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Conservationists: Bunyoro can resolve chimp-human conflicts and boost tourism

Moses Semahunge, the project manager for Bulindi Chimpanzee and Community Project, says, naturally, chimpanzees will always try to avoid people if there is an option of hiding away.

Semahunge, whose organisation deals in conservation of chimpanzees, is quick to add that but apes move for several reasons, including reproduction and in search for food.

During reproduction, he explains, the alpha male takes the female out of the community and they only return when the male is sure that the female has conceived.

Semahunge says when they grow up, chimpanzees always move out of their community to get married because the females avoid interbreeding.

They only go for sex when they want to produce. Females experience morphological changes.

When a female is on heat, the skin around her genitals becomes pink and swollen to send a signal to a male that it is ready to conceive.

The latter demystifies myths that chimps rape. However, since they are herbivores, they depend on jackfruit, pawpaw and sugarcane.

Fruits used to be abundant in Ugandan forests but because the forests have been destroyed, this has forced hungry chimps, which are the closest living animal relatives of human beings, to raid human settlements around for food.

The Albertine Journal focuses on Bunyoro sub-region, known for being home to hundreds of chimpanzees. Bunyoro comprises Hoima, Masindi, Kibaale, Kakumiro, Kikuube, Buliisa, Kiyrandongo and Kagadi districts.

Northern Hoima has an estimated population of over 700 with 500 found in Bugoma central forest reserve, 20 in Kyabigambire sub-county, 20 in Bugambe, while 208 are in other fragments.

The region has in the past witnessed forested lands outside natural parks, reserves and private forests where chimps used to get food being converted to agriculture as population grows.

From 1985 to 2014, Bunyoro lost 10.7% of its forest cover around Bugoma and Budongo central forest reserves, which are renowned to be habitats of the largest number of chimps.

This has been as a result of construction, agricultural activities, illegal logging, mining, electricity extension and sugarcane growing.

Driven out

Bunyoro annually loses 3.3% of its forest cover above the national average of 1.5%, which has since declined by 135, statistics from a survey conducted before oil and gas activities, sugarcane growing and the ongoing destruction of a 22 square miles piece of land in Kikuube district which ecologists allege is part of Bugoma forest, took effect.

The forested land was leased by Bunyoro kingdom to Hoima Sugar for 99 years at $1.1m (Shs3.9b).

The sugar firm has been increasingly accused of breaching environmental and ecological conditions while clearing the said land for sugarcane growing.

This has further contributed to habitat loss, making chimps live close to humans, hence increasing chimp-human conflicts.

In 2019, five chimps were killed by residents adjacent the forest after they strayed into gardens following the destruction of their habitat and source of food.

The residents, who would later be arraigned in court and sentenced for killing the endangered apes, are not alone to be fed up with the chimps.

Joan Atuhura, a resident of Bubaale cell in West Division, Hoima City, and a subsistence farmer is finding it hard because of the bold crop-raiding chimps.

“They ripped our jackfruits, pawpaw, bananas, sugarcane and mangoes,” she said.

The conflict grew tense when a chimp snatched one-year-old Leiticia Murungi, a neighbour’s daughter, on December 31, 2013.

The other children ran away leaving the helpless toddler behind. It carried the baby 100 metres away, only to drop her when the child’s father Yusuf Kato gave a desperate chase.

It injured her with nails. Although the scars cured, the child goes into shock and faints whenever she sees an animal or any black object.

Murungi, now aged nine, dropped out of school after she developed epilepsy and apparent signs of depression.

Noeline Asiimwe, then two years, was in 2014 attacked by a chimp after it snatched her from her mother’s back.

Asiimwe was later operated on at Hoima hospital after the chimp severely injured her on her left leg. The medics at the facility said the babies tendon jaw had been hurt by the ape.

The toddler’s parents, who have since chased for compensation from Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), a government agency mandated to manage and conserve wildlife but in vein, said after the operation, her left foot is deformed and shoes do not fit well on it.

“We have to support the leg with used clothes if the shoe is to feet her,” said Denis Kiiza, the father from Bulindi village in Kyabigambire sub-county.

Kiiza said villagers kill chimps in what seems to be retaliation for eating their crops, igniting conflicts.

This is also meant to safeguard their families from being attacked where victims are usually children.

This year alone, Kiiza said, two children in the area were killed by chimps when left to nap on the peripherals as their mothers tended gardens.

Although other districts in Bunyoro are also affected by chimp attacks, Hoima and the greater Kibaale are the worst hit.

Kiiza says kids in the village move to fetch water in a group, with adults in tow, for safety reasons.

In Muhoro village in Kagadi sub-county, Kibaale district, a toddler left in the house was killed.

After the trauma of the abduction, the family has since built a perimeter fence around their homestead. But the chimps keep coming.

Can chimps be relocated?

“Move them where?” Semahunge asks, “There is no vacant habitats for them in Uganda. Dropping them into occupied habitats would provoke more human-chimp war.”

He told The Albertine Journal on November 20 that translocation requires huge finances and technical expertise, which are not available at the moment.

For example, relocating 20 chimps to a 40 kilometre distance would require $1m (Ugsh3.6b).

Semahunge says, besides, there is not enough study on the apes for successful translocation.

“Apes in nature are territorial, so they will always defend their territory. If any stray chimp was introduced in their colony, it would definitely be killed and the blame goes back to the one who translocated them,” he explains.

Chimps population decreasing

As a result of increased human-wildlife conflicts, the number of chimps in Uganda has reduced by 30%, from 5,000 to 3,500 since 16 years ago.

Other factors leading for chimp population deterioration are; hunting for business, capturing infants for the pet-trade and diseases.

Chimps in Uganda are not commonly hunted for meat but are at risk of being caught accidentally in snares set for other animals such as antelopes.

At least 25 to 35% of habituated chimps suffer permanent injury from snares.

These are exacerbated by chimps’ slow reproductive rate. For example, if an adult is killed, it takes 14 to 15 years to replace them as a breeding individual, according to information from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WSC).

The organisation says chimps play a vital role in maintaining the diversity of Central Africa’s forests. The large seeds they eat and disperse are too big for most other animals.

“Without them, and their fellow great apes and elephants, these forests would be irreversibly changed,” WSC said.

Semahunge said nowadays chimps are living in islands of highly degraded forests which is of a very big disadvantage to ape population because they have started interbreeding with relatives.

He said once they begin interbreeding, they develop lethal genes, predicting that in the near future the primates might be wiped out.

The law

According to the Uganda Wildlife Act 2019, as amended, if one intentionally kills a chimp or any other wildlife, they are either given life imprisonment or made to pay a fine of sh200m or both.

The same law provides that one can kill an animal in self-defense if there is justification.

The animal should have entered one’s house and either attacked them or their relatives, but killing it should be the last choice. The law adds that even if one had justification to kill they “must” go to court to defend themselves.

The new law provides for compensation but this can be done through committees, which have since the amendment of the said Act three years ago have not been set up right from village, parish and sub-county to the district level.

The committees have to consist of relevant district officials, conservationists and community members.

However, if crops are destroyed by baboons, monkeys and wild pigs, the owners will not be compensated because they are naturally classified as vermin.

What should be done?

Phillip Kihumuro, an environmentalist, says there is need to empower communities to start reaping benefits from chimp-tourism as they conserve other than looking at them as enemies.

Kihumuro said since roads in Bunyoro are neatly paved, it would be easier for tourists from Murchison Falls National Park to stay in the area to view chimps as a unique feature and then connect to Kibaale National Park or go further south.

He calls for well prioritised investment in reforestation to lower conflicts and also conserve wild species.

Semahunge calls for a need to connect forest fragments in northern Hoima-Bulindi, Kitoba, Kigorobya to the main forest block in north Budongo then south of Hoima and Kikuube to Wambabya and Bugoma.

He said this would ensure areas for chimps to stay in and stop straying into human settlements for food.

He said this will help females who migrate from their communities to others whenever they want to produce for fear of interbreeding with relatives.

What is being done?

Barbra Kabahweza, the executive director of Cross-Cultural Foundation of Uganda (CCFU), an organization which promotes the recognition of culture, told The Albertine Journal that they are strengthening conservation of chimpanzees through cultural mechanisms.

On the sidelines of a national stakeholders’ dialogue on using culture to conserve the chimpanzees in Uganda at Resort Hotel in Hoima City on May 19, she said with support from the Arcus Foundation, they are doing a two-year (2021 to 2023) project in Bunyoro and Rwenzori sub-regions.

CCFU is working with cultural leaders, private forest owners, and through intergenerational dialogues between youth and elders, cultural leaders, to facilitate cross-learning on chimp conservation.

To raise awareness among a wider population of the youth to actively engage them in chimp conservation efforts such as games and sports were identified as key.

A football tournament locally known as Ekitera cup has been organised each year of the project cycle, for the past four years.

She said they are supporting two clans of Batangyi (of the Bakonzo ethnic group) and Bayanja (of the Banyoro) who take chimps as their totem to actively get involved in its protection.

The clans are supported to form organisations that can help them mobiise the community to resolve human-chimp collisions as well as engage in tree-planting.

Bashir Hangi, a communications manager at UWA, called for massive sensitisation of communities in chimp corridors by telling them to start growing crops that do not attract apes and leaving a buffer zone.

He says although chimps which are touristic features their existence is being hampered by negative interactions with the people who would instead be benefiting from them.

Semahunge calls for education campaigns directed at school children, including nature clubs, placing conservation into school curricular on the importance, preaching co-existence and rarity of chimps.

The paleontologist also advises people to desist from acts that charge the emotions of chimps, such as shouting, throwing stones, hunting and chasing them, which can set them up for vengeance.

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