Birds are increasingly becoming the main creature flying Uganda's tourism industry high.
Conservationists and tour operators who have monitored the sector for some time now say birders spend more than gorilla tourists.
According to Achilles Byaruhanga, executive director at Nature Uganda, on average a birdwatcher spends not less than $4,000 (about Shs 10.3m at the current exchange rate) per trip compared to other travellers whose spending stands at $1,500 (about Shs 3.8m).
Statistics by Nature Uganda show that in 2008, less than 2,000 birders spent about $6m (about Shs 15.5bn), nearly twice the $3.3m (Shs 8.5bn) spent on gorilla tracking in Uganda - with the average spending for a birder standing at $3,000 (Shs 7.7m) per trip compared to other travellers at $700 per trip.
The explanation for this high spending by birders is that whereas both gorillas and birds attract high-end travellers, birders stay longer in the country. "The best birding itinerary is not less than 14 days, yet a gorilla tourist spends at most three days in the country," says Byaruhanga.
Of the three days, two are spent on the road to or from Kampala and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest national park (where gorilla tourism is currently done), a distance of about 460km from the capital Kampala. In fact some tourists prefer chartering a plane from Entebbe to Bwindi to track the gorilla in a single day and catch the next flight back to their country.
That revelation, which is shared by many tourism players, raises questions as to why the country pays little attention towards supporting the bird industry. Gorilla tracking is fronted as the main tourism attraction of the country, proof of this being the international campaign of 'Friend a Gorilla' in late September 2009, where film stars flew into the country to grace the occasion.
However, other players say it is farfetched to claim that birds bring in more money than gorillas. Andrew Seguya, the executive director of Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), calls it 'politicking.'
"Let them show us figures," Seguya said in a telephone interview. "For me, the gorilla money I see it and bank it, but I haven't seen that money they claim birds make," he added.
Statistics from UWA show that revenue from gorilla permits has been increasing over the years from Shs 7.4bn ($2.8m at the current exchange rate) in 2008/09 to Shs 9.6bn ($3.7m), Shs 11bn ($4.2m) and 15.2bn ($5.8m) in 2009/10, 2010/11 and 2011/12 respectively.
This is income to UWA alone -without the money spent by gorilla tourists on transport, accommodation, etc, and it accounts for over 50% of UWA's revenue. This is because a gorilla permit costs $500 for foreigners during peak season and $350 (slightly above Shs 900,000) in low season.
To Byaruhanga, however, these gorilla figures are only blinding people to 'focus on small things because they are seeing hard cash', yet the potential of tourism lies with birds.
"We have focused on gorillas as if it's the best thing that has ever happened to Uganda. We are almost being called a gorilla country because that is what we have marketed," Byaruhanga says.
"It is not about the hard cash you get from the receipts that matters a lot. It is not about the money in the bank. We should be able to know how much money is poured in the economy by each tourism activity," he adds.
Uganda is regarded as Africa's best destination for birders and other nature enthusiasts. The country, which is the size of UK, boasts of over 1,058 bird species, which is 11% of the globe's total, and 50% of Africa's.
This diversity is attributed to its various habitats, which include arid, semi-desert, savannahs, lowland and montane rainforests, wetlands, volcanoes and an Afro-alpine zone.
The African Bird Club ranks Uganda as home to two of the top 10 birding sites on the continent -with Bwindi Impenetrable Forest national park and Murchison Falls national park among the top ten.
However, despite such rankings and the diversity of bird species, the country continues to attract a paltry number of birders. There are about 10 million birders moving around the world annually, and according to Byaruhanga, if Uganda can attract even 1% (100,000) of these birders, it is capable of making $4bn ($1.5m) annually from birds.
Abiaz Rwamwiri, the communications officer, USAID Tourism for Biodiversity Programme, also believes birds have the potential to turn around Uganda's tourism sector. Rwamwiri says that birds, unlike gorillas, have no limitation on number of tourists that can visit them.
"Gorilla visitation is limited to eight people, yet a single bird can be seen by unlimited tourists. The birds form a great deal of diversification. They can be watched even outside protected areas," Rwamwiri told The Observer.
According to a USAID-STAR (Sustainable Tourism in the Albertine Rift) study of 2010, some 77% of international tour operators rely on local tour operators to package their trips, meaning that a significant portion of revenue from birding vacations sold remain within the country.