Gorillas win too in battle against rural poverty in Ugandan national park

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British charity working to mitigate struggle for survival in Bwindi Impenetrable forest aided by our campaign

The sudden killing of the head of his family has pressed 17-year-old Rwamutwe to step up to keep the others safe and together. As they strip branches and mind their young, his regular, rumbling grunts reassure them that all is well.

The Nkuringo mountain gorilla group was one of Uganda’s first to be habituated to humans, and tourist visits since 2004 have raised millions of pounds towards the endangered species’ conservation.

But Rwamutwe is now head because the charismatic Rafiki, who had led the family for 12 years until June, was mortally wounded by a poacher’s spear. His death caused an international outcry and fears that a priceless conservation asset would be lost if his distraught relatives scattered, or a wild silverback took over and killed his young.

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, who has studied the group for 20 years, since it was led by Rafiki’s late father Nkuringo, is relieved most of the apes have, so far, stuck together. She pointed out a fresh smattering of silver hair on the flank of Rwamutwe, which signals his rise to dominance. The family, which numbered 17 under Rafiki, has now settled at 11. “In similar circumstances, the hierarchy of many other groups would have collapsed entirely,” she said, describing it as an extraordinary result.

The pandemic has emptied the national park of tourists. The dense forest is home to the Nkuringo group and almost half the world’s mountain gorillas. Conservationists’ fears that the virus would rip through the population of man’s closest animal relative closed the gorilla trekking industry in March — taking the thousands of livelihoods with it. Although tourists are slowly trickling back, now tested, masked and sanitised to protect the primates, a recovery in jobs could take years.

Amid rising hunger and desperation, locals with their snares and dogs are turning to Africa’s oldest rainforest to provide food for their pots. Dr Kalema-Zikusoka fears big conservation wins could be put back decades by the pandemic-fuelled surge in poaching.

It is in this parallel struggle for survival by wildlife and human populations living in and around Bwindi Impenetrable forest that the UK-based conservation charity Tusk is working to mitigate. Tusk is one of the charities featured in The Times and Sunday Times Christmas Appeal this year. All donations to Tusk through the appeal, up to a total of £150,000 will be doubled by the Nick Maughan Foundation, founded by a British businessman and philanthropist.

Rwamutwe became the alpha male of Nkuringo group after Rafiki was killed in June - PATRICK MEINHARDT FOR THE TIMES

Tusk was founded in 1990 in response to the poaching crisis of the 1980s and counts Prince William as its patron. In 2019, it provided grants to 62 projects in 20 African countries. With Tusk’s support, these projects safeguard 89 million hectares of land for more than 40 threatened species and employ more than 5,000 people.

A key pillar of Tusk’s work is to reduce conflict between animals and humans by funding measures that protect endangered species in tandem with sustainable support for local human communities that curb the need for hunting or poaching.

Dr Kalema-Zikusoka’s organisation, Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) is typical of this model. With funding from Tusk, it is providing education on health and income-generating opportunities that are meeting the most urgent needs of Bwindi’s human and gorilla populations.

The death of Rafiki highlighted the fragility of this coexistence in the face of sudden and severe hardship, Dr Kalema-Zikusoka told The Times during a visit to the forest.

Felix Byamukama, 27, who pleaded guilty to killing the gorilla, was jailed for a record 11 years in July after admitting he was in the south of the park to poach a bush pig and a small buck to feed his family. He told the court he threw a spear at the 200kg gorilla in self-defence after it charged. The hefty prison sentence was welcomed by wildlife officials as the deterrent they had long been lobbying for.

Although large and protected species are rarely the target of those hunting for food, snares do not discriminate and wild animals are unpredictable. Dr Kalema-Zikusoka and other experts who for years had observed Rafiki, which means friend in Swahili, could not fathom why he would have acted aggressively towards the poacher since he was accustomed to human company.

During a visit to Byamukama’s family with The Times, Dr Kalema-Zikusoka was told that Rafiki had attacked the poacher as he was killing a squealing snared bush pig. “It seems the gorilla thought that the noise was one of his own babies being killed,” Erastus Mihanda, 71, told us, relaying his nephew’s version of events.

Rafiki, who led the troop for 12 years, was killed in June

A tracking team found the silverback’s prone body two days later. The spear’s point had damaged vital organs and Rafiki had slowly bled to death. Angry at the loss of their biggest tourist draw card, locals quickly gave his killer up to police.

Since his incarceration, the poacher’s wife, Mackline Nyambuga, 25, is straining to raise their three children alone in the single room home he built from mud bricks. To ease the load, the oldest, aged three, has been sent away to a relative.

The occasional day of labouring on a neighbouring farm earns Ms Nyambuga the equivalent of £1.50 and she “is not hopeful” that she will cope without him. Others on the family compound in Murole, a hamlet on a ridge above the dense park’s boundary, chip in to help, but things are tight. A share from Bwindi’s entrance fees and gorilla trekking permits, which cost up to $700 a head, are funnelled to the communities that were moved out of their hunting grounds in 1991 when the 124 sq mile park was secured.

The jailed man’s grandfather, Petero Bavakure, 80, credited him as “the one who always provided” and imagines he will never see him again. He believes a prison sentence was appropriate, but such a long one will “will doom us”, he said.

He acknowledged the gorillas are an asset for his community, even if they occasionally raid his bananas and yams, along with the forest’s monkeys and baboons. Some families in the area keep their children out of school to mind crops.

Things have improved, though since Tusk funded and CTPH trained a cohort of community-based monitors to settle gorilla-human conflict and herd pillaging animals back down the hill.

Like others living on Bwindi’s fringe, Mr Bavakure, gave up most of his farming interests when commercial gorilla trekking began in 1993. Porting tourists’ bags, hotel work and selling souvenirs offered lucrative alternatives to back-breaking peasantry. A local tourism job typically supports a dozen dependents.

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka is relieved the family has stuck together after Rafiki’s death - PATRICK MEINHARDT FOR THE TIMES

“The knock-on effect of lost livelihoods has been absolutely devastating,” Dr Kalema-Zikusoka said. She believes a return to small-scale farming offers Bwindi communities the best buffer against the pandemic and other future shocks, without resorting to plundering the park’s trees and animals.

With Tusk’s support for operational costs, her organisation has distributed thousands of bags of beans and seedlings to households in need. A network of CTPH community volunteers will provide any necessary training and monitor progress.

“These will help us a lot,” Ms Nyambuga nodded, clutching 11-month old Sumta in one arm and her ready-to-grow supplies in the other.

Returning to the gorillas, Dr Kalema-Zikusoka expressed relief to better understand the silverback’s death, and to be helping his killer’s family.

The Bwindi Forest National Park has been empty of visitors since the pandemic started - PATRICK MEINHARDT FOR THE TIMES

Against the echo of cracking branches and the grunts of his mother, Rafiki’s youngest offspring attempted a chest pump.

“We have to look after everyone, animal and human, otherwise nothing we do will work,” she said.

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