KASESE: Mr Emmanuel Basaza has spent most of his life in the tourism industry. He owns a tour company; Rwenzori founders limited based in Kasese district in Western Uganda. In the last couple of years, he has seen his business grow due to the increase of the elephant population in the nearby Queen Elizabeth National park.
“Several tourists who visit Kasese mainly love to see elephants due to their increased numbers in Queen Elizabeth national park, although the outbreak of Covid 19 in the world slowed our business in 2020, but recently business is picking up from local tourists,” he observes.
Basaza says to know that most tourists are attracted to the parks by elephants, after visiting the parks; they buy sculptures of elephants as a souvenir at his company and from other craft shops in and around Kasese and the demand is always higher compared to other sculptures in all the sculpture display centers within Kasese district.
Basaza is among the many others in the tourism value chain in Kasese that have benefited from the tourism industry due to the increased numbers of elephants because they have found Uganda as their best and safe home.
“Most hotels in and around Queen Elizabeth national park have sculptures of elephants at the entrance, among them is Mweya Safari lodge and Kikorongo Safari Lodge” he says.
Mr Walhuba Kule, the team leader Kiwa heritage springs in Kasese says that most tourists always task them to take them to places where elephants can easily be accessed since their interests as tourists largely depend on them while coming to Uganda.
According to the Elephanthome.com, Uganda is home to over 5000 elephants by 2019. It is still the safest home to elephants in East Africa during this wave of elephant poaching that is moving over the entire African continent.
There are two subspecies of elephants found in Uganda; the savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana) and the forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis). The savanna elephants are slightly bigger and roam in the low land plains of east, central, and South Africa. The forest elephants are smaller, shyer, and more aggressive. They are found in the forest parks such as Rwenzori, Kibale (In Kasese/Kamwenge) and Bwindi and Mgahinga (In Kisoro)
Elephants are known to have extended migration corridors in their habitat that can be hundreds of kilometers long. During the migration, they can move about 80 km or more per day, taking them months of movement back and forth depending on the availability of pastures and water they need for survival. This movement is also a strategy of looking for safe homes as well as sufficient food.
Elephants find the best home in Queen Elizabeth
The park web site, Queen is the second-largest park in Uganda followed by Murchison falls but hosts the largest number of hippos in East Africa at about 5000, elephants at 3000 and buffalos about 1000. The park also has many water bodies like Lakes Edward, George, Kazinga channel, rivers, and crater lakes that wild animals easily water themselves.
According to Elephanthome.com, the elephant’s migration has attributed to the increased number of elephants in Uganda since they move from as far as the Virunga national park in DR Congo up to Queen Elizabeth national park. Unfortunately, the in-country migration corridors within Uganda that used to connect several ecosystems (different national parks) no longer exist since they have been occupied by humans, so the elephants in Uganda are forced to be divided between the different national parks of Uganda. Of the ten national parks in Uganda, only Lake Mburo national park doesn’t have elephants.
Mr Ezuma Pontious, the Chief Warden of Queen Elizabeth national park says that the elephant population rose from 2913 in 2015 to 3953 in 2018 based on wildlife census in Queen Elizabeth national park.
Ezuma explains that the rise in elephant numbers has been partly brought about by the human settlements that have blocked the elephant old corridors in which they used to pass to migrate to other areas in the same ecosystem.
He says these corridors where they used to move easily from Queen Elizabeth to Virunga national park in DR Congo and to Mount Rwenzori and Kibale national parks and come back freely through the same corridors have been gradually blocked by human settlements.
“In recent years, the human population has increased and constructed in the corridors which have blocked the free movements of wildlife and this has caused the elephants to stray to people’s gardens enhancing conflicts within the community but on the other hand, it has boosted tourism and Queen Elizabeth is one of the top tourists’ destinations in Uganda” Ezuma says
Ezuma says such settlements in the elephant corridors include sub-counties of Isango, Nyakiyumbu, Mukunyu, lake Katwe, Karusandara and Nyamwamba division in Kasese district.
“Human population growth and periodic insurgencies have gradually curtailed the movement of elephants and other species, with villages and communities developing close to National Parks and migratory corridors” Mr Nicholas Muhesi, the project officer at Uganda Wildlife Research and Training Institute says.
Muhesi argues that the elephant remains one of the most treasured animals in the national park and thus the need for all people in Kasese to jealously protect it.
According to the National Geographic, despite the widespread decline of elephants across Africa in recent years, Uganda has reported a rising population.
“Elephants in Uganda have increased by 600 percent, to more than 5,000 individuals, from a low of 700 to 800 in the 1980s” reports a survey in May 2015 by the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Great Elephant Census, and the Uganda Wildlife Authority.
The Wildlife Conservation Society cited better protection across Uganda’s ten national parks as a major factor in their recovery.
Where to find the elephants easily
According to Mr Godfrey Twimukye, a Tour Guide at Mweya Safari Lodge in Kasese, elephants can easily be found using a hired game ride with vehicles that use the road network inside the park, but the most effective way is by a boat ride on the Kazinga channel in the afternoons which is charged Shs 30,000 per head for local tourists. He says the boat rides are scheduled for 11 am, 1 pm, 3 pm, and 5 pm, and the trip can be secured by booking at Mweya Safari Lodge at least 5 hours ahead.
“With the boat ride, it is very easy to see the elephants along Kazinga channel especially in the afternoon on a hot day as they come to quench themselves, the boat brings you closer to them than on land” he observes.
Mr Keren Muhindo, the staff with Uganda Wildlife Research and Training Institute says that since the tourists fell in love with elephants, the institute has received funding from the United Nations Environmental Program through the African Elephant Initiative is training communities along national parks on how to effectively reap from apiary while at the same time mitigating human-elephant conflicts.
Keren Muhindo says, “To combat poaching threat, Wildlife Conservation is working with the Uganda Wildlife Authority and other partners to develop and implement a strategy to curb the ivory trade and trafficking in Uganda to make Queen Elizabeth a better safe home for elephants”.
Wild animals share the same ecosystem across geographic borders and can shift from habitat to habitat and take refuge in a safer place according to the threat or the challenge they face at the time in their current habitat reasons Mr Nelson Guma, the Chief Warden of Bwindi/Mugahinga Conservation Area.
The threats or challenges range from poaching as some animals are hunted for food or treasure, climate change, to insecurity in a particular country like wars among others. For example, during Idi Amin’s regime and during the ADF war in Western Uganda, the population of elephants in Queen Elizabeth National park is said to have reduced after hundreds of them migrated to DR Congo for safety.
Mr Nelson Guma observes that “Elephants mainly in Ishasha side, part of Queen Elizabeth National park, usually, cross to DR Congo and back, the same as Bongo, an antelope in Semuliki national park usually crosses to Virunga national park and back because it is the same ecosystem”
He adds, “these animals are like humans, they also seek refuge where they find contort and where conditions are very conducive for them, so trans boundaries always happen”
Tourism in Kasese
Kasese district is one of the top destinations in Uganda’s tourism as visitors come to tour the three national parks (that are the richest in biodiversity in the country), hot springs, snowcapped Rwenzori Mountain, fresh and salty lakes, and several rivers.
According to the Kasese district portal, tourism is a significant economic activity within the District given its natural resource endowment including mountains and national parks. It has given employment to a number of people who act as tourist guides as well as working in hotels like Mweya Safari Lodge, Margherita Hotel etc.
Tourism plays a big role in national development and in this regard, UWA has been contributing to the District development in form of revenue sharing (20 percent) an arrangement that covers primary school block construction, health units, and community halls in various areas of the District.
Kasese district enjoys more benefits of the tourism industry than other districts that surround Queen Elizabeth national park as per the revenue sharing records at UWA. The districts that border the park include Kasese, Rubirizi, Kamwenge, Rukungiri, Mitooma, Kanungu, and Ibanda.
UWA in 2017 gave over Shs 936 million that was shared among the seven districts and 81 parishes that share Queen Elizabeth Protected Area (QEPA). The money is part of the mandatory 20 percent of the revenue collected from tourists on the gates of the park.
The gate collection at QEPA rose from over Shs 513 million in 2016 to Shs 936 million in 2017 as a result of increased tourists visiting the park, according to Ms Olivia Biira, the Community conservation Warden then.
Kasese then got the biggest share of Shs 362 million of the funds because it covers the biggest part of the parks including Queen Elizabeth, Mount Rwenzori and Kibale. Wildlife sanctuaries include: Katwe, Kasenyi, Hamukungu while bird’s sanctuaries are located on the Kazinga channel with over 6,000 species.
According to the Kasese district portal, there has been a tremendous increase in the total number of tourists visiting various wildlife conservation centers in Kasese District from 9,238 (2000) to 47,085 (2005).
According to the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife, and Antiquities, currently, Tourism is the leading foreign exchange earner for Uganda generating US$1.453 bn and contributing Shs 6.8 trillion of Uganda’s GDP (7.3% of GDP) in 2017.