King of the Jungle on the Brink of Extinction

Gerald Tenywa

7 August 2010

Kampala — He may be the king of the jungle but in Uganda he is losing the battle to his would-be prey. Armed with poison, Basongora herdsmen might drive lions and hyenas out of Queen Elizabeth National Park as they try to stop them from killing their cattle.

Wilson Okaali, the leader of the Basongora, says his tribesmen have no problems with wild animals, not even the lions. The Basongora, according to him, are like someone who is trapped between a rock and hard place. He says keeping wild animals is part of the heritage of the Basongora.

“It is not the intention of the Basongora to go against their heritage. It is the way the park is managed that has caused the local people to become hostile to the wild animals,” Okaali explains.

“We have been staying with wildlife for centuries because unlike many tribes we do not eat wild animals,” he adds.

Okaali looks at the flawless sky and then turns as he points out that when the park was created in 1952, the Basongora were disregarded as “owners” of the land. He also states that despite changes in management of wildlife in Queen Elizabeth National Park, compensation is not provided for those who lose their cattle.

“We do not earn anything from wildlife yet the lions sometimes eat our cattle,” says Okaali. “Those accusing the Basongora are park managers who are employed and paid money for managing the park, but they do not want to listen to the victims of the raids by lions.”

According to local residents, park authorities did not respond to repeated warnings that a pride of lions was moving deeper into the park and approaching Hamukungu, a human enclave within the park. Previously, Basongora herdsmen had strayed into the national park to graze and ended up luring the pride.

UWA’s executive director Moses Mapesa says lions are wild animals and that it is difficult to restrict them to the park. But it is possible to restrict livestock to the villages without moving into the park.

“The problem is that livestock is all over space. The cattle come to the park and go back to the villages. What happens is that the lions follow,” he says.

“Once livestock has been eaten, what compensation can you give?” asks Mapesa.

Take for instance, a calf that has been mauled by a lion, it would have probably produced 10 other animals. “What compensation can you give? This is why we emphasise that prevention is better than cure,” concludes Mapesa.

He adds, “We have engaged Basongora elders like Okaali to help Basongora build strong kraals that lions cannot penetrate easily and also restrain herdsmen from grazing in the park.”

According to Okello Obongo, the head of the Queen Conservation area, the Basongora have to change their lifestyle because pastoralism is outdated. Obongo reasoned that if the Basongora embrace modern ways of rearing cattle by keeping fewer and productive animals they would need less land for grazing.

Five years ago, the Basongora were relocated from the park, following recommendations of an inter ministerial committee. One of the suggested interventions was to empower the Basongora to use smaller pieces of land productively though the plan for modernisation of agriculture has not materialised, according to Obongo.

In addition to this, Obongo says the infestation of pastureland outside Queen Elizabeth Park by weeds such as lantana camara has created a scarcity which the Basongora have addressing by grazing animals inside Queen Elizabeth National Park.

The fresh call to “settle down” on small pieces of land, according to Okaali goes against their lifestyle and has provoked anger against the management of the park.

Prior to the poisoning of the Hamukungu lions, Makerere University lion expert Ludwig Siefert had also predicted in a meeting organised by UWA and the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society that the pride would be killed.

Currently, a pride living between Kasenyi and Hamukungu and another living near River Nyamugasani in the north western part of the park is in danger of being poisoned.

“Poisoning of the lion is becoming a regular feature,” says Siefert, “it is only a question of when, but two more prides are exposed to poisoning because UWA can not eliminate intrusion of the cattle grazers in the park.”

The lions, a critically endangered species, are hanging on by a thread. Biologists like Siefert estimate that there are less than 60 lions in Queen Elizabeth national Park as opposed to 100 a decade ago.

The big cats are referred to as the king of the jungle. But like African kings, they never die alone. The poison set for lions also kills hyenas because they eat the leftovers from the lions’ meal.

Unlike the lions, the whole population of hyenas can get poisoned, according to Siefert. He says accurate census for the hyenas in the whole park has not been undertaken, but the population could be declining. For instance, he says, the hyenas that used to have dens around Mweya and Kabatoro have reduced from 54 to only five within the last two years. “Though they gave birth recently only two of them are visible,” says Siefert. “They could have been killed by the Basongora’s poison. “While the lion is one of the big five, which many tourists crave for, the sad reality is that it is disappearing from the landscape, according to Siefert.

“Tourists going out at night complain bitterly that although they see lions and leopards, they rarely get to see a hyena,” he says.

“Night tourism is under threat because you can’t take visitors out in the night when the nocturnal animals are not there.”

When hyenas become excited they make a howling and clucking noise that sounds very similar to the laughter of an insane person.

However, when a hyena ‘laughs’ it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is happy. The hyena also makes this noise when it is feeling anxious or fearful, for example, when it is being chased by a lion.

The hyena knows that it can’t take on a lion and so the lion gets first choice as to what he eats for dinner. So, the hyena has to wait until the lion has finished and then he is allowed to eat as much as is left over.

It is not easy to change culture. So, are Government approaches expected to deliver better services to grass root communities? Okaali and Obongo or Mapesa do not have easy answers from the cultural perspective and the way local governance works, but the UWA could devise innovative approaches in response to the complaints from Basongora.

The lions are a critically endangered species and there is need for a species action plan or strategy to save the big cats.

The UWA should not leave the survival of the lions to chance.

As the Basongora negotiate for space to practise their cherished lifestyle-pastoralism, the lion and hyena population are likely to suffer.

The hyena laughter will keep on disappearing as the hyena population goes down. This is what will always push conservation head Mapesa to talk to Basongora elders like Okaali. Who will have the last laugh? Mapesa, Okaali or the hyenas?

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