Breathtaking views of green hills, tall green eucalyptus forests and ancient volcanic rocks best describe the journey to Nyarusiza sub-county, Gitenderi Parish in Kisoro District-Uganda. The 7.4 km drive ends at picturesque views of mountain Muhabura, a dormant volcano in the Virunga mountains at the border between Uganda and Rwanda. Mountain Muhabura is partly home to Mgahinga Gorilla National Park (Southwestern Uganda) while its foot is home to hundreds of local people. While Mgahinga Gorilla National Park has a lot to offer like the scenic views, great weather and the diverse wildlife including mountain gorillas, park-edge communities have over the years suffered immense losses due to crop raids, from problem animals that dwell in the park.
“Since my youthful age in the 90s, waking up to destroyed farms is a common occurrence,” says Emmanuel Ndikumwami, as he recounts his immense losses over the years. In 2018 Ndikumwami says he experienced 3 consecutive raids from buffalo herds. They destroyed 3 acres of his Irish potato, wheat, and maize crops. This caused him a loss of UGX 9 million ($2,545.35) in expected harvest. “I felt so frustrated that I chose to sell my land and try something new”.
Human wildlife conflict remains one of the biggest challenges faced by park edge communities everywhere. Problem animals especially buffalos, elephants, antelopes, duikers, and monkeys, leave the park and raid neighboring farms. This has often left crops and sometimes lives of either wildlife or humans destroyed in self-defense. As a result, communities are left in dire hunger, poverty, and bad relationship with the parks.
In the bid to address, Human Wildlife Conflict around Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, IGCP in December 2021, donated UGX 37.5 million ($10,605.62) to 110 individuals from park-edge conservation Community Based Organizations (CBOs) to invest in onion farming. Onions are considered non-palatable crops and have the potential to fetch high yields for the park edge farmers while contributing to a reduction in Human Wildlife Conflict around the park. “Onions are twice profitable compared to Irish potatoes and are more environment friendly since they naturally fertilize the soil with their nitrogen components,” says David Sebutozi, Chairman of Gitenderi Protect Environment Group.
The donation was in response to a proposal from the community to be supported in onion farming. According to the community the strong smell of onions will deter problem animals from raiding their farms and hence allow for a good harvest.
About 33 onion seedlings were planted in a stretch of 7 acres by the 110 beneficiary farmers. The farmers expect to harvest at least 120 onion sacks worth UGX 42 million ($11,878.29) if one sack is sold at the current sale price of UGX 350,000 ($98.99) by June 2022.
Apart from better harvest and sales, the residents are expectant that this initiative will also reduce on the number of school dropouts (since they will have income to pay school fees), reduce human wildlife conflict and improve community – park relations.
“For years, we have been bitter about the laxity to compensate us when animals raid our crops. On several occasions, we have thought that the park chooses the well-being of wildlife over ours which has annoyed and gotten many people to hate the park and conservation itself,” says Faith Irambabariye,
According to the community, the park only pays UGX 5000 ($1.4) per meter of destroyed crops. This money is usually to repair the escape points in the buffalo wall and not to compensate lost crops. While there is a compensation policy in place, conservationists feel that it is wanting and hasn’t been adequately implemented. The newly amended Wildlife Act stipulates that, “Compensation will be made for loss occasioned by animals escaping from wildlife protected areas including material damage to land, crop, domestic animal, building, property or human life after an officer has visited to verify and note the encountered loss.”
Commenting on the effectiveness of the compensation policy, Aulea Kyalimpa Tumwebaze, Warden In-Charge of community conservation in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park reveals that, Compensation was approved in the Act, however its implementation is still hindered by the absence of the implementation guidelines and evaluation committee. Aulea however says that plans to institute an evaluation committee and develop implementation guidelines are underway.
Aulea adds that the park often carries out some compassion activities like visiting and talking to affected people in case life is lost and severe injuries are encountered.
“When we give such donations to park-edge communities, it is a great opportunity to educate them about the conservation benefits they get because they live adjacent to the parks. This approach in the long run creates conservation awareness and make communities conservation friendly and good custodians of the conservation gains, “says. Henry Mutabaazi, IGCP Uganda Country Coordinator.