The conflict between residents living near Mt Elgon National Park in Bukwo District and Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) has escalated with residents warning park rangers against crossing over from the park to their land without permission.
There is fear in the communities since last week when two people, a park ranger and a resident, were killed and several injured in the fracas.
The deceased identified as Sam Cherop, a resident of Kaptolongi Village in Cheboi Parish, was reportedly shot in what the locals called brutal killing by a ranger under unclear circumstances.
The residents retaliated by killing a senior game ranger identified as Samson Dhwerera, attached to UWA station in Bukwo District.
Dhwerera succumbed to injuries as he was being taken to Mbale Regional Referral Hospital.
Daily Monitor has, however, learnt that Cherop was reportedly hit by a stray bullet, which was shot by the ranger as he was trying to chase away three buffaloes that had escaped from the forest and were in the residents' gardens.
The buffaloes are also said to have destroyed crop plantations on the fateful day.
The locals later organised an abrupt meeting and reportedly selected from among themselves a group of strong men to head their community security from the likely attacks by the game rangers and domestic animals.
The residents also threatened to attack and kill the wild animals found in their gardens.
When security officials learnt about the residents' resolutions, they launched an operation and arrested three men said to be the leaders.
However, Mr Rogers Taitika, the Sipi Regional Police spokesperson, yesterday said the suspects were arrested in connection with the brutal murder of a game ranger.
"We arrested them over murder and we are hunting for more," he said.
The residents accuse UWA and the army of using excessive force to keep them away from their ancestral land which neighbours the park.
The affected residents are found in the sub-counties of Suam, Senendet, Chesower, Bukwo and Koretek in the same district.
Among these include 3,000 Teriet and Yatui people, who were reportedly evicted by UWA from the park in the 1970s. They are currently living in Kapkoros and Kapsekek camps, respectively.
They are descendants of the Benet community living in Kween District and some parts of Bukwo, who were resettled by government in 1983 after the demarcation of the park.
The leaders in Sebei Sub-region have for long urged the government to intervene and resettle the remaining displaced people to prevent further conflicts with UWA.
Mr Arapdison Malinga, a councillor representing Suam Sub-county, said: "People are not sleeping and the tension is high because the security agencies are conducting clandestine operation to silence them."
Ms Gertrude Chebet, another councillor, said the affected sub-counties have become insecure.
"Most people don't sleep in their houses, women and men are restless and others are running to Kenya because we don't know whom they are going to arrest next," she said.
She added that residents are traditionally pastoralists and that since they were evicted, they have been lacking where to graze their animals.
Response from UWA, Police, Army
Mr Tom Chesol, the Resident District Commissioner of Bukwo, said they resolved during a security meeting on Friday at Kapkoros Village in Senendet Sub-county to form community committees to bridge the information gap between UWA and affected communities as a measure to prevent further clashes.
The Mt Elgon National Park Conservation area manager, Mr Fredrick Kizza, condemned the action of the residents, describing it as barbaric.
"One of the staff was killed by the community while he was performing his work. It is worrying that we still have such barbaric communities who do not know the value of conservation," he said.
He also dismissed allegations that UWA brutalises locals found grazing in the park, saying by law, no one is allowed to graze in the protected area.
The district police commander, Mr Alfred Baluku, also dismissed allegations of unnecessary arrests.
"Those being arrested are suspects in the murder case, not everyone," he said.
Col Ezra Byaruhaga, the UPDF 407 brigade commander, said: "UWA should look for ways to harmoniously live with the community members and community members should also do the same," he said.