The Quest for the Reintroduction of White Rhinos to Ajai Wildlife Reserve

The Quest for the Reintroduction of White Rhinos to Ajai Wildlife Reserve

By Richard Drasimaku

While growing up as a child, Ben Afidra Amorimvapi, a resident of Degiya village, Olali parish-Ogoko Sub County developed a fondness for White Rhinos.

With his village home sitting on what was a controlled hunting area of Ajai Wildlife Reserve, Amorimvapi points to a bare ground next to his house.

“That is where white rhinos used to defecate once in a month. Each day they chose a different place for easing themselves,” he recalls candidly.

A retired civil servant and proven conservationist, Amorimvapi says in the evening, the rhinos would lie on the road on warm sand and then graze at night where they would move up to Rhino Camp, coexisting peacefully with the local community.

“They were our gold. The Madi never ate white rhinos because it was believed that when you eat them, you develop a big stomach and die,” he says of the cultural reverence attached to the beasts in the olden days.

However, things became precarious for white rhinos in 1972 following the infamous economic war declared on Asians by the late former Ugandan President, Idi Amin.

Amorimvapi explains that some of the Asians fled to South Africa whereupon the apartheid regime demanded for their compensation for lost businesses.

This, he says, prompted the government to hurtle white rhinos in crates to South Africa to compensate the Asians and when the sanctuary guards saw that the animals were being taken away they began killing those left behind for ivory.

The animals were eventually finished by poachers during the lawlessness that followed the violent ouster of Amin. Only baboons, vervet monkeys and black and white colobus monkeys were left to dominate the reserve for a long time.

Animals roaming Ajai Wildlife Reserve 2
Baboons roaming Ajai Wildlife Reserve

It is for this reason that the community is calling for the reintroduction of the white rhinos.

Critically endangered species

According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2008, the status of white rhinos is critically endangered.

They are revered for playing a critical biodiversity role as natural lawn mowers of their habitat that in turn helps other small animals, birds and insects such as beetles to thrive.

As they paddle around swampy areas in search for water, white rhinos create pockets of water dams that provide a source of drinking water for birds and antelopes thereby avoiding crowding and reducing the risk of being targeted by predators.

UWA steps in

In the quest to reintroduce the rhinos back into Uganda’s wildlife-protected areas, the government of Uganda, through the national wildlife watchdog Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) has since 2006 been running a breeding program at the ZIWA Rhino Sanctuary in Nakasongola district to multiply the original stock of six Southern White Rhinos.

white rhino at Ajai
A mother and her calf at Ziwa Rhino Wildlife Ranch. 

To date, the rhinos have increased to 35 individuals and are now ready for re-introduction into the Wild at Ajai Wildlife Reserve.

Before the White Rhinos became extinct from the wild in Uganda, Ajai Wildlife Reserve and its environs in the current Madi Okollo district were the known White Rhino ranging habitat in the country.

Since the 1930’s the reserve sitting on 166 square kilometres has evolved from a wildlife sanctuary, game reserve and now a wildlife reserve.

According to the Ajai Wildlife Reserve General Management Plan 2021/22-2030/31 drafted in February 2021, the Management of the reserve has also evolved over time; it was initially managed by the colonial officials with Chief Ajai being the most known, followed by the Uganda Game Department and now the Uganda Wildlife Authority.

The UWA in 2010 and 2015 carried out an animal population census of Ajai wildlife reserve after contracting the Uganda Wildlife Safaris to develop the wildlife reserve.

The results showed that the reserve was dominated by primates such as baboons, black and white colobus monkeys and vervet monkeys. These are followed by antelopes like kobs, duikers and orbi while the pig family has bush pigs and warthogs.

A second census carried out in 2015 established an increase in the number of some of the dominant wildlife species from 1,189 to over 1,202.

But by 2020, UWA was forced not to grant an extension of Uganda Wildlife Safari’s contract for failure to develop the reserve for tourism.

The authority then proceeded to conduct a feasibility study to ascertain the suitability of Ajai for white rhino reintroduction.

Among the recommendations of the study was the need to acquire additional land from the Lali and Madali communities measuring approximately 26.58 square kilometers which provides a suitable breeding ground for the rhinos.

Illustrative map Ajai
Illustrative map of Ajai by the Uganda Wildlife Authority

The studies further show that the block marked 1 on the map would be for non-breeding male rhinos and River Gazi which separates it from the southern sector would form a natural barrier to deter the non-breeding male rhinos from crossing to the southern sector.

Based on these recommendations, the UWA Board of Trustees at its meeting on June 16, 2022 at Buhoma in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park resolved to have the white rhinos at ZIWA trans-located to the Ajai Wildlife Reserve.

The UWA board further directed management to consult and work closely with the Madi Okollo district local government to ensure the re-introduction exercise is done smoothly and fast tracked to shorten the duration within which the entire re-introduction exercise is concluded.

Dr Margaret Driciru, the Acting Chief Warden of the Murchison Falls Conservation Area that includes Ajai Wildlife Reserve affirms that a decision has been taken to re-introduce the White Rhinos to its natural habitat at Ajai Wildlife Reserve. She adds that a substantial amount of money needs to be found to bankroll the process. 

She says consultations are ongoing with different stakeholders and hopes that by 2024 the rhino species will be re-introduced to Ajai conservation area.

“The species needs a lot of protection and UWA is going to construct accommodation for the required manpower, build new offices, and establish electrical fences and hotel facilities,” Dr Driciru reiterates.

Representing the UWA executive director during the launch of the translocation of kobs from Kabwoya Wildlife Reserve to Kidepo National Park recently, John Makombo, the director for ecological monitoring at UWA disclosed that it will cost sh4b to create a conducive environment, set up facilities and translocate 20 white rhinos and other species to increase the animal population at Ajai by 2024.

However, the community wants UWA to handle the reintroduction process differently and more transparently.

Local resident Amorimvapi is afraid that the reintroduction of the white rhinos will lead to erosion of some cultural values that are dear to the Madi if removal of people residing inside the protected area results in the separation of families.

“What happens when I am forced to move away to say Bwiyale (in Kiryandongo) and my young son who is just near this reserve boundary remains behind? Who is going to give him guidance and knowledge on our culture?" he wondered aloud.

Odama Rokoni
Odama Rokoni Amorimvapi at his home in Ajai Wildlife Reserve

Amorimvapi insists that as elders they have a lot of information to pass on to the younger generation ranging from traditional marriages to folk dance and age-old art of anklet smelting, smithing of arrows, spears and cowbells; papyrus mat making, fish traps, arrow quivers and granary crafting and this makes the moves to relocate people to new settlements ill-advised.

Citing his case, Amorimvapi complains that he grew up with the animals in the wild but wonders why the UWA wants him and the 11 homesteads in the Degia sector to be resettled away from the reserve yet he has well understood the value of the wildlife.

A househod with granaries
A homestead with granaries inside Ajai Wildlife Reserve

He says the only alternative to preserve the Madi culture is to allow the communities neighbouring the reserve to continue to coexist with the animals in the reserve and not curve them out of the reserve.

Amorimvapi cautions the government against psychologically torturing locals through threats of eviction but rather appreciates the re-integration of various traditional values and practices with modern approaches to effectively conserving wild animals.

But Rebecca Aniku, a native of Degiya village who also is a conservationist, believes the re-introduction of the White rhinos will enhance efforts to preserve the rich culture of the Ma’di by attracting people from the outside world to buy the cultural artefacts thus boosting the tourism potential of the entire Northern region.

She asserts that many old people, especially women are dying without passing on knowledge and skills of making cultural artefacts such as winnowing pans because the values attached to them have dwindled due to lack of demand and market, a trend that could be revitalised when tourists start pouring in to see rhinos and other animals at Ajai.

“This is a poverty alleviation project. Our place is poor with no hotels and many youths are jobless but we shall have tourism jobs. This reintroduction of white rhinos will also preserve the land, the trees and the environment in the wildlife reserve,” explained Aniku.

Odama Rokoni Ma’dimva, the community Wildlife Association Vice Secretary for Ajai says the planned re-introduction of the White Rhinos presents a huge opportunity for the communities living around Ajai Wildlife Reserve and the region through jobs creation arising from the various social services that shall be established around the sanctuary and in other parts of the region.

Ma’dimva says land is however a key factor in the planned re-introduction of the White Rhinos at Ajai. He says while the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) is seeking for expansion of the wildlife reserve land there has to be a win–win situation.

Black and white colubus monkeys
Black and white colobus monkeys inside Ajai

Ma’dimva says the communities neighbouring the Ajai sanctuary need improved water, health, infrastructure, electricity, markets and other services, in addition to fencing of the gazetted sanctuary to avoid human-wildLife conflict.

Madi-Okollo District Chairperson Ismael Drabe says the communities neighbouring the wildlife reserve were sensitized in February this year and what now remains is compensation for the affected households.

According to Drabe, the White Rhinos may be re-introduced by the end of next year to allow UWA to secure the sanctuary by fencing.

On the planned expansion of the sanctuary, Drabe says the ultimate decision to get additional land for expansion of the reserve lies solely in the hands of the communities who are the owners of the land but not the local government of Madi-Okollo.

Ben Lacam Ojara, a former Game Assistant at Ajai Game Reserve, says Ajai is the natural habitat of the Northern White Rhinos, not Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary and so the re-introduction of the White Rhinos is long overdue.

Ojara said the significance of the White Rhinos led to the naming of a Hotel in Arua then as the White Rhino Hotel which provided both recreational services and employment opportunities for the people of West Nile.

He adds that the reintroduction of the White Rhinos provides socio-economic and political benefits to the people of West Nile and the country, besides the grass at the game reserve is the most suitable for the white rhinos.

“Prepare the people to receive their white rhinos because the species has to come back to its natural home. The pride of Uganda which has been missing for over 40 years will bring joy to the people,” Ojara said of white rhinos.

This story was supported by InfoNile in partnership with JRS Biodiversity Foundation, International Union for Conservation of Nature/TRAFFIC  and Internews’ Earth Journalism Network .

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