Conservationists work to restore last remnant of a once-great Ugandan forest

  • Earlier this year, conservation group Nature Uganda launched a forest restoration project aimed at restoring degraded areas and reducing illegal harvesting of forest products in Mabira Central Forest Reserve.
  • A remnant of a much larger forest ecosystem, Mabira is home to 300 bird species, 23 reptile species, and 360 different species of plants.
  • A community forest management scheme has successfully engaged nearby communities in self-regulating use of forest resources, but delays in renewing the scheme threaten that progress.
  • “When we enter these agreements,” says one community leader, “we promote the sense of ownership so that we can share the roles of making the forest available and managing it sustainably.”

Conservationists are working to restore Uganda’s threatened Mabira Central Forest Reserve, a refuge for hundreds of species of birds, mammals and plants in the center of the country. In April, the NGO Nature Uganda launched a forest restoration project aimed at reducing illegal harvesting of forest products and replanting degraded sections of Mabira with indigenous tree species.

The work will focus on 570 hectares (1,400 acres) of the reserve, whose roughly 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres) are a remnant of a much greater ecosystem that once stretched from the Kakamega Forest in western Kenya, across the breadth of Uganda.

“Because it is a fragment it has become a refugium of species which lost habitat,” says Achilles Byaruhanga, executive director of Nature Uganda.

Mabira Forest is one of just four holdouts of the Ugandan crested mangabey (Lophocebus albigena ugandae), a monkey listed by the IUCN as vulnerable to extinction, and a snow-white butterfly with large green eyes and distinctively rounded wings, named Pseudopontia mabira in the forest’s honor. It also contains 360 different species of plants, 23 species of reptiles, and more than 300 species of birds.

The snow-white butterfly with large green eyes and distinctively rounded wings, named Pseudopontia mabira in the forest’s honor.
This butterfly, Pseudopontia mabira, is named in the forest’s honor. Image by pward via iNaturalist (CC BY-NC 4.0).
One of the forest’s iconic species is the Nahan’s partridge (Ptilopachus nahani)
Nahan’s partridge (Ptilopachus nahani) occurs only in Mabira and two other forest reserves, Bugoma and Budongo, in the west of the country. Image by Tommy Andriollo via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0).

“You can judge from that — a forest of 300 square kilometers with over 300 species of bird — this is a very high density and richness of species,” Byaruhanga says.

One of the forest’s iconic species is the Nahan’s partridge (Ptilopachus nahani), a secretive ground-dwelling bird with a red face mask and a breast streaked with white and black plumage that only occurs in Mabira and two other forest reserves, Bugoma and Budongo, in the west of the country.

The partridges have a unique habit of roosting and nesting between the buttress roots of giant forest trees that are targeted by loggers seeking timber to supply the furniture and construction industries.

Research published in 2020 by a team of Ugandan scientists said loggers in Mabira used chainsaws to fell trees with prominent buttress roots used by the partridges and other species. Targeted tree species include the forest sandpaper fig (Ficus exasperata) and the pattern wood tree (Alstonia boonei).

“Loss of such trees reduces the breeding and roosting micro-habitats of the species,” lead author Eric Sande and his co-authors said in their findings published in the Journal of Threatened Taxa.

A pattern wood tree (Alstonia boonei)
A pattern wood tree (Alstonia boonei), one of the trees with prominent buttress roots used by the partridges and other species. Image by ricardofdelima via iNaturalist (CC BY-NC 4.0).

Mabira’s proximity to fast-growing urban centers appears to make it, and the animals that live in it, especially vulnerable. Although Mabira is partitioned into zones, including a central one designated as a strict nature reserve, and a buffer zone meant for tourism and low-impact extractive activities, all parts of the forest have been encroached upon.

Charcoal burning, overharvesting of non-timber products like rattan cane (Calamus deeratus), and illegal hunting have all taken their toll.

Sande’s 2020 study estimated that hunters in Mabira killed up to 18 Nahan’s partridges per week, a species estimated to number only 6,891 at the time. Other animals, including common duiker (Sylvicapra grimmia), a small antelope, were also targeted by hunters who used dogs to drive their quarry into nets strung between trees, the researchers found.

The teeming capital of Kampala is just 50 kilometers (30 miles) away, the busy industrial hub of Jinja even nearer, and there are a number of fast-growing towns in surrounding districts whose residents are eyeing the forest for extractable resources.

Despite these pressures, Nature Uganda’s Byaruhanga says he believes the biggest threat the forest has had to face in recent years doesn’t come from its surrounding communities.

In 2007, the Ugandan government unveiled plans to deregister more than 7,000 hectares (17,200 acres) of the reserve to expand a nearby sugarcane plantation. Conservation groups, including Nature Uganda, launched a successful campaign to save the forest that brought Mabira into the international spotlight.

“The forest was not taken, it still has its boundaries,” Byaruhanga says, though he concedes the ongoing extraction of timber and firewood does continue to cause degradation.

This is, however, not unique to Mabira. More than 80% of Uganda’s 45 million people lack access to electricity, and at least 41 million metric tons of firewood and charcoal are consumed annually, according to Nature Uganda.

Agnes Chandiru, one of the community members in Buvunya village bordering Mabira Forest, carrying firewood from the forest.
Agnes Chandiru, a resident of Buvunya village on the edge of the Mabira Forest: there are two days a week when community members can collect firewood from the forest. Image by Benjamin Jumbe.

The impact on forest resources is severe. The National Forestry Authority (NFA) estimates that Uganda lost 3 million hectares (7.4 million acres) of its forests between 1990 and 2015, when it was left with less than 2 million hectares (4.9 million acres) of tree cover.

The project launched in May, backed by the global Trillion Trees ReForest Fund and spearheaded by Nature Uganda, BirdLife International, the Wildlife Conservation Society and WWF, will aim to repair some of the damage to Mabira.

Degraded areas in the targeted zone are being allowed to regenerate, or are being supplemented through “enrichment planting” under the Nature Uganda project. Where degradation has been severe, such as in areas converted to croplands, the team is planting out indigenous tree seedlings raised by the NFA at its local nursery. These include mahogany trees, as well as various species of Acacia and Albizia.

Planting trees is one thing; ensuring communities stop their illegal practices is another, says William Olupot, director of conservation group Nature and Livelihoods and a co-author with Sande of the most recent survey on Nahan’s partridges.

Olupot says several studies conducted by his organization have pointed to the threat of illegal activities in Mabira Forest. Between 2015 and 2019, the NFA signed several collaborative forest management (CFM) agreements with nearby communities, which are supposed to strictly regulate where and when people can take resources. Olupot’s organization was supporting at least 16 community groups with enterprises such as beekeeping and poultry and pig farming during this period, so he had a firsthand view of their implementation.

“At that time, however, illegal activities were rife and the enforcement seemed weak,” he says.

“The collaborative management agreements that the NFA signed with the communities may sound good on paper but what I would really like to see is their strict enforcement on the ground.”

Under some of the current CFM agreements, community members living on the forest’s periphery are allowed to extract resources like firewood, honey and herbs on a strictly regulated basis.

Chairperson of COFSDA John Tabula (right) interacts with the Secretary for Patrol Mane Manasseh at one of the later’s timber from his own private tree farm.
John Tabula, (right) chair of a local association for sustainability, with Mane Manasseh who coordinates patrols of the forest. They are inspecting timber from Manasseh’s private woodlot. Villagers have been provided seedlings to plant woodlots that, once mature, will provide a source of firewood and spare Mabira from encroachment. Image by Benjamin Jumbe.
John Tabula, a resident of Buvunya village in Mabira who is also the chairperson of COFSDA, shows Mongabay the barricade placed at the forest boundary to block encroachment and cutting down of trees.
John Tabula shows Mongabay a barricade placed at the forest boundary to block encroachment by loggers. Image by Benjamin Jumbe.

Community leader John Tabula says where it is up and running, the CFM strategy works well.

“This agreement gives us a right to own the forest,” he says. “When we enter these agreements we promote the sense of ownership so that we can share the roles of making the forest available and managing it sustainably.”

The Conservation for Future Sustainable Development Association (COFSDA) that Tabula chairs has 40 members. It regulates how much firewood is collected from Mabira by the residents of Buvunya and Koko, two villages situated near the forest edge in Buikwe district. Villagers are only allowed to collect firewood on Saturdays and Sundays, and people can only use machetes to cut the wood, not axes. The ban on axes is to ensure that living trees aren’t felled, and only dry, dead wood is gathered.

“We sensitize the members, we talk to them on what we need to be done within the forest,” Tabula says. “When you can’t obey or accept our regulations, that means you will be denied [access to] some resources from the forest.”

There are downsides. The area where Tabula’s community is allowed to harvest resources extends across just 91 hectares (225 acres). Firewood is becoming scarce, and the community could use an area twice that size. Also, Tabula’s association’s 10-year-long CFM agreement with the NFA expired seven years ago, and a new one still hasn’t been signed.

Such delays by the authorities undermine the efforts of those on the ground tasked with protecting the forest, says Mabe Manasseh, another Buvunya resident. He says he’s noticed that forest degradation is once more on the rise.

“We have no mandate now to arrest anyone over any illegality in the forest,” he tells Mongabay. “But we still have some little contribution [to make] because we love our forest and so we protect it on a small scale because we fear if we completely abandon it, it will be destroyed.”

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Sande, E., Akoth, S., Rutazaana, U., & Olupot, W. (2020). Status of Nahan’s partridge Ptilopachus nahani (Dubois, 1905) (Aves: Galliformes: Odontophoridae) in Uganda. Journal of Threatened Taxa, 12(15), 17063-17076. doi:10.11609/jott.5343.12.15.17063-17076

Olupot, W., & Isabirye-Basuta, G. (2016). Influencing SEPLS governance policy through action research: An assessment of recreational values to promote sustainable use of the Mabira Central Forest Reserve, Uganda. In Satoyama Initiative Thematic Review, 2, 59-70. Retrieved from

Banner image: A red-tailed monkey (Cercopithecus ascanius) in Mabira Central Forest Reserve. Image by Ross Tsai via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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