Repeated burning threatens plant and animal species in and around Lake Mburo National Park

Repeated burning threatens plant and animal species in and around Lake Mburo National Park

By Hannington Katehangwa and Sarah Mubiru

Rwabarata is one of the villages neighbouring Lake Mburo National Park in Kiruhura District, southwestern Uganda. 

In this village, just like other communities neighbouring the park, bush burning has been common since the park was gazetted in 1933. 

Lake Mburo National Park is home to different wild animal species like zebras, hippopotami, impalas, warthogs, common eland, African buffalo, lions, leopards, hyenas, jackals, Rothschild giraffes, cats, and over 300 bird species.

Every time part of this conservation area close to Rwabarata village is torched, residents there lose crop gardens, and most of them are destroyed by wild animals escaping the fire. Also, amphibians and reptiles ravage their vicinity as they run from the severe heat due to fire in their habitats.

“We normally sleep outside, ready to respond and secure our gardens when this national park is set on fire,” Monica Kyomugisha, a resident of Rwabarata village, laments, narrating the experience residents neighbouring Lake Mburo National Park goes through when it is set on fire.

Property, biodiversity loss and climate change 

Grasslands are usually burnt in this park during dry spells in anticipation of rains, hoping to create a mosaic of grasslands critically crucial for biodiversity. But such fires spread into neighbouring communities, burning houses and several other properties. 

Several fire outbreaks, in and away from wildlife conservation areas are common in Uganda.  

According to the Global Press Journal, 600 fires were reported in Uganda in the first five months of 2021. And these fire outbreaks claimed lives. According to the same journal, at least 18 deaths from fire were recorded in Uganda in the last six months of 2020. These soared to 50 deaths in the first six months of 2021. 

In 2021 fire believed to have started in Queen Elizabeth National Park gutted the Park View Safari Lodge and Mazike Valley Lodge in Kicwamba Sub County, Rubirizi District in western Uganda, burning 15 cottages and a restaurant. 

Wildfire Image by Patou Ricard from Pixabay

In 2022, the owners of these lodges appeared before the parliamentary committee of Trade, Tourism, and Industries and asked the Uganda Wildlife Association (UWA) to take responsibility for the fire outbreak.

But the Minister of Tourism, Wildlife, and Antiquities, Col. (Rtd) Tom Butime, contested. He stressed that UWA is in charge of “only the national park and not the individual personal investments around the park.”

During the same session, the UWA Executive Director, Sam Mwandha, petitioned the parliament for more workforce to deal with the wildfires.

The parliament of Uganda quotes Mwanda to have said: “We call upon you (Members of Parliament) to provide more funding that is adequate so that we can acquire more fighting equipment in the national parks,” Mwandha said.

Also, the Parliament’s Committee on Tourism, Trade, and Industry called for the amendment of the Uganda Wildlife Act, 2019 to address the issue of compensation for damages caused by fires that start from protected areas.

Mwandha and the Parliament’s Committee on Tourism, Trade, and Industry remarks highlight the challenge of surging fire outbreaks in Uganda’s conservation areas that regularly cross to neighbouring communities.

Burning the vegetation in Lake Mburo National Park is done twice a year, between January to March and July to September, which are the dry seasons. This is according to Juliet Mirembe, a game ranger in the park under the research and monitoring section. 

According to Mirembe, burning in this park is done in two types: controlled and block burning, which mainly focuses on creating fresh vegetation for animals and protecting the properties in the park.

“We normally supervise these fires, and our ultimate goal is to protect properties in the park and also pave the way for the growth of fresh vegetation for animals,” Mirembe explains.

Either intentional or unintentional, these fires cause air pollution, kill insects and destroy wild animals’ habitats. 

Burning also kills plant species, destroys water shed points, and contributes to global warming, resulting in climate change. But also, climate change is exacerbating the hot, dry conditions that help the fires catch and spread quickly. 

Adriano Kabagambe, a game ranger at this park, explains that the fires produce carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that worsens climate change and global warming.

Kabagambe notes that the fires set on the national parks, Lake Mburo in particular, constantly exacerbate climate change when they release vast quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

“While trees can regrow after the fire, getting back the lost trees during fire burning takes time, which is precisely what we lack in the fight against climate change,” Kabagambe explains. 

Trees lessen the amount of carbon in the atmosphere by sequestering carbon.

In the communities neighbouring Lake Mburo National Park, sub-counties like Rwenjeru, Sanga, and Kanyaryeru, all in the Kiruhura district, continue to experience a hasty changing microclimate, and this is partly attributed to bush burning in the area, according to James Tumuhiise.

Tumuhiise, a resident of the Rwabarata cell, has lived in this area for over twenty years. 

“We used to have chronological and stable seasons, but everything has changed. Changes happen rapidly,” Tumuhiise laments. 

Tumuhiise confirms the loss of biodiversity species in their community.

“We used to have various chameleons, frogs, rabbits, and herbs here. But with repeated fires, these have disappeared. They are just big trees here and some grass,” narrates Tumuhiise. 

A visit to these areas gives one a first-hand feel experience of high temperatures and the diminishing indigenous trees and shrubs cover.

Burning old vegetation to make room for new growth

Contrary to Tumuhiise’s argument, the park’s Chief warden Kule Mubangizi insists that controlled fires have no harm on vegetation because burning is done on purpose targeting specific areas of interest. 

He says some trees can often survive if the fire does not spread into the canopy. 

Likewise, Venice Mirembe, the park’s Manager of Awareness and Human-wildlife Relations, notes that some species of plants and animals depend on fire which helps in the evolution process by creating an imbalance that gives them new opportunities to become stronger and more resilient. 

“These fires are not entirely bad; some help plants and animals to grow and have a new life,” Vanice maintains.

People usually think fire is often associated with negative impacts on the environment. They typically associate it with damage and devastation, but Venice says, “A fire event can also benefit our plants and animals.”

Vanice narrates that fire triggers woody seed pods held in the canopy to open, releasing seed onto a fresh and fertile ash bed. 

And also, “controlled fires encourage new growth that provides food for many animals,” narrates Vanice stressing it also provides “hollows in logs and trees” that animals can use for nesting and shelter.

Unfortunately, some plants and trees that survive the fire later succumb to diseases, fungi, or insects due to their decreased resistance caused by injuries sustained in the fire. The park’s Chief warden Kule Mubangizi agrees to this. 

He says fire can be advantageous because it kills disease-causing organisms and insects that could destroy many plants. It can also be a pruning mechanism that allows growth and access to sunlight for trees and other plant species.

“The extra nutrients provided by the sun are essential for young trees trying to compete and for established trees to grow healthy and strong,” Mubangizi adds.

Mubangizi believes setting the national park on fire disrupts animal and plant life. Also, residues after fire outbreaks pollute water sources, affecting aquatic life.

“Setting these parks on fire comes with challenges; much as it is controlled, it can affect different organisms that live underground and the ecosystem on the top ground,” Kule explains.

Read Also; Burundi’s natural reserves threatened by wildfires that sweep away savannahs and forests

Fires set by poachers

Much as the majority of the fires in Lake Mburo National Park are controlled, some are set by poachers.

Poachers set fire to parts of the national parks during the dry season, hoping that when fresh grass sprouts, it would draw wild animals they target.

A poacher in the Shanga town in Kiruhura district who preferred anonymity told us that during a two-month dry season, he “burns up to seven sites.” However, most of these fires “are extinguished by the park authorities and villagers living near the park.”

But Arthur Kule Musinguzi, the chief warden of Lake Mburo conservation area, believes this vice is almost under control.

He says the park maintains a cordial relationship with the communities around it, and villagers act as informants if they notice bizarre fires in their vicinities.

“We don’t fight these fires alone. Community members come in, and they help a lot; sometimes, they are the ones who alert us,” Musinguzi explains.

As one of the strategies, Adriano Kabagambe, a game ranger at this park, says they regularly exchanged their contacts with the communities who usually tip them on illegal activities in the park, which, among others, include “reporting wildfires set by poachers and other people who illegally enter the park.”

And it is easy to tell who sets the fire.  

According to Juliet Mirembe, a game ranger in the park, the fire set by game rangers is far different from that set by poachers and other self-motivated individuals.”

“Ours is controlled and monitored; theirs is dangerous,” Mirembe explains.

Managing wildfire risk requires concerted efforts to strengthen “capacities and effective coordination between government authorities, the private sector, and local communities,” says Adriano Kabagambe, a Lake Mburo National Park game ranger.

This story was produced in partnership with InfoNile with support from IUCN/TRAFFIC and with funding from JRS Biodiversity Foundation and Earth Journalism Network.

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