Monday, April 16, 2012

The Queen Elizabeth National Park


After spending an evening with my Swedish neighbours debating the best method for disposing of an unwanted chicken carcass (we decided on dismemberment), the avian inhabitant of which had been clucking around the yard only that morning, I was off to Queen Elizabeth National Park, located in the southwest of Uganda.  My plan was to spend a day or two in the park with an organised tour before spending a few more days looking through records in the office.  My contact in the Uganda Wildlife Authority evidently decided to take an extended Easter holiday without alerting me, so the latter part of the expedition proved fruitless, and I’ll have to return on my own at a later date.  But it was nonetheless interesting to see a place I’ve read so much about. 
A herd of Kob standing to attention... 

The rationale for parks in Uganda, as they developed from colonial era hunting grounds and then game reserves was somewhat different to that in the U.S.  In the United States, spectacular scenery tended to be the qualifying criteria for converting areas to parks.  This logic grew in part out of the insecurity of a young nation, the promoters of which touted mountain ranges, valleys and forests as its answer to the castles and cathedrals of Old Europe.

In East Africa on the other hand, protected areas came to be defined by their undesirability as a site for human habitation.  Otherwise, the wildlife (generally a good wildlife population was required for national parks in the region) was liable to be shot out, either in the course of long-standing environmental management efforts on the part of local Africans, or by European officials forging the way for their version of civilisation.  Inhabitability was usually defined by the absence of diseases, particularly sleeping sickness and rinderpest, epidemics of both of which swept East Africa during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

There are vast salt pans located in craters dotted throughout the park...
Two such epidemics prompted the evacuation of the areas which now comprise the Murchison Falls and Queen Elizabeth National Parks, between 1907 and 1912, and 1913 and 1914 respectively.  And as you travel through Uganda, it’s a wonder that so many large and dangerous animals have been protected in a small and heavily populated country.  When the British arrived in what is now Uganda they found an agriculturally rich region, comprised of several kingdoms, some of them going back centuries.  Although the rains have been late in coming this year, the countryside is still spectacularly green, whether it’s made up of small household farms, gorgeous tea plantations carpeting rolling hills, lush palm plantations, or utterly impenetrable-looking papyrus swamps that occupy lower, marshier areas.

We saw great elephant herds wandering the banks...
Of course it’s not always easy to pay attention to the scenery.  Towns and villages are built up along the main roads in the country, and to slow traffic down as it makes its way through these areas, there are looming speed bumps that send your head ricocheting off the roof and windows, and deep ridges in the road which create a rattling sensation akin to what it must feel like to be picked up and shaken in the mouth of a lion (any number of European hunters and explorers who experienced this latter sensation proclaimed that it didn’t actually hurt, but I’m not buying that).  It’s not uncommon to look down the road and see the cars coming towards you weaving furiously back and forth across both lanes, as though there were two drivers fighting over the wheel.  But of course you’ll shortly be doing the same thing, in an effort to avoid the lane-wide potholes, some of which look deep enough to get lost in.  At other times, you can’t see the weaving cars because the paved road has ended and the big rig in front of you is sending up a dense cloud of dust.

Some people have secured tenurial rights and continue to live in the park...
After lunch at Fort Hall, we proceeded via the Equator, to our stopping point just outside of the park.  The day had been a warm one, but in the evening, gathering clouds, rumbling thunder and a brisk wind all heralded the coming rains.  And in Uganda you can literally see the rains coming, in this case rushing across the plain.  And soon enough the rain was hammering on the tin roof, flooding the nearby bandas, and creating mini rivers across the landscape.  Literally all that could be seen in the night was a wall of plummeting water.  Even when massive bolts of lightning turned the watery landscape purple, there was no sign of the hills and forests that we should have been able to see in the distance.  It was a pleasant evening, although one member of our party claimed to be suffering from an allergic flu (we consisted of three Spanish MSF workers on holiday from the South Sudan and a friend who was visiting them from Spain, an English volunteer nurse and her mother who was visiting her, a Belgian who was touring East Africa with an impressive-looking camera, and a mwananchi from California).

The next morning was cool and comparatively clear.  The park, much of which lies between Lakes George and Edward, consists of quite varied landscape.  The densest concentrations of wildlife are found on the Kasenyi Plain.  You’d be forgiven for thinking that this wonderful area was a manicured estate park, as it consists of finely-cropped grass interspersed with patches of acacia and a tall, dense succulent-type tree.  Of course, the cropping is done not by livestock or estate managers, but by the herds of Uganda Kob, buffalo and waterbuck, all of which leave the more substantial landscaping to the herds of elephant that roll across the landscape.  There are lions on Kasenyi and elsewhere in the park, but they’re difficult to spot and your best bet is to follow the gaze of any herd of Kob you see standing to attention, all staring in the same direction, tails twitching manically.
Hippos lined the banks and popped up in the most unexpected places...

In 1957, the National Parks’ trustees sought to open more of the Park to the public, and described the plain as “glorious open rolling parkland supporting teeming herds of game and offering perhaps the finest wild life spectacle in Uganda ...”*  Officially-sponsored poaching under Idi Amin, poaching by Tanzania’s military when it invaded Uganda to overthrow Amin, and the years of chaos that followed all took a toll on the wildlife in the country’s parks.  Because of this legacy, as well as its comparatively small size, Queen Elizabeth National Park will never support the enormous migratory herds that roam the Serengeti.  But the smaller herds are spectacular enough, and the park offers much in the way of spectacular scenery.

The area, like much of the Great Lakes region, has a volcanic past, and there are vast salt pans located in craters dotted throughout the park.  During the rains, these craters fill up.  One of them, not far from Lake George is made available to a community which has retained rights inside of the park.  Community members fish on the lake, extract salt from the pans, and herd their cattle around select areas of the park.  They are also building some bandas for tourist accommodation above the rim of one salt pan.  Revenue from park entrance fees flows partially to those living within or just outside of the parks.
Yellow-green grass and acacias, with the Rwenzori mountains behind...

The salt pans aren’t the only craters.  There are others that form perfectly-circular lakes, and others that look like spectacularly verdant parks, their floors covered with long, yellow-green grass and acacia forests, their rims bristling with rocky ridges where baboons make their home.  The dirt track winds up along these ridges, affording spectacular views across the craters and the lakes beyond.  The longer grass that characterises some of the craters also extends down to some of the plains.  There are fewer animals here, perhaps because the grass would offer excellent cover to hyaenas, lions and leopards.  But there are large herds of elephants that have nothing to worry about from puny predators.  They make their graceful way through the long grass and amongst the acacia groves in family groups, adult females guiding youngsters with nudges of their trunks.

It pays to keep your eye on the road when driving both inside and outside the park, as elephants demand their right of way when crossing.  One herd held up traffic for some time at the edge of the park as they paced indecisively along the shoulder, the cows trumpeting and making threat displays at the matatus, tourist vans and big rigs that made their way cautiously past. 

The Maramagambo Forest and Kyambura Gorge comprise one of the other main landscapes.  The trees in the former are younger, and many of them are still growing densely, attrition not yet having thinned their ranks.  From above, the gorge looks like an impenetrable morass of spiralling canopy forest, and somewhere down in this tremendous chasm which makes a sheer drop from the flat plain above, a river runs.  You can hear it, but there’s no sign of it amongst the trees, which are home to chimpanzee families.  The Spaniards in our party were meant to go looking for the chimps, but apparently the family groups had moved on.  We speculated that they were on strike, demanding more hours of peace and quiet.  Or that the actors who donned chimp costumes to go cavorting around the gorge had overslept.
Craters that look like spectacularly verdant parks...

The river that runs down the gorge makes its way to the Kazinga Channel, the natural waterway that connects Lakes George and Edward.  It is here, aside from the Kasenyi Plains, where the most wildlife is visible.  From Mweya station, where we checked in with the rangers, we could see great elephant herds wandering the banks, small groups of buffalo mixed in amongst them.  Rennie Bere, one of the early directors of the Uganda National Parks (a body which has now been merged with the game department to form the Uganda Wildlife Authority) described Mweya as perching “on a bluff between Lake Edward and the Kazinga Channel, a superb site”.**  I’d have to concur.

We boarded a launch and made our way along a section of the channel.  In the 1950s, the hippopotamus populations in this area of the park had got so out of hand that they were destroying the vegetation on the Mweya Peninsula and causing serious erosion.  Uganda’s wildlife management policy has never been of the squeamish variety (the game department started as an Elephant Control Department, and routinely killed about a thousand elephants a year in aid of keeping their population at what was regarded as a sustainable level), and a hippo cull was carried out in 1958, earning the country a certain amount of opprobrium in the international press. 

A shamba under the umbrella of the SRCDO...
We had the good fortune to see large numbers of birds along the channel—kingfishers, cormorants, cranes, weavers, herons and many others.  And although Idi Amin’s regime had been hard on the wildlife (virtually extirpating large game species in most of the country), the hippos appear to have come back and to be flourishing.  They were certainly in evidence along the channel: lining the banks, wallowing in the shallows, popping up in the most unexpected of places out in the middle of the water, and occasionally snorting and rushing boisterously about if the boat got too close.  Hippos kill many people every year across Africa, and it’s no wonder, given their size, speed and potential for aggression (we saw one with a gaping wound down its side, undoubtedly received in a battle with another hippo).

They shared the water with crocodiles, and some of these were real monsters, while others were barely a meter long.  There were small groups of buffalo along the bank, but none of the large herds you’d see elsewhere in the park.  These small groups were elderly bulls who had been driven out of the herds by younger rivals, and who congregate together to find some safety in numbers against, I suppose, the lions.  Numbers would be small comfort if one of them were grabbed by a big crocodile. 

There were several small villages lining one stretch of the bank, and we learned that some people had secured the maintenance of tenurial rights, and continue to live in the park.  They do so, however, at their own risk, and have no rights to protect themselves, their crops or their animals from wildlife which might threaten them.  It must be a rather perilous existence.

One elephant herd held up traffic at the edge of the park...
The following day we made a visit to a village in the foothills of the looming Rwenzoris to hear about the work of the Snow Rural Community Development Organisation, which has the following objectives: “to promote awareness and counselling against HIV/AIDS infections in the community; domestic violence prevention; to care for and support people living with HIV/AIDS and their families; to promote agriculture activities as a means of fighting poverty and hunger at community level; to conserve nature; to promote health education, nutrition and hygiene; to facilitate education opportunities among the youth, orphans, persons with special needs; enable women and youth empress business opportunities and social investment with emphasis on micro finance out riches at household levels; to promote opportunities for developing peoples talents and skills; peace awareness, conflict resolution and reconciliation”.

A mouthful and a tall order, to say the least, but one at which the SRCDO appears to making a valiant start.  Much of the emphasis is on empowering women in the communities, a sound strategy given that many girls have their first child around the age of 12 in deplorable conditions.  Schools and hospitals are virtually inaccessible thanks to the absence of roads and transport, and such footpaths and bridges as exist are destroyed annually in the heavy rains.  Given that our party consisted of medical workers and educators, our advice was much in demand.  But of course the people we spoke with already know what the problems are and what the remedies should be.  It’s the ‘how’ that’s the tricky part.

From above, Kyambura Gorge looks like an impenetrable mass of canopy forest...
It’s striking that a community organisation is stuck doing so much of the work that would, as a mere matter of course, be undertaken by governments in the U.S. or Europe.  It was also, perhaps, salutary to hear villagers praise the work of NGOs, as academics are perhaps too quick to criticise efforts which, however problematic, do real good in communities and are seen as stand-ins for absentee governments, which often show precious little interest in the plight of the poor or of rural communities.  As we scooted away from the village, we found ourselves close enough to the Congo that we were subjected to a passport check at the hands of a rather thuggish police officer who, I’m sorry to say, behaved like every Hollywood caricature of a power-hungry African little big-man towards two of our party who, not knowing that we were going to be checked, didn’t have their passports on them.

The Rwenzori Mountains, which loom above the villages, have long been on my list of locales to visit.  I’ve decided to put them off for another time, given that I have only a month left in Uganda, that there’s plenty of work to do, and that the rains could make a walking expedition rather unpleasant.  But it was hard to see them drift out of sight as we boarded our vehicle and made our way back towards Kampala the following day, the fresh mountain atmosphere being replaced, as we drew into the city’s outskirts, by the familiar sensation of breathing exhaust particles mixed in with a hint of air here and there.

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* “Notes from the Parks: A Fine Spectacle of Wildlife” in the Uganda Argus, 27 March 1957.

 ** Rennie Bere, A Cuckoo’s Parting Cry: Life and Work in Uganda, 1930-1960.  Cheltenham: Cedar Publishing Ltd, 1990: 233.

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