially those living near the protected areas.
“Mountain gorilla conservation is regarded as a success story, but continued success will only be possible if we work collaboratively to address the issues and conflicts affecting people who live adjacent to mountain gorilla habitat and the threats facing mountain gorillas,” Masozera said.
According to Masozera, Coexistence of people with wildlife is a critical component to the survival of the mountain gorilla and that through effective dialog and engagement of people, their representatives, wildlife and water authorities, the Water4Virungas project has made a significant contribution to reducing conflicts between people and wildlife in the transboundary Virunga Massif.
In Rwanda, the project focused on integrated watershed management being implemented in collaboration with the Rwanda Development Board, local government, and community based organizations.
Similar to what was accomplished around Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda, there has been a rehabilitation of the stone wall and trench to prevent human-wildlife conflict around Volcanoes National Park.
In DRC, to mitigate conflict, Water4Virungas is supporting the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN)/ Virunga National Park in improving and constructing an electric fence system to reduce crop raiding by wildlife.
Five water supply schemes are being put in place with water from various available water sources from within and outside of the national park and will improve water availability for nearly 38,000 additional households
“Mountain gorillas are dependent on a transboundary ecosystem, therefore transboundary efforts are needed to ensure their survival and coexistence with people,” Masozera said.