Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Building a National Park: Uganda

In 1952, the Ugandan Legislative Council passed the National Parks Act.  This was not the first step towards the creation of National Parks in Uganda.  Game Reserves had been created in 1925 (the same year that the colony’s Game Department came into being), and the government of the Congo (ruled by Belgium) had urged the Ugandan government to create a park on the border to complement the continent’s first park—Albert National Park—that had been created on the other side to protect the Mountain Gorilla and its habitat (such a park would have been a forerunner of what are today called “Peace Parks”, or somewhat less poetically, Trans-Frontier Conservation Areas).  Uganda’s energetic Chief Game Warden, C R S Pitman had long supported the idea, and a 1933 Convention signed in London by most European colonial powers was designed to push for parks and sanctuaries. 

But the 1952 Act was definitive.  Even it, however, did not assure the creation of parks, because it required that local authorities be consulted, and African were (rightly) suspicious of Europeans’ motives.  Rennie Bere, avid mountaineer, District Commissioner, and later Director of the Uganda National Parks, recalls chatting with Sir George Rukidi, Omukama of the Toro Kingdom, singing the praises of the National Parks idea.  “National Parks like your anthem, I suppose”, Rukidi deadpanned, “but nothing to do with us”.  The Uganda National Congress was most vocal in its criticism of the parks idea.

But in spite of criticism from the Toro Kingdom and the Acholi, the parks went ahead, and the Board of Trustees included the Reverend Asa Byara and B J Mukasa (a LegCo member and Bunyoro leader who would go on to sit on the 1959 Constitutional Committee). 

Informed as the National Parks idea was by the earliest parks of the United States, it embraced a dual function: on the one hand, the protection of species and the preservation of habitats; on the other, an educational and recreational site that Ugandan Attorney General Ralph Dreschfield noted should not be just another place set aside “for the enjoyment of a few immigrant Europeans and visitors”. 

If Murchison Falls National Park (amongst the most popular in Uganda today) and other parks were to be open to the public, they had to have roads, offices, accommodation and boundaries.  The creation of the infrastructure that is today so central to the wildlife industry that dominates eastern Africa was no mean feat. 

Sometimes the National Parks staff had help, as when an unwitting surveyor decided that the easiest route for the road was the exact route used for years by successive elephant herds.  At other times the wildlife was less accommodating.  Ken Beaton, the interim Director and Warden, decided that his 3’x3’ office was too small when a spitting cobra took up residence. 

One Justin Tokwara was given the task of demarcating the park boundary between Chendago and the Nile.  His task was not an easy one, and the physical labour required was complicated by the repeated attempts of porters and labourers to back out.  It is not clear whether they had volunteered or been conscripted for the assignment, but it was clearly more than many of them had bargained for.  “On arrival [at Chendago village]”, Tokwara wrote, “the porters refused to enter the bush or proceed on foot”.  Then as on other occasions, he used their provisions as leverage.  “If they were not going to work”, he recalled asking them, “what did they think they were going to eat that day?”  Going was slow: in one week the party moved a mere four miles.  After crossing a river, the crew saw what for most of them were their first elephants.  “When seeing them for the first time”, according to Tokwara, “everybody was happy, laughing and shouting so that the elephants take interest.  The second time everybody is afraid and runs away.  Most of the porters did not know elephants before, but now they know them, also buffalo and lions and hippo.  They know them well”. 

Tokwara and his men laughed when a game guard called Peter arrived, asking him how he was supposed to protect them if he couldn’t shoot the animals in the park.  Tokwara urged his party on, routinely telling them that the Nile was just over the next hill.  When they at last reached their destination and turned to make the return journey, things only got more difficult, and the homeward march turned into what must have been a horrific experience for the work crew.  “[One afternoon] we found very many buffaloes.  There were a hundred of them by the side of the way.  They kept on running at us, and the porters were tired and afraid”.  Tokwara addressed his bruised, sun-beaten, under-fed men, ordering them to form a line and not to run when the buffalo charged.  Faced with a charge of seventy tons of black, horned, snorting buffalo, his men stood their ground, and the buffalo lost their nerve.

If the days were bad, the nights were worse.  Herds of elephants grazed around the camp, and the men lay in their tents, fearing for their lives.  Elephants, the populations of which had exploded thanks to protection by colonial legislation, caused such damage to shambas in Uganda that its first wildlife department was actually created as an Elephant Control Department, charged with culling as many as 1,500 elephants in a year. 

“In the night”, Tokwara related, “elephants come again, but I say to the guard, ‘Don’t shoot’.  He is very angry and throws his rifle down.  ‘Why do you tell me this?’ he asks.  So I put one man in the top of a tree to watch the elephants in the long grass.  All night long he calls out: ‘They are coming!  They are going away!  They go this way!  They go that way!’”  Later in life, Tokwara narrowly escaped being crushed by an irritated pachyderm, but even at this stage, as a game department employee, he would have had a keen sense of the animals’ destructive power: many a ranger, warden and game guard had been killed by elephants in the course of undertaking control duties. 

But morning came at last, when the sentry in the tree called down to say that the elephants were going away.  “We had been standing all day”, Tokwara remembered, “but now we sleep.  So we finish our work; or round the Nile and back again in 29 days.  Hard work to be done in one month”. 

I know nothing about the conditions in which Justin Tokwara related his account of the demarcating of Murchison Falls National Park (but I hope to find out).  His narrative was seized upon by his superiors as evidence of African good-will and as an example of the kind of public servant that could be found in the colony (to refute the naysayers who argued that decolonisation would bring the wholesale destruction of Africa’s wildlife).  What I do know is that accounts like his are few and far between and offer an opportunity to understand how one small group of Africans experienced the creation of “their” National Parks. 

-- Cambridge University Library: Royal Commonwealth Society Library, The Story of Uganda National Parks, RCMS 170 (pages 7/14 to 7/18).


  1. Thank you so much for this post! There is so much about my country that I don't know.