UGANDA’s BIG BIRDING DAY 2012: promoting conservation, tourism and development in Uganda
While Uganda is celebrating 50 years of independence, her national symbol is in crisis. The Grey Crowned Crane (also known as the Crested Crane) is under serious threat as her wetlands habitats are polluted, eroded, degraded and built upon. Human development (mostly unplanned and frequently corrupt) is swallowing up the wetlands. Left unchallenged, the crane will not survive, and it is estimated that the globally endangered Crested Crane will be extinct in Uganda within just 20 years.
NatureUganda is the local conservation organisation leading the campaign to save the Grey Crowned Crane. Traditionally seen in flocks of 60 or 100, such sightings of cranes are now rare.
It is no coincidence that as humans encroach upon the wetlands – misnamed ‘wastelands’ by some – the number of Cranes has plummeted across the country. Wetlands serve as filters. In times of drought they act as giant sponges that slowly release water to maintain stream levels, while in times of deluge they absorb and retain water to minimize downstream flooding. The wetlands support lucrative fisheries, and provide a wealth of natural resources such as papyrus. Drought-related changes in land use, intensified agricultural practices, poisoning by farmers, use of agricultural pesticides and high rates of wetland sedimentation due to deforestation are all factors. Uganda’s birth rate, the second highest in the world (47 births / 1000 population) is arguably the biggest threat of all.
Illegal capture of these iconic birds for zoos and the pet trade is also a serious threat, as are certain traditional beliefs. Cranes are monogamous birds who pair for life; tragically, this characteristic makes them valuable to those that believe that eating or using a Crane product will guarantee fidelity within their own relationship.
With these odds stacked against it, survival of the Crane in Uganda is very insecure. “Birding@50,” the sub-theme for this year’s Big Birding Day events, has drawn media attention to the plight of the Grey Crested Crane.
Big Birding Day Uganda
The annual Big Birding Day (BBD) aims to bridge the information gap between bird conservation and tourism, linking birders, the tourism industry, conservationists and policy makers. The main focus of the event is a 24 hour “big birding race” between groups across the country led by expert ornithologists and bird guides from NatureUganda and Uganda Bird Guides Club (UBGC). Over 250 birders in 56 teams were involved this year and 656 species were recorded (an increase of 87 species on the 2011 record).
The results were announced at this week-end’s Big Birding Day Festival, a free fun family event, held in Entebbe’s scenic Botanic Gardens along the sandy shores of Lake Victoria.
The importance of birds and avi-tourism
Awarded Best Destination to Visit in 2012 by Lonely Planet, the Ugandan government has finally acknowledged the importance of the sector: tourism is already the number one foreign exchange earner.
Uganda is regarded as Africa’s best destination for ‘birders’ and has more bird species per square kilometre than any other country in Africa. Roughly the same size as the UK, Uganda can boast a national list of over 1050 species, representing 47% of the bird species that can be found on the African continent. Key to its biodiversity is Uganda’s variety of habitats, including wetlands, Savannah, freshwater lakes, grasslands, swamps, Acacia and Euphorbia bush, salty crater lakes, lowland and montane rainforests.
Birds are an important part of our ecosystems. In Uganda, they could well be its economic salvation.
Avi-tourism, more commonly known as bird watching or ‘birding’, has huge growth potential for Uganda. Indeed, avi-tourism already brings in more tourist dollars than the much talked-about gorilla trekking in south-western Uganda. Permits to see the gorillas are limited by the number of habituated groups. By contrast, Uganda’s incredible array of birding habitats make avi-tourism development possibilities – across the country – almost limitless.
This ecotourism activity contributes significantly to conservation as well as economic growth. In South Africa, for example, avi-tourism is proving to be one of BirdLife International’s most powerful conservation tools.
Although avi-tourism is developing in Uganda, very few Ugandans are aware of the country’s rich diversity. Domestic tourism is untapped. For avi-tourism to really take off (all puns intended), investment is needed: infrastructure, such as trails and hides are needed, and training of professional birding guides (try identifying forest birds under the dark canopy of trees without one); these specific requirements being in addition to the large-scale investment the country needs in roads, and other tourist facilities.
Birding offers good economic opportunities for local people. Over 80% of Ugandans are subsistence farmers yet birding favours the rural poor, for it is in the remote areas of Uganda, where paid employment is scarce, that birders will flock for that elusive tick on their birding list.
Big Birding Day highlights both the positive and negative effects of human development. Conservation of birds can leave to economic development for poor communities. However, for this to be a reality, investment, training and – most importantly – enforcement of tough laws to protect the environment are fundamental. Is Uganda up to the challenge?
PHOTO CAPTION the Bank of Uganda last month issued a coin to commemorate 50 years of independence from Great Britain. The Crested Crane features on both sides of the coin, on its own and on the national symbol alongside the Uganda Kob (whose numbers in Queen Elizabeth National Park have also declined alarmingly). At this rate, I predict the Marabou Stork becoming the national symbol!
Writer and Creator – Diary of a Muzungu Uganda travel blog http://www.muzungubloguganda.com
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