The drive through Murchison Falls national park, using the southern gate at Kichumbanyobo, will definitely blow you away. The view of the pristine wild as you get to Budongo central forest reserve is priceless. Budongo is special, considering other forest reserves far south are fast vanishing due to illegal pit sawing and human encroachment.
Driving through Bugoma forest reserve and other forest reserves in Kibaale district, which belong to the same strip that the National Forest Authority (NFA) calls Budongo ecological system, all you see are tree stumps with forests cleared for agricultural activities and human settlement.
It was a similar story for Budongo forest reserve a couple of years ago. Given its lucrative hard wood, Budongo had since the 1940s become a major source of quality timber such as Mahogany, Mvule, Muzizi and Mugavu. However, from the 1990s, NFA stopped the cutting down of timber in forests like Budongo after it realized a significant depletion of forest cover.
Thereafter, two ecotourism facilities at Kaniyo-Pabidi and Busingiro were formed, plus a research facility at Nyakafunjo in 1993. These facilities were meant to change the traditional way of doing things; from sustaining conservation through earnings from timber trade to earning from the nature-friendly tourism.
Statistics from NFA show that at the time, there were less than 10 visitors per month, with income of between $500 and $1,000. This money could not meet the bills of about 90 rangers that protected the forest. It took the intervention of the Jane Goodall Institute Uganda in 2006, which volunteered to take over these facilities and turn them around.
With support from Usaid, in two years, the Jane Goodall Institute restored the belief that it was actually possible to protect the forest through tourism. And once ecotourism began taking a huge leap, the institute decided to place the facility at Kaniyo-Pabidi in the hands of a private investor, Great Lakes Safari, which established the Budongo Eco-lodge. Currently, Kaniyo-Pabidi alone receives an average of 100 visitors and income of $10,000 per month.
This, according to NFA's Director of Finance and Administration, Suzanne Kavuma, has been achieved through the application of public-private partnership with Great Lakes Safaris.
"We had problems of people illegally coming here to cut and sell the hard wood. But because there is a lot of tourism, it deters illegal timber dealers from encroaching on the forest," Kavuma said.
"We have noticed a huge reduction in terms of timber ferrying in the northern Budongo ecosystem. The illegal timber dealers are moving more south than up here, where we have the eco lodges."
The US ambassador in Uganda, Scott DeLisi, says that unless there are increased economic benefits to the people living near protected areas, it will increasingly remain a challenge for government to convince the local communities to appreciate conservation. He says people living near protected areas ask questions like: "Why should I care about a red-faced warbler when we struggle to educate our children? Why should I worry about protecting chimps when they raid the crops that feed my family?"
The answer to that is: "it is important for global biodiversity."
But if protecting bio-diversity puts money in their pockets; if it helps them pay school fees; if it supports the health clinic or pays for the new road that gives them easier access to regional markets and services; then, DeLisi says, it makes sense not just globally, but locally. Under the new $10m Usaid-funded project, the Tourism for Biodiversity (T4B), which is implemented by African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), Budongo will receive more support as part of the five conservation areas in this four-year programme.
The others include: Kalinzu forest reserve, Kidepo Valley, Murchison Falls and Lake Mburo conservation areas. T4B's Chief Party Kaddu Sebunya says the new programme intends to improve visitors' experiences so that they stay longer in Budongo.
"We are going to produce at least new products in the first year. We are going to build a tree canopy walk to increase the viewing of chimps and a 45km nature trail," Kaddu said.
There are also plans to diversity attractions beyond chimpanzee tourism to include forest biking, birding and research tourism.
"We are going to double the visitation numbers for the chimps. If Murchison [park], for example, gets 60,000 visitors a year and this place gets less than 2,000 a year, the idea is that why are the 58,000 people just passing this place? What can we do for at least a quarter of those to drop by for at least some time?"
Great Lakes Safaris proprietor Amos Wekesa says ecotourism has helped to protect the natural heritage and made it accessible to the world in a way that enriches and strengthens local communities.
"Ninety percent of our employees are locals. We have started a bee keeping project. We have farmers who grow for us fruits and those who make crafts from the same environment," Wekesa says.
"When these people see their own earning from the forest, then they are able to protect the forest. We give opportunity to children from the neighbouring schools to come and visit this place and see the value of protecting a forest."
Because of the success story of Budongo, NFA wants to replicate a similar arrangement for Kalinzu forest so it also has a trickledown effect on the community.
"As time goes on, we will be opening more and more eco lodges. Once the communities have found out that they can actually benefit from the forest, once they create ownership of the forest because they know their livelihood depends on the forest, they have this urge to protect it as well. If they can't stop these illegal dealers, then they inform us and we use our patrols. That is how we have managed to get this huge reduction," said Kavuma.