When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in March 2020, Uganda quickly shut down parks like Bwindi Impenetrable National Park to protect the gorillas and chimpanzees from getting infected.
Tourism provides up to 60% of the Uganda Wildlife Authority’s operating revenue and is also an important source of income for communities living around Bwindi.
Poaching in Bwindi rose sharply during lockdown in 2020 as some villagers entered the park to hunt for food or an income.
One NGO reinforced its programs supporting public health and livelihoods in an attempt to reduce this pressure.
KAMPALA, Uganda — Tour guide Patrick Kataama relied heavily on income from leading gorilla-trekking tours in Uganda’s national parks. These tours were abruptly shut down in late March 2020, after the first COVID-19 cases were reported in Uganda and the country was placed under lockdown.
“This came as a shock to me,” Kataama tells Mongabay. “I had just confirmed three tours to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park when I learned that Uganda was closing national parks. This meant that my income had been halted.”
The Uganda Wildlife Authority closed all the country’s parks on March 26 to protect wildlife, employees and visitors. The authority said it would put measures in place to safeguard and conserve the country’s wildlife resources.
“During the period when tourism was prohibited, the primary goal was to keep the gorillas habituated [to human presence]. As a result, we’re keeping track of all of those gorilla groupings,” Nelson Guma, chief warden at Bwindi National Park Service, tells Mongabay.
Like humans, Bwindi’s mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) are susceptible to COVID-19. UWA’s trackers were trained to wear masks, wash their hands thoroughly with soap or alcohol-based sanitizer, and maintain a safe distance from the apes to prevent the spread of infection from humans to wildlife.
Uganda has seen a tremendous increase in overall tourist numbers over the last two decades. In 2001, the country welcomed 205,000 visitors; in 2018, that number had soared to 1.5 million. The tourism ministry says Uganda generated $1.6 billion in overall tourist income in 2018/2019. The sector employed an estimated 667,000 people and contributed 7.7% to GDP.
This abruptly collapsed due to the COVID-19 pandemic: tourism income in 2020 fell by 73%.
Ecotourism, and gorilla trekking in particular, plays an important role in conservation in Uganda. In 2018/2019, the Ugandan Wildlife Authority issued licenses for more than 40,000 gorilla tours. Revenue from these tours was more than $25 million , a 40% increase over the previous year.
The pandemic brought this to a sudden halt.
“Bwindi was really impacted. Because the community there had really begun to depend on tourism, and [for] some of them it was their only form of livelihood,” veterinarian Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka tells Mongabay over the phone.
“Ecotourism was working so well in Bwindi that people kind of stopped doing what they used to do, like digging to earn a living, because it was easier to just carry tourist luggage as a porter. You earn in one day what you’re earning in one month. So why not just do that?”
Kalema-Zikusoka is the CEO of Conservation Through Public Health, an NGO that approaches the health and co-existence of communities and wildlife as mutually dependent. CTPH was set up in 2003 after an outbreak of scabies in Bwindi’s gorilla population was linked to local communities facing inadequate health services.
Kalema-Zikusoka says Bwindi contributes 60% of the UWA’s revenue. There is vital biodiversity in the country’s 22 other protected areas, but they do not attract similarly valuable tourist traffic.
She estimates the authority lost $2 million each month that Bwindi was closed. “Tourism was not only supporting Bwindi national park where the mountain gorillas are found but it was also supporting all other protected areas in Uganda that were not making enough money to meet operational costs.”
During the first three months of lockdown, UWA rangers found twice as many snares in protected areas across the country, including Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, which is home to two-fifths of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas.
Kalema-Zikusoka says she understands why: “It really impacted [local people] when tourism disappeared overnight. Suddenly they were stuck. They were hungry because they had no food to eat. For example, if there is a porter whose dad is a reformed poacher, as long as his son is bringing home money from tourism, the dad will keep out of poaching. Now if the son can’t put any more food on the table, he has no choice but to go back to what he knows to survive.”
On June 1, 2020, the lead silverback of Bwindi’s Nkuringo gorilla troop was killed by a man hunting duiker and bush pigs.
“Yes, we had this incidence when a poacher speared a bush pig, whose scream provoked a silverback gorilla to charge him to protect his family, but the poacher speared and killed the gorilla in self-defense. This poacher was given an 11-year prison sentence,” said Sam Mwandha, the UWA executive director.
In response to the pandemic lockdown, CTPH bought cloth face masks from a local business, Ride for a Woman, for use by UWA rangers and its own community volunteers. Its community health volunteers visited more than 5,000 households to explain how to slow the spread of COVID-19, and the organization’s routine monitoring for respiratory diseases like tuberculosis also began testing for COVID-19.
The NGO also started an emergency food relief program that distributed fast-growing seedlings to farmers around the park’s boundaries, aiming to partly relieve income lost to the shutdown.
CTPH also supports alternative livelihoods through a social enterprise, Gorilla Conservation Coffee, which supports and markets premium coffee grown by farmers near Bwindi.
“It is keeping farmers out of the forest. At the coffee enterprise we’re not necessarily employing people, we just support smallholder farmers. Currently, we’re supporting over 500 coffee farmers,” Kalema-Zikusoka says.
With lockdown preventing sales to visiting tourists, CTPH found an additional distributor for the coffee in the U.K., protecting farmers’ revenue.
Uganda’s borders reopened to international travelers in October 2020, and gorilla tours in Bwindi were allowed to resume a month later, allowing Kataama and other tour guides to return to work.
The wildlife authority offered a 50% discount on park fees between December 2020 and June 2021 to attract more visitors. While it will take time — two or three years, says Bwindi chief warden Guma — for numbers to fully recover, some operators say they are doing well.
John Philips Owino operates Mission Africa Safaris, a company that runs tours at Bwindi. He says his company is now guiding twice the number of tourists as before the shutdown, thanks in part to having carefully maintained contact with potential clients via its website. “We were prepared for this pandemic and we’re now having many tourists than we had before the [start] of COVID-19. We’re having seven good trips a month,” Owino tells Mongabay.
However, Mission Africa is finding the profile of its international visitors has changed: tourists this year are generally younger — and spending less.
Kalema-Zikusoka, who was recently honored as one of the United Nations Environment Programme’s 2021 “Champions of the Earth,” says the pandemic has highlighted both vulnerability and strength. “The pandemic was actually a wake-up call that we can’t only depend on tourism to sustain conservation, but it was also a revelation that tourism has been sustaining conservation.”