By Timothy Murungi
Miliya Tumuhirwe (42), Fillimon Thembo (53) and Gilait Bwambale Alijja, who was only 18 at the time, were killed by elephants in Queen Elizabeth National Park in Kasese district, southwestern Uganda, between 2021 and 2022. They had gone into the park to look for firewood. Constance Kabugho (36), who was four months pregnant, narrowly escaped death when a warthog knocked her, critically injuring her leg.
The four were part of the 200 members of Railway Resource Users Association (RRUA), a reformed poachers group that Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) had authorized in 2015, to pick firewood from the park. The group started after James Okware, the former senior warden of Rwenzori Mountains National Park, advised the women to form a group so that UWA could legally grant them access into the park for resources such as firewood.
Poverty within communities living near national parks is one of the major drivers of poaching, according to John Justice Tibesigwa, the senior warden of the Rwenzori Mountains park. Okware, too, has never forgotten the words of a widow whose husband had been killed by an animal while poaching. She told Okware: “To us, poaching is a life and death matter. If we don’t go poaching, we will die of hunger. If we go poaching, we risk being killed, but we have to try.”
Therein lay the big challenge of reaching the poachers to provide them with alternative livelihood projects as well as educate them about the benefits of conservation.
In 2015, an ex-poacher, Bwambale Serina, agreed to work with UWA to mobilise his former colleagues and bring them into the fold of conservation. He started Rwenzori Anti-Poaching Association (RAPA), a group that worked with UWA to give the then-reformed poachers alternative sources of income.
The groups achieved key initial successes in mobilising poachers to leave the parks and start other businesses. However, a pending MOU and lack of continued funding for alternative livelihood projects are now threatening their growth and survival.
Tumuhirwe, Thembo and Alijja were part of the Railway Resource Users Association (RRUA) when UWA signed a three-year memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the group in September 2015. With the MoU in place, the group members would legally enter Queen Elizabeth National Park under the protection of rangers to harvest firewood every Tuesday and Thursday. The group made regular reports to account for every piece of firewood they picked and were also the eyes and ears of the rangers on any illegal activities or poachers in the park.
However, this harmonious relationship was rocked by the expiry of the MoU and the prolonged lack of renewal. When the MoU expired in September 2018, Mary Kevina Mbambu, the group coordinator, said the members lost hope and started invading the park again, bribing rangers to allow them to enter the park illegally and without protection.
Mbambu urged UWA to renew the MoU.
“We have gotten these problems because of stopping us from going to the park legally. We live in a town and the park was the only source of firewood for us. We have now lost many people because there is no longer a working relationship between the residents and UWA. We request that the arrangement is reinstated because it saves the community from such tragedy. It is an arrangement that helps us and we also help the park,” she said.
Tumuhirwe’s husband, Stephen Rwabuhinga, said the arrangement also used to benefit the family. Since he now has to buy firewood, he said he is unable to pay for his children’s school fees.
Kapamba Samson, the LC1 chairperson of the area (Kikonzo central railway ward), said the association had followed all the terms set in the agreement and asked UWA to reinstate the MoU.
“It is unclear why the resource users were stopped from going to the park to pick firewood. To the best of my knowledge, I don’t know any of them that got into trouble for doing what they were not supposed to do. I appreciate them because they follow the rules when they go in the park,” he said.
According to the Kasese District Poverty Profile (2012), the area has 138,872 households (approximately 800,000 people). Almost all – 98.8 percent – of these households depend on fuel wood. The Uganda Bureau of Statistics 2008 report estimated the poverty incidence levels in Kasese at 48.4 percent of the population, compared to a national average of 31.1 percent.
Mbambu said after Tumuhirwe was trampled by the elephant in 2021, UWA pledged to renew the MoU.
Meanwhile, injuries and deaths from human-wildlife conflict have abounded.
18-year-old Alijja also met his death in the park after encountering elephants. “My third-born son went to the park looking for firewood. He was killed by an animal and we didn’t know about it for nine days,” his mother, Enid Mbambu, said.
For Anastazia Muhindo, the pain is still raw after losing her husband, Thembo, last year.
“I have 4 children (aged 18, 12, 7 and 4) who were all going to school. After my husband’s death, they stay at home because I cannot afford to educate them. My first-born son could not complete S4 that he had just started. I am asking for government to help me. I would like some capital to get back on my feet,” she said.
Kabugho, who was pregnant with her 12th child, had to undergo a C-section surgery because she could not afford to push the baby with an injured leg from the warthog attack. She sold her land in order to pay for leg’s treatment.
Last month, Felestus Musoki also injured her right leg in the park while fetching firewood with several other women who allegedly bribed a ranger to illegally enter the protected area. Musoki and her colleagues did not report the incident because they were in the park illegally.
According to data collected by UWA on human-wildlife conflict for 2021 and 2022, in Kasese alone, at least 15 people were killed by animals with at least 23 more surviving with injuries. Elephants accounted for most deaths.
However, according to the reformed poachers, several deaths and injuries are not captured by UWA, usually in cases where rangers connived with the victims to go in the park.
Pontious Ezuma, Queen Elizabeth chief warden, said he has no knowledge of his rangers being involved in bribery or anyone accessing the protected area for firewood. He said UWA was still in the process of renewing the MoU with the former poachers’ group despite the several meetings and correspondences the two groups have had since 2021.
However, Christopher Masaba, the QENP conservation warden, was aware of illegalities where some residents connive with rangers to skip the official steps. This reporter showed him pictures of firewood that had been fetched from the park.
“This is the connivance I am talking about and this firewood is for commercial use, yet resources from the park are supposed to be for domestic use,” he said.
Masaba acknowledged that firewood was a livelihood necessity and that the community should have been getting express permission to go fetch firewood.
Illegal activities in the park have escalated since the anti-poachers’ groups stopped supporting the rangers, RRUA group coordinator Mbambu said.
“The park used to look good when we were still going in and playing the role of watchmen at the time. The poachers had stopped because they feared us. On the days we would fetch firewood, there was no poacher that would dare go there. But now, poachers are back in the park, cutting all types of trees including the ones that we were forbidden to cut, even with our MoU,” Mbambu said.
Some rangers were not happy about the work RRUA were doing in reporting everything that goes on in the park. Mbambu even reported to the police an incident where a warden pointed a gun at her as another threatened her. She has to put up with regular intimidation and threats, but she has achieved some success: Out of reports from her group and other RAPA members, some conniving rangers have been nabbed and taken for disciplinary action.
Some group members alleged that the MOU is not being signed because of some selfish rangers who want to make a “business of selling the firewood” to residents.
“We know at times our rangers squeeze some people and get money from them. It is not official. That is an illegality which can be stopped and should be stopped,” Okware said.
But UWA’s senior warden for the Rwenzori Mountains park, John Justice Tibesigwa, dismissed this claim. “I have not got any complaint where rangers have connived with the community and the community members have been arrested. No one has reported that they work with rangers,” he said.
Okware, who was recently transferred to Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve in Karamoja, believes the ex-poacher groups are a silver bullet to fighting wildlife crime. He said UWA should work with the reformed poacher groups to weed out their bad rangers who conspire to do illegal activities.
“Those are individual cases and such should be arrested. The reformed poachers are able to tell because they know some are unscrupulous. Those are illegalities which can be managed,” he said.
UWA support too small
Reformed poacher groups that were organized under RAPA in Kasese were the first of a kind in the country. From 2016-2018, UWA supported 24 of these groups but could not continue funding them after the Covid-19 pandemic ground the tourism industry to a halt for more than a year. However, many other reformed poacher groups used the RAPA blueprint to start other groups in other districts around QENP and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Kanungu.
Success of UWA livelihood support projects to the reformed poachers groups has been a mixed bag, with some succeeding and others failing due to lack of capital.
In 2019, as RRUA waited for the renewal of the programme, UWA gave the reformed poachers group sh2m (about USD $550) to start rice growing after renting land for use from Mubuku Irrigation scheme. After a successful harvest, UWA added them sh3m (about $800) and they rented three more acres for cultivation.
But when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, they were stopped from going to look after the field, and the project did not resume even after the lockdowns and restrictions eased. UWA later discontinued the funding.
In December 2022, UWA then conducted training with the members in the making of candles, liquid soap, stoves and briquettes. However, the members said they have neither capital nor equipment to start these businesses. In April this year, UWA delivered clay for making charcoal stoves, but members said the project is too small to support the big group.
The bigger issue stems from the inability of community members to collect firewood from the park, which results in extra expenses and inability to save, said Sunday Morris, a group member.
“The members used to go collect wood that is not needed in the park. They would then save the money that they would have used to buy firewood. They would save the money in the group but now, that is the money they use to buy firewood. The members cannot afford medical care like before because the group purse is empty and cannot give any more loans,” Morris said.
Pescazia Biire, a 56-year-old member, asked UWA to give them workable projects. She said the suffering they are going through is pushing their children to steal.
“We are suffering because we are near the park. We are elderly, lost our husbands and are looking after our orphaned grandchildren.
“Making stoves requires a lot of energy. And it is not possible to do the manual labour on an empty stomach. Allow us to get firewood from the park so that we don’t go hungry,” she said.
RAPA alternative projects success
The other reformed poachers’ conglomerate, Rwenzori Anti-Poaching Association, has seen more success in its alternative livelihood projects.
Between 2016-2018, UWA provided funding to 24 anti-poachers groups under RAPA, each with membership of between 20 and 100 people. The groups were trained to start ventures including piggery, goat rearing and fish farming and received between sh2m-sh4m each (about USD $544-$1,000). However, UWA faced financial challenges due to Covid-19, and thus more than 30 other groups that RAPA had formed missed out.
Kikorongo Women Community Anti-Poachers Group started with 30 members and got funding for a craft shop and tailoring business that is giving the members a good livelihood.
“We were impoverished. We could not even get money to take our children to school. But after we were skilled, there is a very big change. We are taking our children to school compared to when they would just sell gonja by the roadside. The women weave and make baskets that they sell and are able to get school fees or pay for their rent,” said Jane Mutange, the treasurer of the group.
Mutange said all the group members were once poachers. “All of us used to go to the park. We would carry the meat that men have slaughtered. But we have all stopped. And our men have stopped,” she said.
Three of the women were widowed after their husbands were killed in the park. The women now guard Queen Elizabeth against poachers.
“There are no more poachers in Kikorongo. Residents know that if any of them dared, we would be the first people to report them. They even fear us. Residents know that every woman in Kikorongo is a member of anti-poachers and all of us can report,” Mutange said.
The group said they would love more support so that other members can join and benefit.
Another group, the Nyamirangara Anti-Poaching Group, started with 15 members and now boasts of 89. They started with a project of 40 goats in 2017 and now have 102 animals among them.
“The first member that got a goat would look after it until it produced kids. Then the initial beneficiary would give one goat to another member. The receiver would look after the goat until it produced another that he would give away likewise. And the system would rotate like that. So far, only four members are yet to get goats,” said Enos Baluku, the secretary.
Baluku Ponsiano, who was a poacher for over four decades, was a founding member of the group. Baluku started poaching because he was jobless, but he was encouraged to stop after two of his colleagues were killed by wild animals.
Today, Baluku has 12 children among four wives and is in a better financial position. “I now have a family house and I am keeping animals from which I get income and food,” he said. He has eight goats that multiplied from the one he was provided. He sold one goat, bought a sheep, and from it, he has 15.
Baluku and the group members are facing a new challenge from their children who are educated but unemployed. He said some have resorted to poaching, but if they were supported with projects like theirs, they would also abandon it.
The group appealed to UWA for more support to start a piggery, which they believe would be more profitable.
According to Okware, if reformed poacher projects were adopted in the whole country, there would be a reduction in poaching.
“We were able to interact with the community, made more arrests, saw poachers surrender their tools, ex-poachers increased and so many people were willing to abandon poaching,” he said.
More support needed
Jane Benuza, the RAPA coordinator, said more funding is needed to maintain the reformed poachers’ alternative livelihood projects.
She reported that some members of the groups that failed to get funding went back to their old life of poaching. RAPA itself is cash-strapped, a problem the coordinator believes will be half-solved if the association registers as an NGO. There is high demand for alternative livelihoods among the poachers, she said.
“Poachers who wish to denounce the illegal activities are still calling us. We recovered five guns that were used in poaching and gave them to UWA. There are other poachers using guns. Poachers want to hand in their tools, but that can’t be done if we can’t mobilise, train and give them alternative projects such that they leave poaching,” she said.
Tibesigwa, the senior warden at Rwenzori, acknowledged that there is frustration over UWA’s inability to avail funds for RAPA activities and their mobilized ex-poachers.
But UWA’s director of conservation, John Makombo, said all hope for funding is not yet lost.
“When Covid-19 hit UWA, we lost tourism income from where we used to get resources and the annual support was frozen in favour of maintaining wildlife patrols. We are now recovering slowly and hopefully these efforts will be reinstated soon. Meanwhile, I have been trying to connect the group to various donor offices,” he said.
RAPA’s mobilization is awakening a conservation mindset among the community members – to stop looking at the protected areas as the cause of their suffering, but as a source of mutual benefit. Many fell in love with protecting nature because they realized they were benefitting because of it.
Okware emphasized that the reformed poachers have crucial indigenous knowledge to help stop poaching across the country, if funding could be maintained.
“They knew where they used to pass. They knew the people they were dealing with. They talked to them. They were spot-on; they knew you pass here, you get one. If we had continued with the stamina for 3-4 years, poaching would have reduced. Most of the poachers would have either been arrested or reformed,” he said.
This story has been produced in partnership with InfoNile with support from IUCN/TRAFFIC and with funding from JRS Biodiversity Foundation and Earth Journalism Network.