MBALE – Mt Elgon national park is renowned for the teeming wildlife and birds that attract millions of tourists from around the world every year.
But lurking in the shadows is the menace of poaching illegal timber cutting and Parkland encroachment that have taken on deadly dimensions and have seen not just the killing of wildlife species but also the killing of game rangers who are at the forefront of wildlife conservation.
The Uganda Wildlife Authority [UWA] rangers have lived dangerously with Mt. Elgon encroachers, poachers, timber thieves and settlers for close to four decades.
Today for game rangers at Mt Elgon, protecting wildlife has become a life-threatening mission since poaching, timber thieving and encroachment have become the fastest growing crimes in the national parks..
Many rangers in Mt Elgon national park face the threat of death daily in the line of duty, from communities living around the park and even from the wild animals they are meant to protect.
Mr Fred Kiiza Kayanja the Mt Elgon conservation area manager says that Mt Elgon rangers live dangerously due to attacks from illegal encroachers and poachers over forest resources.
He explained that the communities around Mt Elgon park are very harsh; they have killed, injured and maimed permanently many UWA rangers.
“We have actually lost three people this year while others have been injured or maimed permanently. It is a tough road to work especially for our rangers who are deployed inside the park to oversee the Mt Elgon national resource,” said Mr Kizza.
UWA, the institution mandated to oversee wildlife management in Uganda has been having a lot of challenges with the communities living near Mt Elgon national park due to lack of clear boundary demarcation.
“There is tension between UWA rangers and the communities, each of them ready to kill the other, local people are armed with spears, Machetes while UWA is armed with guns,” said Mr Kizza.
Over time the tensions between fighters from the communities surrounding the park and UWA rangers have heightened to high degrees putting the lives of the rangers in a precarious position
The battles – over control of park land, park resources and ownership of the parkland – have seen several communities living around the park now fighting against anybody in UWA uniform and anybody they suspect to be an ally to UWA.
The Mt Elgon reserve established in 1968, found on Uganda-Kenya border and in 1993 it was gazetted as a national park composed of eucalyptus trees without clear boundary demarcation and all attempts to formalize it have failed close to 27 years because of violence from the unfriendly neighbours to the park.
And due to the carving out of the land for the Mt Elgon national Park, local communities lost invaluable herding resources and sometimes agricultural land and in this incidence local people bear the cost of conservation because of foregoing the opportunity to use their land in alternate ways.
“And for lack of land for farming and settlement, communities forcefully returned to the park as this was the only place they could find free land and resources for their living,” an elder Mr Serapio Muzenze from Zesui in Sironko district said.
Today, if you visited Mt Elgon Park; you notice that the park faces encroachment from local cultivators, settlers, poachers and illegal timber cutters who continue to put pressure on the park land due to big populations.
Mr Muzenze says that local people are up in arms against anybody who would deny them an opportunity to get further into the park
To the rangers Mt Elgon national Park’s tremendously fertile soil, its trees, and its creatures should be protected by law for the viewing pleasure of well-off tourists who occasionally visit this resource.
But still, well over 90 percent of known communities surrounding Mt Elgon Park have made war, some frequently and quite brutally against UWA rangers who usually fall by the capricious machetes making their work murky and with no foreseeable end.
The rangers have across their arms and backs is a grisly network of scars, testifying to their semi-enslavement in the national Park seeing men in their 20s permanently marked by brutality from the communities.
Mr Walter Odokrwot, the warden in charge conservation at Mt Elgon national Park said UWA rangers face horrific abuses, including death, injuries, permanent maiming as they struggle to protect the park.
He added that the local communities accuse them of raping their wives and attacking anybody from the community who goes to the park to collect mushrooms, honey, firewood, herbs etc.
“UWA rangers have often been the main victims of the conflict with the communities living around the park, they have faced indiscriminate killings and been victims of small arms fire that has long characterized the fighting in Mt Elgon national park,” said Mr Odokrwot.
He explained that UWA rangers have nowhere to hide, they have to face the wrath of the communities surrounding Mt Elgon national park who see them as enemies who have denied them an opportunity to get timber from the park and fertile land for farming.
He explained that besides the Big Four, the mountain is home to 300 birds including 40 restricted range species and that 56 of the 87 Afrotropical highland biome species live here, notably the Moorland Francolin, Moustached Green Tinkerbird and Alpine Chat.
He added that birds whose Ugandan range is limited to Mount Elgon include the Jackson’s Francolin and Black-collared Apalis and among those limited to just a few mountains in eastern Uganda are the Black-shouldered Kite and Tacazze Sunbird.
“Although Mt Elgon is one of the few places in Uganda where the endangered Lammergeyer can be seen, soaring above the caldera and Suam Gorge, most of the birds have been scared by encroachers, poachers, constant shooting during fights between UWA rangers and encroachers to move to Kenya side of Mt Elgon,” said Mr Odokorwot.
The UWA maintains that Mt Elgon Park resource also constitutes a unique natural heritage that is of great importance both nationally and these resources contribute directly and indirectly to the local and national economy through revenue generation and wealth creation.
Reports from the local communities surrounding the Park indicate that in 2001- 2002 when UWA wanted to open up a boundary and re-demarcate the park with fresh demarcation; many people were caught in the park again.
“So what UWA did was to evict these people by first destroying their crops with many ending up homeless/.landless without compensation and this again became the genesis of the whole crisis,” says Mr Nathan Musooli, a local leader in Bumasobo.
Mr Musooli revealed that many people left with nothing had to start to fight UWA rangers with animosity and that to date UWA is an enemy to encroachers at Mt Elgon national park.
“They are still fighting because they have been deprived of their survival; they were mushroom/wild fruit gathers, Timber collectors and poachers and farmers in Mt Elgon and will continue to fight until they are given land by UWA and government,” said Mr Musooli.
This is in line with recent studies that show that the majority of the local people around protected areas have negative feelings about state policies and conservation programmes and that they don’t have time to listen to the programmes/policies.
Although UWA argument is that extractive use of forest of a range of timber and non timber forest products, cultivation of the land and settlement is a threat to biodiversity, local farmers argue that if properly monitored and controlled it is not a threat to biodiversity.
Mr Kizza says the UWA rangers and the community conflicts, therefore, are a consequence of the problem of resource utilisation in conservation areas and that such conflicts do not solve this problem, however, but adversely affects biodiversity.
He explains that land use changes favoring agriculture and settlement have led to the reduction and modification of Mt Elgon Park areas, resulting in the extinction of or threat of extinction to wildlife species and natural areas which serve as a habitat for Wildlife.
He revealed that this year alone about three rangers have been killed by the communities around Mt Elgon Park, many maimed permanently and that the communities continue being harsh to the UWA rangers.
A situation analysis report by UWA 2019 indicates that the communities/encroachers have caused them several deaths and numerous injuries while executing their duties in defense of conservation, wildlife protection, and maintaining this crucial water catchment area.
Mr Christopher Masaba, the senior warden in charge of Pien-Upe game reserve says Illegal hunters decimate endangered wildlife to gather big cat body parts to sell in East Asia, as well as bush meat—including gorillas, monkeys, lions and pangolins—to eat.
“And without the UWA rangers, I think the situation would be worse and most animals that are a big tourist attraction would be no more,” Mr Masaba explained.
Mr David Kibale, the former LCV for Sironko most of whose relatives live in the Park consents the life of UWA rangers is at stake and that anytime they can lose their lives while doing their work of protecting the Park.
“And as for now, UWA should now train local communities to be friendly to rangers and to know that Mt Elgon national Park is not only a national resource but also a global one,” said Mr Kibale, a neighbour to Mt Elgon national Park.
Alex Solimo, UWA ranger and tourist guide based at Budadiri Tourism centre, 53, told PML daily he has encountered many poachers and illegal timber cutters while guiding tourists at Mt Elgon.
“But the most dangerous incident happened in 2015 when we came face to face with poachers while moving towards Wagagai peak, there was an exchange of fire, we all took off in different directions,” said Solimo.
“So while in this national Park, we walk in fear, fear of the poachers and illegal timber cutters, that is the life we lead here, a life of fear,” added Solimo.
Mr Asuman Namakanga, an encroacher who has allegedly sued UWA for human rights abuse says local people have interpreted UWA to mean ‘Wuwa’, a Swahili word that means kill and adds that UWA has also been killing local communities.
“WE need peace because we have fought for a longtime, we need a rest, government and UWA should re-demarcate the Park land and allow us some land inside the Park for farming and settlement,” Mr Namakanga said.
According to UWA deputy director operations Mr Charles Tumwesigye, about 25 rangers have lost their lives in the line of duty over the past five years across all protected wildlife areas.
“Some were murdered by poachers and others by armed robbers targeting cash paid by tourists at national parks gates in protected areas.” Said Mr Tumwesigye.
According to the International Ranger Federation (IRF), an average of 100 game rangers die annually protecting wildlife, with over 1,000 recorded fatalities between 2004 and 2014, a figure that could easily double since many developing countries do not keep detailed records.
According to the 2014 report by IRF, which has been monitoring ranger deaths since 2000, the 2014 death toll reached 102, with poachers and militia responsible for 69 of those deaths and that of the 56 rangers who lost their lives in the line of duty between 2013 and 2014 worldwide, 29 were killed by poachers.