Nakuwa wetland system, one of Uganda’s Ramsar sites, is no more.

The current long dry spell, coupled with the global climate changes and massive environmental degradation, have presented new serious threats to wildlife and conservation. Nakuwa wetland system, one of Uganda’s Ramsar sites, is no more. The shoreline of Lake Nakuwa has receded by over 5km as farms take over the habitats for the world’s endangered bird species. Pascal Kwesiga writes.

Francis Olupot, 40, has lived in Nakuwa village in Pallisa district in eastern Uganda all his life. While growing up, Olupot enjoyed watching various bird species perch on tree branches in Lake Nakuwa wetland.

He enjoyed the soft and defensive sounds of male birds singing, especially in the morning, to attract mates and protect their territory.

Because it was a habitat for the numerous endangered indigenous and migratory bird species, Lake Nakuwa wetland system was declared a Ramsar site in 2006 under the 1971 international convention on wetlands.  Nakuwa became a wetland system of international importance.

Uganda pledged to conserve it in collaboration with international partners, working to fulfill the aspirations of the convention to protect the world’s endangered bird species, including Uganda’s most cherished crested crane.

Birds disappearing

The grey-crowned crane, Uganda’s national symbol, features prominently on the country’s flag and court of arms. It is estimated that out of about 100,000 crested cranes in Uganda five decades ago, only 10,000 are still in the country. The dwindling numbers of the crested cranes is largely due to habitat destruction.

Ten years later, Nakuwa is no more. The wetland system has been converted into farmland. The shoreline of Lake Nakuwa has receded by over 5km. As a result, the endangered birds have disappeared without a trace.

Olupot now recalls with nostalgia the beautiful birds he used to watch singing and flying over the village and building nests in the trees in the wetland.

“I enjoyed looking at the birds, especially the crested crane, flying and living with us. We lived harmoniously with the birds until people started cultivating in the wetland,” he said.

The trees the birds perched on have been cut. A previously thick vegetation comprised of, among others, papyrus and various indigenous trees, has been replaced with rice fields.

“The birds used to come to the wetland every day. I used to see about 50 crested cranes. I also saw a few tourists in our village, who came to watch the birds. The birds have gone and the tourists are no more,” Olupot said.

Nakuwa wetland is shared by Pallisa, Kaliro and Namutumba districts.  The Pallisa district environment officer, Muhammad Galya, said the degradation of the Ramsar site implies that Uganda has lost some of the world’s endangered bird species and the wetland might lose its international significance in the conservation and tourism contexts.

Deo Lukaba, the eastern region wetlands co-ordinator for the Ministry of Water and Environment, said Nakuwa hosted indigenous birds under threat of extinction, as well as rare fish species.

Lukaba said the birds have lost their habitat due to crop cultivation in the wetland, destruction of vegetation and silting.

Nakuwa is one of several wetlands around lakes in the eastern region that have been degraded and converted into rice fields over the years. The wetlands serve as habitats for birds, water catchment areas and fish breeding grounds.

Other Ramsar sites

The Opeta and Bisina ramsar sites have equally been degraded by farmers and the number of endangered birds in the two wetlands has drastically reduced.

Opeta, which was declared a wetland of international importance in 2006, is shared by Katakwi, Bulambuli, Sironko, Kapchorwa and Kween districts.

Bisina, which was also declared a ramsar site in 2006, is shared by Ngora, Soroti, Kumi and Katakwi districts. The Bisina wetland system was also declared an international bird area for hosting endemic migratory and indigenous birds.

“It means it had birds that were not in any other part of the world and conservationists thought it should be protected to conserve and reproduce the endemic birds,” Lukaba said.

The water levels in lakes Bisina and Opeta has receded by over 100 metres and the wetlands around have been reclaimed by farmers.

The three wetlands surrounded by satellite lakes are drained by the Mpologoma-Namatala wetland system that flows from Mt. Elgon. The wetlands and satellite lakes drain into Lake Kyoga and the Victoria Nile.

Lukaba said a lot of vegetation and biodiversity has been lost as a result of wetland reclamation by farmers and receding water levels in lakes Nakuwa and Opeta, as well as Bisina wetland.

“The vegetation and wetlands are disappearing in all the Ramsar sites in the eastern region and birds have lost their habitats,” he added.

There are 12 ramsar sites in the country, with most of them being in the national parks in the western region and some in the central region. While the ramsar sites in the national parks have not been encroached on, some in the central region are being degraded.

The rains experienced in the previous years have not stopped the wetlands from drying up and lakes from receding because of the continuous farming activities on the shorelines of the water bodies and their catchment areas. But the current long dry spell, coupled with the global climate changes and massive environmental degradation, have presented new serious threats to wildlife and conservation.

Across the country, wetlands have been degraded and little is being done by the line agencies such as National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), to have them restored. But political interference has also frustrated the little efforts by NEMA to restore the degraded wetlands and rivers. The receding water level is another way through which the current dry spell and environmental degradation are affecting wildlife and conservation.

No water for wild life

Currently, the water level in Tangi River, the main tributary of River Nile within Murchison Falls National Park, has drastically reduced.

An official working with an international environment conservation agency said some of the water sources and ponds in the national park have dried up, and that animals can hardly be seen in the (park).

“The major problem in Murchison Falls National Park is shortage of water. In such times, animals get stressed and move near the available water sources. It becomes hard for tourists to see them; some even migrate,” he said.

Nelson Guma, the conservation manager for Kibale conservation landscape, comprised of Semuliki and Kibale national parks, as well as Katonga and Toro-Semuliki wildlife reserves, said the dry spell in the savanna (national parks) is lowering the tourism experience.

“The grass is dry and animals tend to congregate near water sources during the dry seasons. The tourists do not get to see the animals on some of the tracks and that reduces the tourism experience,” he said.

However, most of Kibale conservation landscape is forested area, with grassland patches in the Katonga and Toro-Semuliki conservation areas.

“The dry spell does not present challenges in the forested parks. The challenge is in the savanna parks,” Guma explained.

Baboons in Murchison Falls National Park. Bush fires have destroyed large parts of the park

Wild fires in parks

According to the Queen Elizabeth National Park conservation area manager, Edward Asalu, bush fires are one of the major challenges presented by the current dry spell.

“There are public roads that go through Queen Elizabeth, and members of the public who pass through the park, especially smokers, throw burning cigarette in the park, which set off fires,” he said.

Since the grass in savanna parks like Queen Elizabeth National Park is now dry, Asalu said the wildlife are currently moving long distances in search of pasture. The same is true for other savanna national parks such as Murchison and Lake Mburo.

However,  Asalu explained that Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) monitoring unit currently keeps patrolling Queen Elizabeth National Park and putting out wild fires.

“We are working with the community to overcome the challenges of wild fire outbreaks,” Asalu stated.

Lilly Ajarova, the executive director of Chimpanzee Trust, a local NGO taking care of the welfare of the chimpanzees in Uganda, said bush fires have destroyed large wildlife habitats in Murchison Falls National Park, and that the drying up of rivers and receding water levels in lakes will also affect fauna and flora.

“Bush fires have destroyed large habitats. If we continue to have long dry conditions, some animals will die,” she stated.

Leal Miguel, the programme director for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), an international NGO, said if Uganda continues to experience long dry spells like the current one, animals will starve to death.

“The country may have to start thinking of how to feed wildlife when pastures in the parks are dry. Tourists want to see animals, and if they do not see them, they do not come back,” he added.

Statistics from Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) shows that earnings from tourism, the country’s current top foreign exchange earner, have been increasing from $50m in 1986 to $1.3b in 2016. But earnings from the industry were at $1.4b in 2015.

Tourism is a major source of employment and investment. Information from UTB shows that tourism contributed 14.6% of total employment (630,830 jobs) and accounted for 23% of the total registered businesses such as hotels, restaurants, recreational and personal services in the country by 2011. The tours and travel companies and communities adjacent to the national parks also sell arts and crafts as well as traditional attire to tourists.

Tourism products affected

According to Stephen Asiimwe, the UTB executive director, the degradation of habitats for birds and animals is a serious blow to tourism and conversation because the unique selling points for Uganda’s (tourism) are wildlife and nature.

“Our leisure tourism is largely national parks, games reserves, mountains, lakes and rivers. The destruction of any of them is affecting our unique selling points,” he stated.

As a consequence of the environmental degradation and drying up of water sources and pasture in national parks like Mburo in western Uganda, Asiimwe said the wildlife are encroaching on people’s farms in search of pasture and water.

“The wildlife are increasingly getting attacked and sometimes killed on people’s farms. The dry spells have worsened the wildlife-human conflict,” he added.

Asiimwe explained that about 80% of the crested crane stock has been lost due to degradation of their breeding grounds in swamps and other conservation areas.

“The trees being cut down to establish farms are part of the ecosystem for birds. When they are cut, birds lose nests and worms and insects eaten by birds are killed,” he said.

Statistics from the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities show that Uganda has over 50% of the world’s bird species.

Biodiversity hot spot

In the Albertine graben, which stretches from Moyo district in West Nile to Kanungu (district) in southwestern Uganda, all forests and wetlands have been degraded, affecting water levels in lakes Albert, Edward and George. Yet the Albertine basin is one of Africa’s eight biodiversity hotspots.

The basin is home to, among others, Murchison Falls and Queen Elizabeth national parks, Kibale landscape conservation area, Virunga, Mgahinga, and Bwindi Impenetrable national parks. Bwindi and Mgahinga national parks have over 400 mountain gorillas, which is almost half of the world’s population.

The graben is also home to Karuma and Bugungu wildlife reserve, as well as Ramsar sites. According to NEMA, the Albertine basin, which forms part of the East African Rift Valley, is home to 14% of African reptiles, 19% of African amphibians, 35% of African butterflies, 52% of African birds and 39% of African mammals.

The 500km graben, with an average width of 45km, traversed by water bodies, including lakes and River Nile, is home to 70% of the protected areas in Uganda.

But the level of water in all major rivers that drain lakes in the basin has receded over the years due to the degradation of their catchment areas. The rivers where the water levels has receded over years include Waaki and Wambabya in Hoima, Mpanga in Kabarole and Kamwenge, Nkusi in Kibaale, Kafu in Nakasongola and Masindi and Muziizi in Kibaale.

Tourists on one of the peaks of Rwenzori. The rocks on the peaks are increasingly becoming bare as the snow and glaciers retreat

Changing vegetation

The 2016 Albertine Graben Environmental Baseline Monitoring report, authored by NEMA, indicated that forests and wetlands are increasingly being converted into farmland and settlement areas in the (Albertine basin) where so far 6.5 billion barrels of oil have been confirmed.

As a result, the report stated, the vegetation cover in the region is changing as forests and wetland are converted into farmland and human settlements. Forests are the major habitats for primates.  Kibale (forested) National Park in western Uganda has 13 species of primates which, according to UWA, is the largest concentration in one area in the whole world.

Dr Grace Nangendo, a programme officer at World Conservation Society office in Uganda, who was part of the researchers that wrote the NEMA report, said the changing vegetation will affect (conservation) and tourism.

“It will also escalate conflicts between humans and wildlife,” she added.

The NEMA report shows that almost all the buffer forest reserves for Bugoma and Budongo (central forest reserves in the graben) such as Ruzaire, Kanage, Nyabiku, Guramwa, Kyahaiguru, Wambabya, Kagombe, Kyamugongo, Kasongoire, Mukihani and Kogorra have been cut down for agriculture and human settlement.

John Diisi, the NFA co-ordinator for geographical information system and mapping, noted that forests and wetlands are the most critical elements of the ecosystem system in the environment.

“Once they are destroyed, animals and humans start suffering. It means habitats for animals and storages of water for humans and wildlife are destroyed,” he added.

Fishers invade wetlands

Each time fish stocks fall and water level recedes in Lake Albert, partly due to degradation of the water body and bad fishing practices, the fishermen raid wetlands conserved as breeding grounds and habitats for wildlife in Murchison Falls National Park.

“The fishermen start fishing illegally at night in the Victoria Nile. They raid breeding grounds for animals and birds and harvest immature fish and kill wildlife in the process,” Jossy Muhangi, the UWA spokesperson, said.

The wetlands in the wildlife conservation areas, he explained, are conserved for the flagship bird species like the shoebill and hippos.

“The wildlife are killed or displaced by fishermen,” Muhangi added.

Endangered birds

Fox Weaver, Uganda’s only endemic bird that used to live in the wetland, has not been seen in the area for many years. Other birds that were being conserved in the Nakuwa wetland system include shoebill, Papyrus Gonolek, White-winged Warbler, Northern brown-throated weaver and Papyrus canary.

Snow on Rwenzori retreating

The snow and glaciers on the six snow-capped peaks on Rwenzori Mountain is receding fast due to global warming and environmental degradation.

Herizon Masereka, the board chairperson for Rwenzori Mountaineering Services, a local company providing trekking tourism (services) in are  affecting tourism experience.

He explained that two groups of Israel tourists did not make it to Margherita summit, the highest point in Uganda last July, because the glaciers along the company’s route to the peak had developed gaping cracks due to the high temperatures.

“The Israel tourists complained because they had paid to climb the mountain but they could not make it to the top. Such tourists do not come back. Since snow and glaciers are declining, in future, we may only have rock climbing,” Masereka said.

Currently, the level of water in the rivers and over 50 small lakes in Mountain Rwenzori has drastically dropped. The rivers and lakes in the mountain also drain lakes Edward, George and Albert.

They also drain, among others, rivers Mubuku, Mpanga and Nyamwamba. Located along the equator, Mountain Rwenzori is a major catchment area for the trans-boundary River Nile. The snow and glaciers on Rwenzori Mountain, a world heritage site, are major tourism attractions for Uganda.

Way foward

Stephen Asiimwe, the Uganda Tourism Board executive director, said Uganda should undertake a countrywide comprehensive tree planting programme to save the environment, and that encroachers should be evicted from wetlands and forests.

“Tree planting should be cascaded to LC1 level. People should be given trees in the same way the Government distributes planting materials,” he added.

The culprits of environmental destruction, Asiimwe said should be fined heavily and environmental conservation be incorporated in the national education curricular.

“People should also be encouraged to protect wetlands and parks. The people can take advantage of the swamps to make crafts and make more money instead of destroying them for rice growing,” he stated.

Deo Lukaba, the eastern region wetlands co-ordinator for the Ministry of Water and Environment, said wetlands should be demarcated, wetland management plans developed and degraded areas restored.

New Vision–Feb 7, 2017