The first findings of a project that aims to help low-income communities benefit more from living near Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, where conservation priorities can impose limits on their livelihoods has dispelled perceptions that poor people who live closer to the park pose a danger to wildlife conservation efforts.
Researchers from the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) alongside other partners who met in Kampala from Sept. 17-18 noted that there are complex links between poverty and threats to wildlife.
The project has found that while poverty often compels people to gather resources illegally from the park, the poorer villagers were likely to collect minor forest products such as firewood.
In comparison, the bushmeat hunters - who pose a greater threat to conservation - were amongst the wealthier members of their communities.
"The common assumption - that poverty drives people to use resources illegally - is over-simple," says project coordinator Andy Gordon-Maclean, a researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development.
"The links between poverty and threats to wild species are more complex and it is critical that conservationists understand this."
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is home to 400 of the world's total population of 900 mountain gorillas and tourists pay US $ 500 for a chance to see these apes. Therefore the potential for local people to benefit is clear.
Over 70% of the revenue from tourism in Uganda comes from Gorilla tracking and according to figures from the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Heritage, the sector fetched Uganda between US$ 800-1billion in 2012 which makes it US $ 560m-700m.
The Uganda Wildlife Act stipulates that 20% of all proceeds from tourism accruing from the adjacent park should go to the neighbouring communities.
Yet the project has found that wealthier villagers gained more benefits from the park than poorer neighbours who lived closer to park.
The villagers who live closest to the park are in a poverty trap, having less education, being at greater disease risk from poor sanitation and more likely to go hungry.
They also had less access to social services and markets, a lower sense of wellbeing. Crop raiding by wild animals from the national park exacerbates the situation.
"The results to date show that not only do the poor get fewer benefits than wealthier villagers, they also tend to do less harm," says Gordon-Maclean.
"These findings indicate that for integrated conservation development (ICD) to work it needs to provide benefits to meet the needs of the poorest communities whilst acting to limit the threats that wealthier people pose."
The government agencies such as the Uganda Wildlife Authority and nongovernmental organisations have adopted this approach - termed Integrated Conservation and Development (ICD) - because poverty, people's access to natural resources and the ecological health of the national park are so closely linked.
This will require project implementers to consult and engage more effectively with local communities.
The researchers found that villagers were more likely to feel positive about integrated conservation development and the national park if they participate in the planning and implementation.
"For ICD to work, communities must feel they own it," says Gordon-Maclean.
The research is the first major project of the Uganda Poverty and Conservation Learning Group, a local chapter of the Poverty and Conservation Learning Group, which aims to promote a better understanding of the links between conservation and poverty in order to improve conservation and poverty policy and practice.