Last week I woke up to horrifying news. 11 lions had been killed in Queen Elizabeth National Park in a suspected poison attack. 11 lions ̶ 3 mothers and 8 cubs from 1 pride. I was terribly saddened. Lions are more than just a magnet for tourists; they play an important role in the park’s ecosystem, losing such a big number is bound to impact all animals in the park.
The grief over this loss cannot be measured. As a wildlife guide in Uganda, I have led numerous trips to Queen Elizabeth National Park because its big lion population made it attractive to my clients. Whenever I visit ‘Queen’, as we guides normally call it, I usually engage the park wardens in discussions on the condition of the animals so I know something of what it means to preserve a lion population — the long hours tracking them to monitor their health, the late night operations patrolling for poachers, the millions of dollars invested in tracking equipment, medical supplies, experts… not to mention the tourists who visit the park mainly to see lions in their natural habitat.
We should all be concerned. Lion deaths are increasing at an alarming rate.
National Geographic’s Big Cat Initiative estimates that Africa’s lion population has declined by 90% in the last 75 years. Conservationists blame it on human development: when people in villages near the park learn that lions have eaten their livestock, they poison or shoot them. Other times, it is poachers and trophy hunters.
We should all be concerned. Lions play a vital role in regulating the population of animals in the park; they account for 85% of predation on big herbivores life buffalo, elephants, and hippos. This helps to maintain a balance in the Eco-system. There is a compelling scientific evidence to support this claim: Yellowstone National Park in the US re-introduced wolves in 1995 after 69 years and soon experienced a reduction in the elk population (herbivores), tree species that had gone extinct returned, existing species doubled in number, and coyote numbers reduced, causing the populations of small foxes and other small predators to increase. One small change at the top of the food chain resulted in greater diversity of plant, bird, and animal species.
We should all be concerned because Queen Elizabeth National Park is Uganda’s most visited park. With over 95 species of wildlife, over 600 species of birds, vast species of vegetation, dazzling crater lakes, hot springs, and spectacular views of the Rwenzori ranges, ‘Queen’ boasts of the highest biodiversity in Uganda.
We should all be concerned because disruptions to its Eco-system reduces its biodiversity and this will have an impact on both national income and the livelihood of the park staff, guides, operators, and service providers who depend on tourism for income.
Whereas global climate change contributes to the pressures facing wildlife tourism in Uganda, pressure from human population remains the biggest threat. Organizations like the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Wildlife Conservation Society (WSC), Uganda Wildlife Authority, and a number of NGOs I can’t list exhaustively, are doing a commendable job of sensitizing communities around national parks and improving animal welfare, more support is needed from the government.
There are many ways to manage human-animal conflicts in national parks. Government of Uganda can, for example, fence off conservation areas as has been done in Rwanda (Akagera Park) and South Africa (Kruger Park).
There is no shortage of ideas that Government could implement to address the challenges human pressure poses to wildlife. I therefore call upon Government of Uganda to take conservation matters more seriously and allocate more funding to wildlife protection. Uganda’s tourist industry brings in $1.4 billion annually, according to Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife & Antiquities, however, it has been allocated only $32 million in the recent budget proposal. I think we can do better.