Behind lion massacres in Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth Park

On May 31, 2022, lion cubs napping in the Ishasha Sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park in southwest Uganda unwind after awakening.

On May 31, 2022, lion cubs napping in the Ishasha Sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park in southwest Uganda unwind after awakening.

As of 2018, there have been 17 lions slain at Queen Elizabeth National Park, raising concerns.

SPECIAL FEATURE | On March 20 of last year, six dead lions were discovered in the Queen Elizabeth National Park’s Ishasha Sector, which is located about 400 kilometers southwest of Kampala. This made 17 lions killed in this park since 2018 as a result.

Some of the murderers have been located and detained by security authorities, notably the UPDF, the national army of Uganda. Ronald Musoke made an attempt to explore Kazinga, a sparsely populated woody settlement in the Kihihi sub-county that hugs the southern part of this park, in May of this year.

Jackson Minezero, 78, a resident of Kazinga Lower Cell, in Kanungu District, lives on the edge of Queen Elizabeth National Park, one of Uganda’s most popular tourist destinations.

Only a 5-foot-deep trench that runs several kilometers parallel to this town, preventing elephants, buffalo, and warthogs from entering human settlements, separates his homestead from the park.

Minezero is an example of what environmentalists typically refer to as frontline communities: those who reside closest to protected areas and occasionally suffer fatalities, permanently disabling injuries, and loss of livelihood from attacks by wild animals.

One would anticipate him to be a little more fearful of hazardous animals like lions given that he has lived here for 65 years and is surrounded by them. However, he claims that lions have never been his major problem, as warthogs, buffaloes, and elephants frequently visit and wreak havoc in his and his neighbors’ gardens.

The local council chairperson of the adjoining community, Kazinga Upper Cell, Gad Mbabazi, claimed that the lions are neither bad “neighbors” or our greatest foes.

Gad Mbabazi, the chairperson of Local Council 1 in Kazinga Upper Cell Village, Kihihi Sub-County, believes that traditional medicine men are responsible for the deaths of several of the lions in Queen Elizabeth National Park.

The authorities responded quickly when the six lions were slain last year. Government security agents, both armed and undercover, swarmed on the nearby communities to look for offenders.

A police investigation claims that after breaking into the park, the poachers drove a herd of antelopes into a pride of lions. When the lions slaughtered the antelope, the poachers chased the cats away and laced

The lions were poisoned and perished when they later returned to feast on the carcass. The lion carcasses were subsequently dismembered by the poachers, who took the paws, fangs, and fat as well as other body parts.

The news of the lion massacre shook Minezero and Mbabazi. Lions aren’t really our biggest enemies, so that’s why many were startled, Mbabazi claimed.

The lions may have been murdered for ceremonial purposes, they claimed, according to The Independent. Minezero continued, “We were told that traditional medicine men are hunting lion items, such as their fats.

It appears that local healers think that using oil generated from lion fats helps treat cataracts, a condition known locally as entale. Rukiga, the dialect used in this region of the world, also refers to lions as “Entale.”

The death of the lions in Queen Elizabeth Park shocked local conservationists and reverberated around the world just like an earlier incident in April 2018 when park rangers found 11 lion carcasses near Hamukungu fishing village in the northern frontier of this park.

Iconic species threatened

Across Africa, lions are one of the most iconic wildlife species that attract thousands of tourists to the parks. In Uganda, lions are mainly found in three of the country’s ten national parks; Kidepo Valley National Park in northeastern Uganda, Murchison Falls National Park in northwestern Uganda, and Queen Elizabeth National Park in southwestern Uganda.

In Uganda, lions are more significant since they are a popular tourist attraction, particularly for people who want to see the Ishasha lions, which have the unusual ability to climb trees.

“The lion is an iconic species that epitomizes Africa. Simply to view lions, people fly to Africa. Stacey Sadelfeld, an American who has been to Queen Elizabeth National Park before, told The Independent in June of this year that they bring in money.

According to a 2006 analysis by the Wildlife Conservation Society, a local conservation group, each individual lion in Queen Elizabeth National Park contributes roughly US$ 13,500 (Shs 52.65 million) in annual revenue to the national economy.

But because of multiple dangers, lion populations have been declining over time.

Jackson Minezero, 78, has lived on the edge of Queen Elizabeth National Park for 65 years but lions have never been his biggest worry.

Escalating human-wildlife conflict

The road from Kihihi town in Kanungu District to the park’s gate at Ishasha is slowly getting busier following two years of COVID-19 inspired travel restrictions to the park. The road meanders through the small trading centre of Kazinga Upper Cell.

Residents, majority of whom are young men in their late teens and early 20s, are accustomed to looking on as big tourist vans sweep through their village from morning to evening, leaving behind brown plumes of dust.

Many youth here are semi-literate and they say they see little value in “Queen” as they refer to the park. Mbabazi, the Local Council-I Chairman of Kazinga Upper Cell says “his people” are not proud of conservation because they get far fewer benefits than the losses they incur in their crop farms.

Almost every homestead in this village is involved in subsistence farming. Most homes have coffee intercropped with bananas. There are also acres of maize, sorghum, rice, beans, cassava, bananas and many other staple crops. Some of these crops and livestock are also a favourite staple for the elephants, buffaloes, warthogs and lions. And this is where the conflict between the beasts in this park and the people living in their midst originates.

“People spend sleepless nights to guard their gardens to ensure that they harvest something. In most cases the villagers harvest nothing,” Brian Atuheirwe, 31, said.

Young mother Prossy Kyomugisha claims that the deadly wild animals in her community cause too much suffering for the locals.

“Occasionally, those who spend their sleepless nights guarding their gardens are slain, while others contract malaria. Others suffer harm. Because of their frustration, individuals occasionally murder these creatures when they come upon them.

UWA FIGHTS BACK: On September 1, 2022, the Standards, Utilities and Wildlife Court in Kampala condemned Robert Ariho (L) and Vincent Tumuhirwe to more than seven years in prison after placing them on detention for one and a half years. The two were held responsible for murdering endangered animal species and visiting Queen Elizabeth without authorization in March 2021. (the six lions).

Hassan Ali, 47, a resident of Kazinga Upper Cell says people in his village rarely get helped by the Uganda Wildlife Authority— the agency which is in charge of wildlife conservation in Uganda.

“When we call them (UWA rangers) for help, they instead switch off their phones. But when we try to chase or even hurt the wild animals that have escaped into our villages, they will descend onto our villages, hunt us like we have killed human beings,” Ali said, barely hiding his frustration.

“They prefer the wild animals to destroy our crops or even find us in our homes, kill us but if we retaliate by defending ourselves, they arrest and imprison us.”

Mbabazi added: “You cannot talk about compensation because this compensation is never equal to what people lose. “There are instances where people in these villages even lose their lives.”

The freshest incident in his mind happened in 2020 when his resident, Vincent Kasigaire, was gored to death by a buffalo that found him tending his garden.

“Usually if an animal kills a villager, UWA will take care of the funeral. They will also give the family about Shs 1 million (Approx.US$256) but this is not enough if you are to think about a lost life,” added Pafura Owakubariho, a boda boda (motorcycle taxi) rider in Kihihi town.

He said the people surrounding the parks should benefit “a little more” from Queen Elizabeth Park considering that they bear the biggest brunt when wild animals attack.

Similarly, Brian Atuheirwe who possesses a Diploma in Travel and Tourism from YMCA in Kampala said UWA rarely considers applicants from the frontline communities for such jobs.

“Very many are willing to apply but it is frustrating for the youth to see people who have never encountered these challenges get the jobs. That is why the people here don’t see conservation and tourism in a positive light. They look at tourism as an activity where white people come to visit and the government gets money. That is the tourism they know,”   he said.

The Uganda Wildlife Act, 2019 compels the government to share 20% of annual revenues generated from tourist entry fees with communities that neighbour these parks. In the case of Queen Elizabeth National Park, the districts entitled to receive a share of the revenue are seven; Kanungu, Kasese, Rubirizi, Ibanda, Mitooma, Rukungiri and Kamwenge.

The revenue sharing programme is important in stimulating conservation-led economies within the districts neighbouring the parks and wildlife reserves. It is also supposed to nurture favourable conservation and attitude of communities living closest to the protected areas.

But youthful Atuheirwe told The Independent that the revenue sharing scheme rarely does what it is supposed to do. “I think they invest in wrong things,” he said. “They always buy goats for the communities but rarely do they tell people why they are giving them the goats. The people actually sell the goats even before they reach their homes.”

Gad Mbabazi, the Local Council Chairperson of Kazinga Upper Cell told The Independent that over the last four years, his village of about 140 households has got close to 160 goats bought using revenue given to Kanungu District Local Government.

But Mbabazi noted that considering the brunt his people face as a result of living next to Queen Elizabeth National Park, this is hardly enough.

Some conservationists The Independent has talked to say high poverty levels coupled with the lack of economic opportunity have contributed to the ever-growing tensions between the wild animals, the park authorities, and people who live in the midst of Queen Elizabeth National Park.

Sam Kajojo Arinaitwe, the LC V Chairman, Kanungu District, agrees with the residents of Kazinga noting that the government has actually not done enough to ensure that communities that neighbour Queen Elizabeth National Park have better net benefits.

Sam Kajojo Arinaitwe, the LCV Chairman Kanungu District agrees. He told The Independent that Kanungu boasts two national parks ((Queen Elizabeth National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable Park) but when he crosschecks the revenues from the two parks and compares it with what trickles down to people who live closest to these two parks, he finds a big disparity.

In July, this year, Kanungu received about UShs 188,252, 400 (Approx.US$ 48,270) from UWA. This money is supposed to be shared amongst 12 villages that neighbour this park but it is usually not enough to do meaningful projects.

“We have not done enough as government to ensure that communities neighbouring the parks have better net benefits,” he told The Independent on May 31.  Kajojo said what the communities living near this park are asking for is good responsiveness from park authorities.

Complex neighbourhood

However, Bashir Hangi, the UWA Communications Manager told The Independent on June 13 that unlike the other two protected areas in the country that are home to Uganda’s lion population, Queen Elizabeth Park appears to have unique challenges.

The park boasts three main water bodies; Lake George, Lake Edward and the Kazinga Channel which connects the two lakes. These lakes have six landing sites between them; Hamukungu, Kahendero, Katunguru and Kasenyi on Lake George and Katwe-Kabatoro and Kayanja on the Ugandan side of Lake Edward.

Over 20,000 people are said to depend on the fishing activity in Lake George and the Kazinga Channel and another estimated 15,000 depend on the Ugandan side of Lake Edward which straddles the Uganda-DR Congo border.

Residents of these fishing villages are mainly engaged in fishing and salt trade. They also keep domestic animals like cattle, sheep, goats, cats and dogs, and cultivate crops.

As such, there are usually higher chances of lions attacking cattle, attracting retaliatory killings of the cats. UWA’s reports from 2009-2017 point to more than 13,000 instances of human-wildlife conflict involving livestock predation by lions and leopards, and elephant crop damage among others.

Possible remedies

Hangi told The Independent that UWA intends to enhance its supervision by deploying some of the latest surveillance technology in the hotspot areas of this park.

Also, the national conservation organization shall continue to sensitize communities such as those in Kazinga village on the importance of protecting wildlife, he added.

However, in the twin villages of Kazinga, residents want immediate relief. Owakubariho says the trench that was recently dug by UWA and its partners should be sunk deeper than the 5ft considering that elephants have since devised means of crossing it.

He said an electric fence would be more efficient in warding off the dangerous wild animals. According to a statement emailed to The Independent on June 8 by Space for Giants, an international conservation organization, the electric fence can indeed ward off lion attacks. “Lions are, however, intelligent and will always test a fence for weaknesses,” Space for Giants said.

“Where fences have electrical faults and the fence is ‘off,’ it will allow lions to climb through. If the fence design is not effective for predators (there is a specific design for predators), then they will and can dig underneath the fence, so this needs to be taken into account in the design to prevent that.”

“Also lions climb trees and other objects, so it’s important that the fence is clear of any possible object or tree a lion can use to scale the fence. But if the fence design is specifically for predators, is well maintained and is in good working condition, it is very effective against lions.”

The writer Ronald Musoke at the Ishasha Sector in the park, and below in the trench. This trench is supposed to prevent big mammals like elephants and buffaloes from crossing into the neighbouring villages but residents of Kazinga say the trench has actually not been useful at all.

Schwartz said his hope is that one day Queen Elizabeth National Park could serve as a model for cohabitation between humans and lions. But, changes to livestock value chains must be considered and implemented soon.

‘Predator-proof Bomas’

One other option that seems to be getting handy is the “predator-proof bomas” or kraals for livestock. Mike Schwartz, an American large carnivore researcher and consultant with the Uganda Carnivore Programme told The Independent that Queen Elizabeth Park has the unique challenge of having enclave communities within the park.

This, Schwartz said, has made human-lion conflict particularly challenging since livestock killing occurs fairly regularly and arguably more when compared with parks and reserves that are gazetted strictly for wildlife.

“When illegal grazing occurs, an uptick in lion attacks on livestock often follows. The consequence is anger by community members, who will then resort to poisoning,” he said.

The issue, according to Schwartz, is that traditional grazing techniques are not always compatible with the ecology of lions and other large carnivores, despite the fact that community members frequently employ them to support having people in the park.

He argued that it is incorrect to draw comparisons between traditional grazing in this park and other regions of East Africa, such as the Maasai and Samburu regions of Kenya and Tanzania.

According to Schwartz, the situation in the enclave settlements of Queen Elizabeth National Park is distinct from that of the Maasai and Samburu regions of Kenya and Tanzania, which favor more traditional lives with a smaller carbon footprint.

“The communities in this park tend to traditionally graze while also building larger houses, purchasing vehicles, and gaining access to other modern amenities that will only exacerbate the further carving up of the park with little room for large predators like lions,” he said.

“While there is certainly nothing wrong with wanting a better quality of life by way of more modern amenities, it simply is not compatible within a national park where large predators like lions have an ecological niche that includes large ungulates as a source of nutrition.”

“Communities could, for instance, practice zero grazing,” he said. “We should also be looking at the conservancy models being used in countries like Kenya and Namibia, where communities essentially become custodians and caretakers of the park while benefiting from it through programmes such as payment for ecosystem services.”

Dr. Andrew Stein, a National Geographic Explorer who has been doing some work in southern Africa under the Conservancy Communities Living Among Wildlife Sustainability (CLAWS) project also told The Independent that determining the best course of action when wild animals come into community areas is important to understand the broader context.  He said co-existence must be the goal for conservation agencies.

“Often communities feel left out and marginalized so the first step is to engage them to understand their challenges and fears. Once determined, it is important to work with the community to find solutions—not dictate them as outsiders.”

Meanwhile, Sam Kajojo, the head of Kanungu District Local Government says UWA should look for solutions in form of commercial projects that can directly create more economic impact for the communities that surround the park in the district.

“Community conservation goes hand in hand with mobilizing local men and women on how to tap into the tourism sector; handicrafts; creating for them a tourism center where they can sell local products, where they can entertain visitors and where they can also give information that tourists need is important because they feel part of the park,” said one local official.

“To organize the other sub-counties of Nyanga and Nyamirama, which may experience the spill of these animals, we need to establish a Community Tourism Center within Kihihi Sub-County. By giving them alternatives to poaching, we need to give them economic clout. In the parks, many of them are being slaughtered.

Kajojo added that it’s important to give nearby Queen Elizabeth neighborhood kids access to educational opportunities.


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