Some of you may have seen the Nkuringo region of Bwindi recently profiled on the second episode of Earthrise, a series produced by Al Jazeera English. If you missed it, click here to watch the full episode.
In this post as part of our series celebrating the 20 years of IGCP, Helga Rainer recounts and reflects on the development of gorilla tourism and the buffer zone in the Nkuringo area of Bwindi Impentrable National Park in Uganda. Rainer was Uganda Country Programme Officer/Regional Policy Advisor for the International Gorilla Conservation Programme from September 1999 – July 2004. We encourage your comments on this post or submit your own reflections to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos accompanying this post are not to be used without the expressed consent of Helga Rainer and IGCP. Additional photos of the people and the landscape of the Nkuringo area can be found via an IGCP Flickr set.
In July 2000, an outbreak of scabies occurred in a group of mountain gorillas (see footnote 1). The Nkuringo group, on the southern side of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda, had been recently habituated and plans were afoot to open the group for tourism. As the health of the gorillas was compromised, and the vets (2) worked to contain the outbreak, conservation partners, the International Gorilla Conservation Programme included, decided to postpone the opening of the group for tourism until more meaningful consideration of the disease threat had been made. This pause, although concerning at the time, brought local communities and conservation partners together in a process that resulted in unprecedented agreements around tourism and land management.
The scabies most likely source was from the human populations residing along the boundary of the park (3). In fact, the outbreak in Nkuringo was a stark reminder of the linkages of human and gorilla health and the importance of working at this interface (4, 5). As the Nkuringo group had been habituated to human presence in preparation for tourism, they had increasingly lost their natural apprehension of humans and begun to spend more time on the local communities’ farmlands, which perversely had been gorilla home range a mere 50 years earlier (6). Apart from the likelihood that this led to the scabies outbreak, it also meant that villagers lost crops as gorillas raided the relatively rich source of easy (to the gorillas!) food. It seemed that costs were being borne by both humans and gorillas and it was to the local communities that conservation partners turned for possible solutions. After all, these were now their lands, and their input was critical if a way forward was to be found. It was an important decision and one that reflected the willingness of all groups to engage in meaningful consultation.
The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and local leaders therefore conducted an extensive survey of affected households to solicit their input on how to resolve the issue of gorillas ranging on community lands and thereby mitigate disease risk. The overwhelming response was for land to be purchased from the villagers to create a buffer zone. This was, however, on condition that it would be managed to prevent the gorillas from moving beyond their current range and on the understanding that tourism would be forthcoming and local communities would benefit in a meaningful way.
After considering the extent of the gorilla range, an area of 4.2 square km was identified for purchase. The rectangular piece of land run along the boundary of Bwindi for 12 km and extended approximately 350 meters from the park edge. In addressing the communities concerns that the area was managed effectively and did not extend the gorilla’s range beyond the identified buffer zone, an unprecedented co-ownership arrangement between the local communities, represented by the Nkuringo Conservation and Development Foundation (7) now re-named the Nkuringo Community Conservation and Development Foundation (NCCDF) and the UWA was established along the outer edge of the land. IGCP’s role in securing a majority of the resources to be able to purchase the land was a testament to the close collaboration with the wildlife authority and recognition of the significance of integrating local landowners in subsequent management decisions by the donors.
Meanwhile, the UWA agreed to give a concession on gorilla permits to the NCCDF in order to ensure that the local communities would benefit from tourism in a significant way. If tourism was to be a meaningful strategy for conservation, then an increase on 6% (8) of the total gorilla-based revenue over 2000-2001 at local level had to be readdressed. Local communities generally bear the greatest costs associated with national parks, through loss of crops by raiding wildlife and restricted access to these areas. They are often presented with little choice but to engage in agricultural and livelihood strategies that compromise conservation. By providing alternative sources of income and increased economic opportunity, it was assumed that conservation and development would be strengthened. The provision of a concession to the local community meant that, NCCDF with support from IGCP and the African Wildlife Foundation, were able to negotiate a favorable business partnership (9) with an experienced tourism outfit, resulting in the co-ownership of a lodge (10) that was to provide significant revenues at the local level. The intention was to not only generate significant economic benefits for the local community but to also enable them to participate in tourism and tangibly realize an aspect of the benefits of conserving gorillas and their habitat (11).
The Nkuringo site presented a microcosm of many of the complexities of achieving mountain gorilla conservation and development. The challenges of developing holistic programming that was to address not only gorilla (and human) health, human-wildlife (12) conflict and distribution of conservation benefit was interwoven into a combination of solutions that incorporated land use management and tourism. This was the result of a process of consultation, transparency, flexibility and application of solutions that had not been previously implemented in the Ugandan context. IGCP’s ability to engage at all levels, strong relationship with interested parties and willingness to not only provide technical but financial resources to support identified strategies meant that a healthy Nkuringo gorilla group received its first foreign visitors in 2004 on land they could rightfully occupy.
Upon revisiting the Nkuringo site after a period of six years in July 2011, several immediate changes were evident. Naturally, the presence of a high-end lodge facility was striking but other signs of ‘wealth’ were present in the change in the housing along the road in the village of Nteko. Members of NCCDF told me about the funding of scholarships for Batwa children, supply of livestock to local families, building of teacher accommodation and paying for the education of nurses (amongst other things) that had been provided from their share of the lodge. However, it was clear that NCCDF was still a young institution with growing pains and in danger of being derailed in its objectives by its top-heavy governance structure. Discussions with members of the buffer zone committee of NCCDF revealed the ongoing challenges of resolving human-wildlife conflict. The planting of Artemisia had been trialed as a crop that would not only prevent wildlife from crossing the buffer zone but also generate revenue for the local communities but it had (seemingly) not worked. A rethink around possible other solutions was in progress including the planting of tea and resolving gaps in the Mauritius thorn fence that had been planted since the creation of the buffer zone. Although it will take time to resolve the issue of conflict between humans and wildlife, the ownership conveyed by members of NCCDF to continue to find a durable solution was evidence of a sense of responsibility to their constituents that were both human and gorilla.
Helga Rainer was the Uganda Country Programme Officer/Regional Policy advisor for the International Gorilla Conservation Programme from September 1999 – July 2004 followed by Senior Programme Officer, African Wildlife Foundation, Uganda from July 2004 –September 2005. She is now Great Apes Program Officer with the Arcus Foundation (http://www.arcusfoundation.org/) and a Doctoral Candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Again, photos accompanying this post are not to be used without the expressed consent of Helga Rainer and IGCP. Inquiries can be sent to email@example.com.
1) Bergorilla & Regenwald Direkhilfe 2000 ‘An Outbreak of Mange Hits the Bwindi Gorillas’. Gorilla Journal – June 2001
2) Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project and Uganda Wildlife Authority vets collaborated to provide health care to the Nkuringo group
3) Bergorilla & Regenwald Direkhilfe 2000 ‘An Outbreak of Mange Hits the Bwindi Gorillas’. Gorilla Journal – June 2001
4) IGCP raised funds for the UWA to be able to recruit a wildlife vet for the Nkuringo area.
5) This event was a catalyst in the creation of a local NGO – Conservation through Public Health www.ctph.org.
6) Adrain Martin, Eugene Rutagarama, Maryke Gray, Stephen Asuma, Mediatice Bana, Augustin Basabosa, Mark Mwine , 2008 ‘International Gorilla Conservation Programme Community Conservation: lessons learned: A report of the experience of community conservation enterprises undertaken by the International Gorilla Conservation Programme’ DEV/ORG Reports and Policy Papers, University of East Anglia.
7) IGCP also supported the development of the NCCDF, which involved lengthy consultation and negotiation between the villages residing in the parishes of Nteko and Nkuringo.
8) Hatfield, Richard and Delphine Malleret-King, 2003 ‘ The Economic Value of the Bwindi and Virunga Gorilla Mountain Forests’ A report submitted to the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP), Nairobi
9) Founding NCCDF members had visited different models of local communities engaging in nature-based tourism in Kenya. The decision to seek partnership with an experienced private sector agency was chosen by NCCDF.
10) Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge -http://www.wildplacesafrica.com/gorilla-lodge/
11) This project upheld the objectives the National Tourism Policy to contribute to ‘poverty reduction’ and ‘protection of the environment’. As well as develop a site identified in the Kisoro District Tourism Plan.
12) Objectives of the buffer zone included attempts to resolve conflict with all wildlife including gorillas.