Uganda: Unprecedented Heavy Rains Leave National Parks Choking

One of the terms that dominated 2019 was climate change.

From wildfires in Australia and, more strangely, Alaska, to floods in eastern Africa, a drought in southern Africa, a snowless Christmas in Moscow, and typhoons in Asia, the last quarter of 2019 was particularly brutal.

The change in weather patterns is real, with devastating effects. Uganda used to experience two or four distinct seasons that came at known and predictable times. Not anymore. This year, the country has had more rain coming at irregular intervals, throwing farming and tourist seasons completely off.

The country started having rains in August that have continued up to now, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. In Eastern Uganda, landslides killed dozens in Bududa, Bulambuli and Sironko districts. In Bundibugyo, floods wiped out entire villages, and killed dozens of people.

But those are not the only losses; those in tour companies and wildlife management have had a bad year because of the change in the weather. Before the rains finally came, in August, the national parks had weathered long dry spells especially in Queen Elizabeth and Kidepo Valley that have a high concentration of herbivores, yet are located in arid and semi-arid areas. The dry spells were then replaced by large amounts of rains that also came with their own set of problems.

According to Christine Lynn Nakayenze, senior warden in charge of Tourism at the Mount Elgon Conservation Area, which among others includes Mount Elgon national park, Pain Upe wildlife reserve and Matheniko-Bokora wildlife reserve, rains have negatively affected them.

Not only have floods washed away trails in the parks, but even the roads leading to the area have been badly damaged and in some cases completely washed away. When I visited Pian Upe in November, we spent thrice as much time on the Bulambuli-Kween-Nakapiripirit road because of the poor roads.

"People can't climb the mountain because the soils are slippery. In some areas, the rains have completely washed away our trails, which makes climbing [Mt Elgon] very hard, yet visitors to Mount Elgon national park actually come for mountain climbing," Nakayenze said.

The park boasts trails through lush bamboo forests, high-altitude caves and even a beautiful waterfall, all of which leave a lasting impression on tourists. When you move further east to Kidepo Valley national park, billed as the true African wilderness, the rains have given them enough headaches too.

Much of Karamoja is savannah grassland, meaning that much of the park is a flat land. So, with rains, almost all places are rendered impassable. The park is also crisscrossed by seasonal rivers, which during the dry season make up part of the road network.

Johnson Masereka, the chief warden at Kidepo, says while there is a good side to the rains like the growth of grass for the animals, the destruction caused cannot be overlooked.

"We have got a number of roads washed away because all our roads are murram; people get stuck in the park. Although this does not stop some tourists from coming, it reduces their excitement because they are limited on places they can go to since the roads are cut off," Masereka says.

He adds that away from the rains, even Ebola that has been ravaging parts of Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, has scared away many visitors from coming to Uganda, even to parks like Kidepo that are hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometers way.

Masereka, however, takes solace in the increase in local tourism by Ugandans and other East Africans.

"The number of foreign visitors in the festive season has been lower than what we expected but there has been an increase in domestic visitors. We haven't done the analysis yet, but a quick look shows that we have more locals visiting," Masereka says.

Hangi Bashir, Uganda Wildlife Authority's communication manager, says all their parks have been affected, majorly due to the bad roads. Apart from Queen Elizabeth national park, which has an all-weather road running through it, all the others do not.

"I think the most affected of all the parks is Bwindi Impenetrable Forest national park and Mgahinga national park. When visitors operating on time come, their schedules are affected and the biggest issue is that the review they give us is not very good. They will say, 'Uganda is a nice place to visit but the roads...' We don't want the 'but'," Hangi says.

He also points out that the rain also leads to the grass growing annoyingly tall, which makes spotting of certain small animals and the cats almost impossible.

"The grass growing so tall wouldn't be a big issue because the herbivores eat it, but when it grows so tall the visitors can't see the animals and some then think we don't have the animals [apart from the big, obvious ones]," Hangi says.

But he insists that bad as it is, the rains might not have a bearing on the visitors especially foreigners who come to Uganda.

"Visitors who normally come to our parks book months before they make the journey. So, when it rains, it doesn't stop them from coming but when they get into the experience of having to push the car, it's not a very good one although some see it as fun and something to talk about," Hangi says.

For the local tourists who know how bad it can get in some parks as a result of the rains, they don't waste their time going. Murchison Falls national park remains Uganda's most- visited park largely because of the falls in the park, although government is proposing giving them away to a foreign company to construct a hydropower dam, an idea vehemently opposed by conservationists.

Murchison Falls is followed closely by Queen Elizabeth national park in western Uganda. However, the most money comes from Bwindi and Mgahinga national parks, home to at least 800 of the global population of 1,063 endangered mountain gorillas. Tracking gorillas for one hour costs $600 per foreign tourist, and Shs 250,000 for Ugandans.

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