It’s my last night in Kibale National Park and I’m thinking through all the things I’ve seen and learnt while helping in the Science Centres, working with the briquette making team and interacting with the local villagers over the last 10 days. The problems that the Kibale Fuel Wood Project is addressing are far more complex than I had imagined. Some time ago, a large UN grant funded a similar fuel efficient stoves program in the area, but the program stopped as soon as the money ran out. New Nature Foundation are taking a very different approach by empowering people to make positive changes for themselves that will benefit their families, their communities and the environment for many years to come.
The Ugandan population is growing quickly, with an average of eight children per family. As a result, families are subdividing their land for their children and the land available for crops and fuel wood is reducing significantly. This is placing greater pressure on Kibale National Park, where wood collection is allowed by local villagers one day per week. This also means that when African elephants come out of Kibale National Park to crop raid, the effects are felt by the villagers a lot more compared to when land sizes were much larger. Many villagers also believe that elephants are crop raiding more frequently too and combined with limited education on the role of species in the Kibale ecosystem, a problematic human-elephant conflict is developing in the area. Currently the most common method to reduce elephant numbers in villagers is to build trenches on the border of Kibale National Park, but there has been little success with this approach so far.
Somewhat surprisingly, the nearby Tea Estate is playing a key role in the conservation of Kibale National Park. Not only is the Tea Estate supporting the Kibale Fuel Wood Project by donating materials to make the briquettes and then buying the briquettes for their workers (as part of their rainforest alliance accreditation), but their tea plantations bordering the national park are also preventing elephants from moving into the villagers. The tea plantations seem to be an effective deterrent for elephants, while also being an extremely profitable enterprise that villagers can take part in by growing their own tea. In addition, the Tea Estate also acts to preserve remnant rainforest patches next to nearby tea plantations, as these patches create micro-climates that are favourable to tea leaf production.
I spent one of my days in Kibale with an inspirational woman called Kemigisa Margaret. She’s the Project Manager for the Kibale Fuel Wood Project, and is an extremely well respected figure in the villages neighbouring Kibale National Park and other areas of Uganda. She runs all the project operations and Science Centres when Rebecca and Michael are out of the country, in addition to running several other environmental and social programs. This includes running five acres of tea plantations on the outskirts of Kibale National Park, establishing a Woman’s Cooperative Centre that provides a much needed start-up opportunity for woman in the tea plantation business, as well as keeping bee hives on her property as an additional protection against African elephants. She plays a vital role in educating the community about conservation and is an amazing role model on how villagers can be successful while still caring for the environment. I was absolutely inspired by Margaret’s hard work, enthusiasm and passion and her ability to spare time to educate youngsters at the Science Centres.
All four Science Centres run by New Nature Foundation on the border of Kibale National Park were well equipped with educational books and posters. The kids kept flocking into the Science Centres whenever we visited, which could be partly attributed to the ever changing displays and activities that were run for the kids. Australian animals were a big hit at all these centres! I was also lucky enough to attend one of their Video Night shows, which happens one Sunday night every 6 weeks on a rotational basis at the four Science Centres. Over 300 people attended the outdoor screening on a cold and wet Sunday night, and they all stood enthusiastically for two hours watching an episode on Chimpanzees from the Channel 7 Taronga Zoo TV series as well as an elephant documentary. This is just one of the many ways this program is helping to establish a positive relationship between people and Kibale National Park ecosystem.
In my final days in Uganda, we made a trip to Semliki National Park to visit a lodge, which is one of the many organisations in Uganda that Rebecca and Michael are hoping to persuade to start using briquettes for their cooking. Currently, the Semliki lodge sources their cooking fuel from the national park. The park was one of the first protected areas in all of Africa, but as a result of unsustainable hunting and deforestation activities, has since lost a great number of species including Rhinos and Lions. Although Semliki National Park is still home to a great number of bird species, as well as Chimpanzees, African elephants, Ugandan Cob, Warthogs and Buffalos, it serves as a constant reminder of the need to protect Kibale National Park while the ecosystem is still largely intact.
Over the last 10 days, I’ve learnt that it’s never too late to take action for conservation, and the power of one person to make a significant difference cannot be underestimated. I hope that I can also have a positive impact on our wildlife and hope the funding given to this program by Taronga has long-lasting positive outcomes in Kibale National Park.