A bird’s song: Harriet Kemigisha’s conservation efforts and community empowerment in Kibale National Park

By Rosa Negash and Wren Edwards

Walking underneath the tree-covered canopy of Kibale National Forest, you can hear the songs of dozens of birds. Moving through dense forest brush, you can look up and see the morning light gently pass through the tree branches onto the rich soil that covers the forest floor. Kibale National Park is home to approximately 4,500 chimpanzees as well as over 375 species of birds. A beautiful and important place. Yet one person knows the bird songs best of all: Harriet Kemigisha.

Harriet is a world-renowned birder, environmentalist, business owner, and field researcher. In 2005, Harriet re-discovered the Green-breasted Pitta, Pitta reichenowi, one of only two known Pitta species on the continent of Africa. Her rich, environmental portfolio includes working with the Ugandan Wildlife Authority as a Ranger guide, serving as a research associate with the Avian Vocalization Centre at Michigan State University, and collaborating on numerous research projects with faculty and students at Ohio University. As director and lead guide of Harrier tours, Harriet has profoundly impacted the environmental movement in Western Uganda and around the world through her conservation efforts, mentorship, and community empowerment.

We had the privilege of meeting and staying with Harriet and her family during a field research trip in January 2020. Harriet welcomed us to her beautiful homestead, an ecological haven filled with flowering trees, teeming with birds and delicious fruits. Conservation happens year-round for Harriet, as natural as breathing. During our stay, we reunited with Wren Edwards, Ph.D. student at Ohio University who had been living with Harriet and collecting her dissertation research on the Buraiga chimpanzee community. Wren shared her findings on the newly habituated chimpanzees, providing insights into wildlife-human interactions on this complex and densely populated landscape. Harriet extended her home to Wren, knowing how important it is for researchers to immerse culturally and environmentally in village life, rather than sequestering in research stations far from the local community.

“Harriet was born and raised near the park and she has truly dedicated her life to ensuring the long-term survival of the Kibale’s species. She spends every day working toward that goal. Whether it is planting native species to regenerate the forest’s depleted buffer zone, or teaching children at the local birding club about the endemic avian species, or even serving on the local board which oversees the management of community protected watershed, she really embodies the power of community-centered conservation.”

Harriet deliberately empowers and facilitates female-led research projects by extending her time, resources, and expertise in support of the pursuit of knowledge and long-term solutions for thorny issues of food security and sustainable livelihoods in a biodiversity hotspot. Harriet has mentored many women including myself and continues to support research endeavors in Uganda and across the globe.

One morning, Harriet took the team on a sunrise birding tour through Bigodi village. On our two-hour walk, I took note of how Harriet would pause, listen, look through her binoculars, extend a bird sound, and then carefully point out the bird in question to our group. She would ask us questions to critically think about how Kibale Forest supports the ecological relationships we observe, and how it supports the local community. Her deep knowledge of species’ relationships, from nesting patterns to feeding behaviors to social habits and her quiet ability to help others to care is what distinguishes her birding tours from the rest. Harriet is in tune with her environment and uniquely provides learning opportunities and unforgettably beautiful immersive experiences for visitors, researchers, and her community members alike.

“Harriet demonstrates in equal measure a deep knowledge about the environment, clear wisdom about human nature, and endless curiosity about the planet," said Nancy Stevens, a paleontology professor at Ohio University. "Her honesty and kindness are backed by determination to make a difference. Put simply, she is critical to the fabric of the local and international scientific community and an inspiration for the role of mentorship in developing sustainable livelihoods that celebrate and protect the world’s forests.”

The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly affected ecotourism and environmental research in Uganda. In 2019, Uganda had roughly 1.5 million tourists, according to the Annual Tourism Sector Performance. On March 25, 2020, all activity of primate tourism was suspended, freezing economic revenue which villages surrounding the national parks so heavily rely on. The Ugandan Wildlife Authority attributes over 70% of all ecotourism revenue to primate tours and activity.

Due to job losses and limited economic activity, people have increased their reliance on extracting firewood and hunting in the protected areas and unprotected forest fragments, placing pressure on precious forest resources. But Harriet has been working with local community members to limit this from happening.

The lessons to be gained from the COVID-19 pandemic are applicable to climate change efforts too: we need to holistically change our approaches to protecting and supporting wildlife, or it will exist in the short-term. By starting in her community, Harriet has shown us and the world how using your voice and thinking creatively can lead to prosperity and protection of the planet and wildlife on it.

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