14 February 2013

Uganda: Elephants, People Fight for Life in Nwoya

When the Lord's Resistance Army retreated from northern Uganda in 2006, the local population was relieved.

After two decades of enduring a brutal insurgency, they could now leave the crowded Internally Displaced people's camps and live a normal life in their respective villages. However, nothing prepared the people of Nwoya for the challenges that come with living next door to Uganda's largest conservation area, Murchison Falls national park, which is commonly referred to as Paraa by the locals.

Determined to rebuild his life, Alfred Odida Onyai, a resident of Koch-Goma sub-county in Nwoya district, planted four acres of cassava, two acres of bananas, two acres of rice and two acres of beans. He was on a steady path to recovery.

"There were rumours of elephants eating crops from people's gardens in the neighbouring villages but nothing ever prepared me to believe that I would also be a victim," an angry Onyai said in an interview with The Observer recently.

Onyai recalls that one night in November 2008, his uncle and cousins fled their village in Lii parish, a distant neighbourhood, in the wake of an elephant invasion and took refuge at his residence in Lukumu parish. Two weeks later, Onyai too returned home to count his losses. The elephants had ransacked his home and destroyed gardens and livestock. He has since encountered many other attacks and says he is "getting used to the situation."

"My life has since been a hide-and-seek game with the animals. We are vigilant with the help of distant neighbours who give us information when elephants are sighted, as we do the same for them," Onyai explains.

As elephants stray into villages, destroying crops and killing people [in two instances], some locals too stray into the park on a poaching spree, with stunning consequences. According to Nwoya LC-V chairman, Patrick Okello Oryema, four people disappeared in 2012.

"These individuals went to the park and never returned and we have not heard any feedback from the park authorities despite tasking them to give us answers," Oryema says.

The absence of answers from park rangers has damaged relations between the park and Nwoya local government. Residents have since November refused to sell food to park employees.

"The worst thing is that the park is not compensating locals who have lost their crops to animals but when residents go poaching, they disappear. We also want the park to compensate the residents who lost their crops to elephants," Oryema argues.

However, the park's Area Conservation manager, John Obong, says the park remits revenue to the district, 20% of which goes to parishes. That money can be used to compensate residents who lose crops to animals, he points out. Oryema, however, says the said money comes with strings attached.

"The money is meant for the youth who are in groups to boost their community development activities. We cannot use that money for compensation and slow down community development," he said.

In the 1970s, there were an estimated 12,000 elephants in the park, according to Walter Odokowot, a warden, but today there are only 1,000 left. With fewer animals today, why are there clashes with humans over space?

"People are increasing in number compared to three decades ago when the population was only about five or six million. There is pressure for land from human beings," Odokowot says. He adds that consequently, people have settled in the elephant corridors, setting themselves on a collision path with the animals.

It should also be noted, he explained, that not all elephants that destroy crops belong to the park because there are some that are living outside the park and were born outside the park. Odokowot further points out that the park can only account for people who entered it through designated entrances.

"The park is a wild place with deadly animals and even the poachers fight among themselves; so, if anyone went to the park through the gate and has not returned to his/her home, whoever has that evidence can take legal action against us (the park)," he argues.

In October, Parliament's committee on tourism visited the affected areas in Nwoya district to assess the situation. Their preliminary report recommends that "government has to send food where animals destroyed crops."

However, government is yet to act. Area MP, Richard Todwong, says the report could come out early next year.

"As area representative, I will be keen to see that what government recommends is adhered to," he said.

Since there are many players in the park area, including oil company guards, the locals also suspect that Total oil company's guards could be responsible for the missing residents. But Total has dismissed this claim.

"Our guards live within a perimeter fence and they were recruited and vetted by Police, the guards are not armed and they are constantly monitored," reads part of the letter written by the company's corporate affairs manager, Alem Frigamoi.

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