In a contest for water resources, poor people in the small village of Katete have been pitted against wild animals from Lake Mburo national park, with park authorities and locals both claiming ownership over boundaries that remain bloodied and blurred, writes SADAB KITATTA KAAYA.
Since it was gazetted as a game reserve in 1963, and later on as a national park in 1983, Lake Mburo national park has faced a lot of encroachment from some hostile pastoralists, who continue to threaten its existence.
To address the concerns of the pastoralists, government has previously had to reduce the park's size to its current 370 sq. km, which makes it Uganda's smallest national park.
"It has been reduced to about a third of its original size [but] because there are lakes inside, the pastoralists ask us to open up the park during the dry season," Andrew Seguya, the executive director of Uganda Wildlife Authority, told The Observer.
The park forms part of the 50km wetland system, with five lakes lying within its boundaries, making it a major source for the much-sought-after water and pastures by the pastoralists. But UWA is digging in, tightening its enforcement of the law.
"We used to allow them to take their cattle to drink [at the lakes] but they used to move at a very slow pace, grazing their cattle, which is against the law," Seguya said.
To address the conflict, USAID, through its Uganda biodiversity program implemented by the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), which seeks to achieve sustainable biodiversity conservation and local economic growth, constructed six valley dams to ensure water supply for the pastoralists through the dry spell.
Another four valley dams will be constructed in June as part of the Shs 150m project to improve water access for livestock. The local leadership, however, feels this is not enough.
"The dams are not enough. During the dry season, people will still be forced into the park to look for water and pastures because even the wild animals also leave the park into the villages," Kiruhura LC-V chairman, Rev Canon Samuel Katugunda, told the US ambassador Deborah Malac during the commissioning of Lake Mburo conservation education centre on April 10.
"Living with wild animals is not a small thing... We live with the animals but we can't control them [and] they have continued to destroy our crops. Our cattle die... we really don't know what to do," Katugunda said.
Steven Nasasira, one of the herders who have been conscripted into the conservation project although his interest remains more in herding his cattle, wants the government to compensate them for the loss of their animals and lives.
"We have dangerous wildlife here. They live in the community, harm us [and] they are telling us to conserve. If we are to co-exist with the wildlife, we should be compensated for the loss," Nasasira said.
Herds of zebras roam in Nasasira's village in Katete in Nyakasharara sub-county where AWF constructed one of the valley dams.
"Because this place [Katete] was part of the national park [more than] 20 years ago, it is possible that their ancestry was here and being that they are wild animals, you can't easily drive them away. The alternative is for the local community to learn to co-exist with them and benefit from the wildlife," Sam Mwandha of AWF said.
Seguya and Kamuntu ruled out the option of compensation outright, with the minister emphasizing the need to conserve for future generations.
"The law doesn't provide for compensation even if you die [after being attacked by the wildlife] but under the conservation project, we may provide some condolence funds for you to cater for burial expenses," Kamuntu said.
According to Malac, the ever increasing demands for food, water, pasture and other natural resources have become a big threat to Uganda's rich biodiversity.
"Sustainable biodiversity management has thus become a local and global priority to ensure stable, responsible growth and prosperity but few landscapes around the world are effectively managed to balance economic demands of today with the necessity of tomorrow's prosperity," she said.
The mismanagement of the biodiversity is blamed for the extinction of Lake Mburo national park's lion population. According to UWA, there remains a lone lion in the park. The park continues to host impalas and is home to the largest herd of zebras, elands and topis in Uganda.