Chimpanzee attacks signal a looming disaster in Bunyoro – researcher

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Part of the destroyed Bugoma forest.

Following the latest series of chimpanzee attacks on children in Hoima District, research reveals that the threat imposed on the existing Bugoma and Budongo forests in Bunyoro is a major reason there is a conflict between the primates and human beings in the region.

On Thursday, July 2, 2020, a chimpanzee attacked a one-year-old baby leaving his genitals mutilated at Bulemwa Cell in Bujumbura Division, Hoima District.

Now, Mr Joseph Mukasa Ngubwagye, a senior research fellow at Advocates for Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE), says that the two big Bugoma and Budongo forest blocks and their interlinking riverine forests have been crucial in keeping a healthy chimpanzee population in the Albertine Graben.

He says that forests sandwiching small and big seasonal and permanent rivers have been pivotal in enabling chimpanzees migrate between the two vast habitats under forest cover without coming into close contact with humans along their migration corridors.

“Bunyoro region lies in the Albertine Graben, Africa’s biodiversity hotspot. As such, it for so long has offered habitat to many wildlife species, especially the primates, due to natural forest cover which kept them far from human contact. Forests also provided enough food without leaving any room for raiding gardens. This meant that human-wildlife interaction was limited, and so were human-wildlife conflicts minimal,” Mr Ngubwagye says.

However, he says that with time the existence of these forests has come under threat. Many forest blocks have been fragmented due to human activities like cultivation, settlement and lumbering.

Mr Ngubwagye adds that population increase, mainly due to immigration from other regions, caused a rise in demand for food, thus, exerting pressure on the forest cover in Bunyoro.

“The response was to grow food extensively as opposed to intensive agriculture to cater for the ever-increasing food deficit. This was because people are too poor to afford sustainable agricultural methods such as the use of fertilizers that would favour the growing of food on a smaller piece of land for a long time while getting increased yields. People from other regions have rushed to forests in the region, resulting into destruction.” the researcher observes.

Adding: “Poverty, joblessness, and general demand for quick economic gains also led to encroachment on the freely available forest resources, turning them into charcoal and timber. Consequently, the barrier between people and wildlife has been degraded, almost to the core, leading to increased incidences of human-wildlife interactions and thus increased confrontations”.

Mr Ngubwagye observes that the country’s regulatory framework has done little to save the forests and their animal inhabitants.

“The situation has not been helped by the country’s regulatory framework on private natural forests. Unlike the Central Forest Reserves that are under strict management by the National Forestry Authority, many of the natural forests in Bunyoro region are on private lands. Their unsustainable utilization is, therefore, not under any form of restriction”.

Although Section 21 of the National Forestry and Tree Planting Act of 2003 makes mention of registration of ownership rights for and sustainable use of private natural forests, it is not mandatory.

These non-compelling provisions of the law and limited information have been a factor in the failure of owners to register their private natural forests such that some form of regulation is applied. In turn, this has fueled the rampant deforestation in Bunyoro region.

Mr Ngubwagye, therefore, wants government to put a stricter regulatory framework in place for private natural forests and ensure effective enforcement adding that information on sustainable utilisation of these natural forests is equally important.

“District Forest Officers must engage leadership at lower levels to ensure that information on the need to save the few remaining forest patches reaches the communities. Otherwise, human-wildlife conflicts will heighten before all the private natural forests get depleted. The chimpanzees will be restricted to the two Central Forest Reserves of Bugoma and Budongo, increasing their vulnerability”.

Unfortunately, the depletion of the forest cover will go along with many other ecosystem services-benefits obtainable from nature, both directly and indirectly like easy access to water, firewood, and traditional medicine in the form of herbs.

Mr Ngubwagye continues that the biggest of all the resultant challenges, however, will be increased vulnerability to climate change and climate variability.

“The natural forests have until today offered resilience to climate change to the agricultural communities of Bunyoro region. When this has been lost, a worse poverty cycle will begin all over again”.

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