CHAMPIONS of the WILD
National Geographic Traveller (UK)|September 2021
Behind the scenes in Uganda’s national parks, an army of conservationists works tirelessly to defend the country’s natural treasures from the threat from oil pipelines, hydro dams and poaching. With elephant numbers stabilising and lion tracking programmes in place, tourism numbers are returning, not least to the dense, misty forests that shroud the south of the country, home to more than half the world’s mountain gorillas
SARAH MARSHALL

Waves swell with the force of five oceans as water charges and tumbles over rocks. Foaming with fury and roaring with rage, jets explode from every crack and crevice, clouding the area in white smoke.

Spilling over an escarpment at the northernmost tip of Africa’s Western Rift Valley, Uganda’s Murchison Falls has forever been in a state of turbulence. This mighty bottleneck in the Nile has swallowed bridges, thrown light aircraft off course and narrowly escaped a hydro dam development.

A boiling pot of controversy, where disagreements continuously bubble away, today her mood is darker than the depths of hell. Skittish butterflies skirt over the surf and rainbows fail to reconcile their arcs as the cataract consumes everything in its path.

Heavy rains have caused water levels to surge but her anger could be down to other reasons, suggests my guide, George, as we hike from the car to a nearby viewpoint.

Termite mounds sparkle with flecks of mica and the quartzite rocks shimmer like jewels. But other riches are currently determining the future of Uganda’s oldest conservation area and biggest national park, which sprawls across a section of land larger than Cornwall in the country’s north west.

“Oil is like a curse,” complains George as we reach the top. “Countries with it never do well.”

A decision to drill for black gold in Murchison Falls and build a pipeline to Tanzania has been met with mixed responses in Uganda, a nation wealthy in natural assets but economically poor. While French oil company TotalEnergies has promised to minimise its footprint, lodge owners, guides and environmentalists remain sceptical.

Any concern is testimony to the value Uganda places on its wild spaces. Historically, the country has been praised for its environmental efforts, and behind the scenes of its 10 national parks and multiple reserves are individuals working hard keep them safe. Meeting them is as rewarding as viewing big cats on a game drive or tracking great apes in a primordial forest — something I learn first-hand on an itinerary exploring some of the most important conservation projects accessible to tourists.

Although the oil extraction is a done deal, with most infrastructure in place and the construction of a pipeline due to start this year, only 1% or the park will be directly impacted. Exploring by dirt road and river, I encounter a precious Eden: waterways heave with crocs and hippos; papyrus reeds twitch with the stealthy tiptoe of shy shoebills; and rare Rothschild’s giraffes stride across sweeping savannahs and hills.

NGO Uganda Conservation Foundation, in collaboration with the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), works diligently to protect this paradise. On a tour of its newly completed Law Enforcement and Operations Centre, founding trustee Mike Keigwin proudly shows off a complex where every cog of a well-oiled anti-poaching mechanism — from satellite-linked surveillance screens to temporary prison cells and a police station — whirs away under one roof. One hundred young people from the fringes of Murchison Falls were contracted for the construction, with many now training as rangers for UWA.

“It’s the first of its kind in Africa,” beams Mike, a sharp-thinking British problem-solver who ditched a job with consulting firm Deloitte to work in conservation. Detaining poachers on site speeds up the judicial process, he explains, while computers mapping incidents of crop raiding help rangers swiftly deal with problem animals straying from the park into community land.

From the late 1970s until 2000, elephant numbers in Murchison Falls — once the most visited park in Africa — crashed from 16,000 to 500, but in recent times the situation has stabilised, and tourism is returning.

An armoury packed with confiscated weapons, which are safer under lock and key than discarded, is a chilling reminder that illegal activity is still a threat. “Under every building in this complex, there are another 20-30,000 snares,” sighs Mike, picking through wire coils and hefty wheel clamps, some still with tufts of animal hair in their jaws. “We were running out of space.”

The cost of protecting Africa’s wild areas is enormous, but the potential losses are too overwhelming to contemplate. Although the trade in animal parts has largely been brought under control, the biggest threat now lies in the conflict between communities and wildlife, as populations grow and habitats shrink.

Into the woods

Budongo Forest, a 45-minute drive south of the falls along a newly paved, Chinese-built road, is ever-threatened by illegal logging and encroachment. A strict set of hunting rights issued by the King of Bunyoro safeguarded the tropical rainforest in the past, but now chimpanzee tourism is its key custodian. Setting off at 7am, I join Amos Wekesa, owner of the Budongo Eco Lodge, for a full day chimp ‘habituation’ experience — providing an opportunity to discover how these great apes are acclimatised to humans. His simple wooden lodge and cabins, once used by the Jane Goodall Institute as a field base, sits at the mouth of several trails.

Silenced by thick walls of spiralling ferns and a canopy of latticed branches, human voices quickly drift away as we tumble into a fairytale forest beyond the imagination of even the Brothers Grimm.

Ancient mahogany trees form a colonnade of Corinthian pillars, supporting a temple more sacred than any man-made place of worship. Epiphytes balance on borrowed altars, while strangler figs grip their victims, performing a slow act of sacrifice. On the soft, spongy ground, decaying trunks sprout with wisps of ghost white fungi.

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