Uganda’s recovering wildlife

Queen_Elizabeth_6Queen Elizabeth National Park

by Dave Gibson

Set beneath the imposing 16,762 ft. high Rwenzori Mountains, Queen Elizabeth National Park is Uganda’s most visited tourist destination. Originally home to Basongora pastoralists, when Welsh explorer and journalist Henry Morton Stanley passed through the area in 1889 in search of Dr. David Livingstone, it was largely devoid of people due to the Basongoras’ cattle being raided by neighboring Bunyoro and Buganda tribes. Denied their livelihood, most moved to small fishing villages along Lakes George and Edward but suffered rinderpest and smallpox epidemics. Outbreaks of sleeping sickness caused by tsetse fly plagued them until the mid 1930s. To the benefit of wild game and carnivores, due to the absence of humans, the yet to be named national park’s lands reverted to their natural state of rolling savanna, wetland, and tropical forest.

Nine years after gaining independence from Great Britain, Idi Amin seized power of Uganda from Milton Obote in a military coup. His brutal dictatorship during the years of 1971 through 1979 cost up to half a million Ugandans their lives through extrajudicial killings, executions, torture, human rights abuses, ethnic persecution, and gross economic mismanagement. Obote deposed Amin to retake control of the country until 1986. His reign of terror was no better than Idi Amin’s with 300,000 civilian deaths. In addition to human casualties, Ugandan megafauna were decimated during that time period by poachers and soldiers. Once home to twenty thousand elephants in 1960, by the end of the 1980s their population had plummeted to merely seven hundred. Giraffes, zebra, impala, and rhinoceros are still absent from Queen Elizabeth National Park.

With relative political stability established since then, and the creation of the Ugandan Wildlife Authority in 1996, the wildlife has begun to recover. There are an estimated five thousand elephants in Uganda today and around three thousand living in Queen Elizabeth. Many of those elephants migrated from the nearby Congo where poaching for food and ivory is rampant. Over 600 bird species can be seen in Queen Elizabeth N.P. along with almost 100 types of mammals. Lions, hyenas, jackals, and leopards top the list of predators. Tree-climbing lions of the Ishasha region are thought to gain a better vantage point for spotting and ambushing prey from the horizontal limbs, but the atypical behavior may have as much to do with escaping biting flies. Uganda’s national animal (the Uganda kob) has filled the void left by the extirpated impala, and waterbuck are abundant.

A two hour boat launch cruise along the 32 kilometer long Kazinga Channel is a highlight, and should absolutely be included in the itinerary of Queen Elizabeth. Connecting Lake Edward to Lake George, its banks are lined with wallowing Cape buffalo sharing real estate with hundreds of hippos. Crocodiles bask onshore alongside monitor lizards, cormorants, herons, pelicans, geese, jacanas, kingfishers, skimmers, plovers, ibises, and baboons. Elephants come down from the surrounding hills to bathe and drink. If you are lucky, you might even espy a rare bush pig or shoebill stork. Fish eagles are sometimes observed scooping up tilapia from the water with their powerful talons.

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