The recent disappearance of four poachers from Murchison Falls national park, and subsequent attempts by Nwoya district leaders to cut ties with the park, have shed light on the increasing tension and conflict between wildlife and communities in northern Uganda.
Although human-wildlife conflict has existed since time immemorial, the upsurge in northern Uganda presents a paradoxical case study: the relative peace following the defeat of the Lord's Resistance Army allowed residents to return to their land and begin farming again, which put them in direct confrontation with wildlife that had used the vacant land for grazing.
Both commercial and small-scale farmers near the park have suffered huge losses due to marauding elephants, buffalos and wild pigs. As the population in the region increases, long-lasting peace between humans and wildlife is becoming dire.
Finding a lasting solution which controls wildlife transgression into the communities, encourages collaborative game management, and ensures prompt and adequate compensation to affected communities must constitute key priorities to the government and post-conflict intervention initiatives.
There are three main actors whose input and actions are invaluable in this: the citizens of northern Uganda, especially those bordering the game parks; Uganda Wildlife Authority and government.
Citizens of northern Uganda:
Poaching poses numerous negative effects, not only on animal populations but also on the safety of park officials, local community members and the poachers themselves. However, many citizens of northern Uganda, seeing no tangible efforts made by UWA or government to stem the flow of wildlife encroaching on their land, nor compensation mechanisms, see no alternative to defending their livelihoods through lethal means.
The Peace, Recovery and Development Plan (PRDP) money, having recently been stolen, has left the sub-region lacking in basic infrastructure, service delivery and widespread unemployment. The unemployed youth end up resorting to poaching as their only means of livelihood. But poaching is an unacceptable and shortsighted response. Internal policing mechanisms must be instilled and education on the negative consequences of poaching promoted.
Additionally, many of the community members who spoke to Refugee Law Project (RLP), noted that living so close to a protected national park provided entrepreneurial opportunities, especially in the creation of arts and crafts that could be sold to tourists and potentially offset the negative results of crop damage.
Uganda Wildlife Authority:
UWA lacks the human capacity and resources to effectively monitor wildlife inside and outside the protected areas, which has led to wildlife encroachment onto people's land, as well as animal attacks on the local population. Recorded incidents of human-wildlife conflict have been on the rise following the end of conflict in northern Uganda starting in 2007, and in 2011 there were 229 recorded incidents, with eight deaths registered.
Furthermore, residents of northern Uganda expressed concerns that UWA arbitrarily shoots at trespassers, regardless of whether they are armed. The bodies of those killed are rarely returned for proper burial, but are instead disposed of in the parks.
UWA should take the following measures to ensure safety for both wildlife and local community:
Increasing park staff, both inside and outside protected areas, will allow for more direct involvement with the local community. Presently, park rangers are responsible for 5kms of land at one time. More material resources such as vehicles and communication equipment can alleviate the strain.
With proper funding, long-term studies should be carried out to examine trends in wildlife migration and the best tactics for safely removing animals from local lands. Some of these measures, such as warning shots to scare animals off local land, 80km of trenches to prevent migration and a series of fences to mark park boundaries have been implemented but have proved relatively ineffective.
The collaborative approach to park management under the Wild Life Policy should be comprehensively implemented beyond mere revenue sharing to include community access and promoting local tourism. Currently, revenue sharing with the local government has failed to translate into tangible community benefits, and community members expressed concerns over their inability to visit the game parks.
As has been seen in other post-conflict situations in the north, the issue of local access to justice, including reparations and compensation for losses of life and property is crucial for peace-building and reconciliation. While the government cannot be held entirely responsible for the actions of wildlife, current laws protect wildlife more than local citizens, and mechanisms to compensate victims of human-wildlife conflict do not exist.
Many of the stakeholders who spoke with Refugee Law Project expressed their concerns that an increase in animal migration is the result of oil surveys taking place close to natural parks. Whereas the negative consequence of oil exploration on wildlife is an unfortunate necessity, funds derived from oil contracts can be used to offset these consequences. These funds can be diverted to additional UWA employees and their training, material resources, and compensation for victims of human-wildlife conflict.
Additionally, current laws should be reformed in order to provide protection for local citizens when they are forced to use lethal force as a last form of protection against encroaching wildlife.
The author works with the Refugee Law Project.