Opinion | Engineering Uganda’s conservation future to prevent the next pandemic

Uganda cob. (Pixabay)

By Cate Twining-Ward and Colin A. Chapman

The understanding that the COVID-19 pandemic originated from wildlife has heightened our awareness of just how closely all of our lives, regardless of where we live, are connected to nature. The pandemic has also resulted in unprecedented challenges related to protecting wildlife—and in Uganda, these challenges are especially poignant.

As of August 2020, over twenty million people globally have been infected by COVID-19, a virus originating from wildlife from China. With COVID-19 at the forefront of our minds, it is easy to forget that the last large-scale pandemic, AIDS, originated from primates in West Africa. Globally, HIV/AIDS has infected more than 76 million people and has claimed 33 million lives. Likewise, the 1918 influenza, with initial cases originating from birds in Kansas, killed up to 50 million people.

It is about time we recognize that COVID-19 is not the first devastating pandemic to have originated from wildlife, nor will it be the last. To prevent or at least forestall the next pandemic, there is an urgent need to transform the ways in which we interact with nature. If we want to avert future crises, we clearly have an obligation to examine and prevent the practices that promote close contact between humans and wildlife, particularly bushmeat hunting and deforestation. This is even more essential in the tropics, where species richness is exceptionally high, and therefore the number of viruses that could potentially be transferred between humans and wildlife is correspondingly high.

In 2015, less than half of the world’s tropical forests remained and in the span of 12 years from 2000 and 2012, 2.3 million km2 of forest was lost globally. To put this in perspective, in 12 years, a forested area larger than the size of Alaska was lost. Deforestation has been driven by explosive human population growth, high local and global consumption rates, and corporate and individual greed, but is now being exacerbated by the coronavirus and its associated health and safety protocols.

Yet, ironically, while most people agree that deforestation and bushmeat hunting practices must be dramatically reduced, the very agencies that are set up to conserve forests and wildlands are financially drained as a result of the cascading impacts of COVID-19.

For many countries, there is simply no replacement for the money that tourism normally provides to run protected areas. Now, because of nation-wide shutdowns and lack of tourism, those who are most capable of protecting nature, are incapable of doing so. Rangers may soon be asked to work without pay to limit hunting in protected parks. Furthermore, the wildlife they are protecting could harbor the virus that would start the next pandemic.

Uganda provides a clear example of how COVID-19 is creating conditions that could trigger the emergence of the next global pandemic. The current pandemic has devastated tourism in Uganda, a sector of the economy that is closely tied to many of the country’s conservation efforts. The impact of the pandemic is evident when considering the thousands of lost jobs, lost revenues, and lost contributions to the GDP of Uganda, all of which have negative implications for conservation.

COVID-19 has already resulted in a $1.6 billion loss to the Ugandan tourism industry. Considering only hotel staff, 8,636 people have been laid off. These workers earn a total of 29.3 million USD and represent the only income for countless households. For Uganda, investing in preventative measures to reduce deforestation and bushmeat hunting is a small price to pay relative to the crucial gains Uganda accrues from the benefits from the tourism industry.

Michael Keigwin, the founder of the Uganda Conservation Foundation, fears that without income for those who monitor protected areas, the parks in Uganda will be unable to maintain prior protective measures. There is no alternative to these industries—tourism propels conservation because it allows for rangers and tour guides to rigorously monitor illegal activities while also providing an incentive for locals to protect critical areas.

For conservation to work, Keigwin says, there must be a strong backbone of law enforcement as well as tourism.

“We are defending (parks) as well as we can,” he said.

But, these are difficult times for Uganda. On top of being “grossly under-resourced,” according to Keigwin, poachers and bushmeat hunters are taking advantage of the country’s lockdown protocols which began in stages throughout March, culminating in a total lockdown on April 1st. The lockdown restrictions included a nationwide curfew, suspension of public transport and non-food markets, mandatory quarantine for travelers, closure of schools, and cancellation of all public gatherings, among other precautions.

Local criminal gangs know that the vulnerable areas that inhabit high market value animals are no longer under the same protection, making illegal activities more enticing.

Furthermore, uncertainty about the health effects of the virus, as well as lack of access to hospitals due to the nation-wide shutdown, has created a more appealing market for traditional medicines, according to Keigwin.

“We are losing lions,” he said sorrowfully as he explained that “people are taking advantage of the lockdowns and curfews."

Witch doctors are opening their doors to new customers, increasing demand for wild animal products, such as lion paw.

“People are vulnerable and they will give it a go," said Keigwin.

According to him, these practices, "will have an adverse effect on the park, and on tourism, forever.”

Dr. Patrick Omeja is a conservation scientist with over 20 years of experience working in Kibale National Park, one of Uganda’s forested biodiversity hotspots. He fears that bushmeat hunting will only increase during these times—despite the fact that coronavirus originated from wildlife. He reports that locals are generally not aware of the strong link between the risk of pandemics and wildmeat; in fact, many believe that wild meat is safer than alternatives such as cattle.

"They feel wild meat is safer [than beef] because of the chemicals,” Dr. Omeja said.

Due to the scarcity of park rangers, bushmeat hunters are taking advantage of the opportunity to hunt both high-value animals and more common animals for food, such as the small local deer – duiker. While the latter does not pose immediate conservation concerns, oftentimes the strategy of tracking and catching these animals do. Hunters will often follow a group of primates, namely mountain gorillas in this region, as they attract other animals that the hunters are interested in.

Dr. Omeja recalls a recent situation in which a hunter was using this method and spooked the dominant silverback gorilla of the group. He wasn’t trying to hunt the gorilla, rather he was following it in the hopes of catching other animals in the bush. But, when the gorilla became alarmed, the hunter, fearing for his life, speared the gorilla in the stomach, killing it. Sadly, silverbacks are the leaders of mountain gorilla groups, and it is likely that without the dominant male, the group will spilt and the infants will die.

A Community Conservation Warden of the Ugandan Wildlife Authority, Wilson Kagoro, works with the communities bordering parks to promote conservation. He told us that the local communities very much believe that COVID-19 was "brought by scientists, and not from wild animals like Ebola was.”

He also said that while some people are being sensitized about the origins of the pandemic by radios and television, many are not afraid of consuming game meat but enthusiastic about eating it due to lack of protein in their diet. Unfortunately, those living nearest to the park are the most vulnerable to potential diseases transmitted from the bushmeat, because they cannot afford to buy meat in the butcheries like the rich do, according to Dr. Omeja.

One potential silver lining that Dr. Omeja mentions is that once tourists return they will be more likely to keep their distance from gorillas and chimpanzees, something that has been difficult to enforce in the past.

“People used to try to take selfies and really close photographs with the animals,” he said.

Due to these new nation-wide rules, management will have no choice but to enforce masks and take guests' temperatures before they enter to see the gorillas or chimpanzees.

Dr. Brenda Boonabaana, a Lecturer and Researcher in the Departments of Forestry, Biodiversity, and Tourism at the Makerere University in Uganda believes that the negative economic impact of COVID-19 on key tourism facilities and its employees will be immense, requiring a long time to recover.

"The income for most businesses has slumped down, and most workers have either lost their jobs or are at home waiting for an unknown period of time,” she said.

This has left many without access to basic needs.

“Recovery will be certain, but slow,” Boonabaana said. “It will demand a combined effort by the government, private sector, and global partners and players.”

The situation in Uganda is one example of what is happening in many regions across the tropics. The trajectory is certainty bleak—which is why conservation agencies and associated law enforcement and tourism sectors need financial support now more than ever. With the sharp decline in tourism and the revenue it generates for local communities, it is likely that the effects of the coronavirus will have an impact far beyond 2020.

From all that I’ve learned stringing together this story, what stands out is how frighteningly obvious it is that conservation largely relies on tourism: an industry that has been devastated by COVID-19. However, we also cannot forget the resilience of nature, and the resilience of human beings to adapt and develop to mitigate future challenges. Some essential solutions with which I believe hold great potential in Uganda include:

  1. Providing increased financial support to the tourism sector, specifically to the Uganda wildlife authority so that they may continue their conservation activities.
  2. Developing and implementing a domestic tourism marketing strategy, as it would likely recover faster than the international market in the event of another pandemic.
  3. Developing stronger branding for Uganda as a tourism destination, giving the country a unique identity.
  4. Developing a comprehensive tourism recovery plan to avoid the devastating effects of future pandemics.

Humanity’s close connection to nature is undisputed. We can no longer afford to pillage our wildlife—the price is far too high. There are steps that can be taken now: to address both the shock waves as they unfold and to speed up recovery and sector resilience for the future.

About the authors:

Colin Chapman, Ph.D., has worked in the tropics on conservation issues for almost 40 years. He has published over 500 scientific papers, developed new conservation strategies for Uganda, and pioneered efforts to create a union between health care and conservation; the latter resulted in him being given a humanitarian award. He is an adjunct professor in the George Washington University Department of Anthropology.

Cate Twining-Ward is a senior correspondent at Planet Forward, a grand-prize winner of Storyfest 2020, and a student at the George Washington University.

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