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Last Updated: Friday, 21 May, 2004, 07:35 GMT 08:35 UK
Uganda's poor hope for more gorilla dollars
By Orla Ryan
In Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda

One of the world's most expensive tourist attractions is found in one of the world's poorest communities.

mountain gorillas in Bwindi-Impenetrable
For $275, tourists can track some of the last remaining mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable forest in the Kanungu district in Uganda.

To date, though, very little of this $275 goes back to the people who live around the park, sparking complaints from local people.

That may be about to change, with action under way in the Ugandan parliament to revise the current revenue sharing agreement.

Admittedly, these days there is an awareness in the parishes surrounding the park that the wellbeing of the park and the gorillas is crucial to their own prosperity.

Conservationists know that if the gorillas are to survive, then local people need to be able to make money.

And local entrepreneurs appreciate that without the gorillas, it would be much harder to make a living.

Hostile community

Still, the unhappiness with revenue sharing echoes the early, negative response to Bwindi's conversion to a national park in 1991.

The local Batwa people were forcibly removed from the forest and locals who had made their living from the forest, by selling firewood or keeping bees, had to stop.

Local people make money from working in the park, acting as porters, selling items, taking tourists on walks
Paul Muhwezi
Buhoma Community Rest Camp

Chief park warden John Makombo said that hostility was so great that a person wearing a rangers' uniform was in danger of being assaulted.

But now, he said, that has largely changed - meaning the gorillas can thrive in their native habitat, rather than in zoos.

He vividly remembers his first encounter with gorillas in captivity: an experience which, he says, almost made him cry.

"Those gorillas are stressed, they look like old gorillas even when they are not," he said.

"Gorillas should never go to zoos unless they are in critical danger."

Giving back

One turning point in altering local opinion was the establishment in 1993 of Buhoma Community Rest Camp.

Ignatiuus Byamugisha
Byamugisha's orphans group trained the children to dance, sing and make craft

About 10% of all proceeds from the camp site are used to fund community projects, with beekeepers and mushroom growers among those who have benefited.

These regular grants for business projects have helped change the attitude towards the park, said Paul Muhwezi, the camp's manager.

"Local people make money from working in the park, acting as porters, selling items, taking tourists on walks," he said.

Among these businesses is the handicraft shop run by Grace Kyimpeirwe for Bwindi Progressive Womens' Group.

It sits on the dirt track which leads to Bwindi Impenetrable forest, amid other mud and brick huts and shops selling locally-made crafts to tourists.

With her one year old son in her arm, Ms Kyimpeirwe tells me the price of the different items: 10,000 Ugandan shillings (3, $2) for a wooden gorilla, Shs 10,000 for a drum, Shs5,000 for a basket.

In the high season, she can sell as many as 30 items a day.

There are about 250 women locally who make crafts for sale in this shop, who receive the full ticket price for their goods - once Ms Kyimpeirwe has deducted Shs1,000 to cover costs.

For her work in the shop, Ms Kyimpeirwe gets Shs 30,000 a month as well as whatever she gets from making her own crafts.

Beggars beware

The rest camp has also helped fund solutions to problems catalysed - or at least highlighted - by the arrival of four-wheel drives full of dollar-laden tourists.

For the support they have given us, I feel they should get more
Damian Akankwasa
Uganda Wildlife Authority

Ignatius Byamugisha recalled what it was like when tourists first arrived. Children lined the street to beg, many of them orphans.

"Everybody was looking for money...tourists were fearing to go outside the gate," he said.

Mr Byamugisha's orphans group trained the children to dance, sing and make crafts, and now, he says, things have changed.

"They don't ask for money and get nothing from begging," he said.

Donations and money from the rest camp have helped fund Bwindi Orphans' School and a local hospital.

Sharing revenues

But even though some local business people are benefiting from the tourists, many feel they should be getting a greater share of the $275 gorilla permit.

Under the Uganda Wildlife Act of 1996, communities surrounding national parks get 20% of park entry fees.

In the case of Bwindi, this amounts to 20% of a $20 portion of the $275 gorilla permit, with the rest of the money going to the Uganda Wildlife Authority's central office in Kampala.

Damian Akankwasa, a director at UWA, said parliament will be reviewing the Bwindi revenue sharing agreement and the Act as pressure grows for the communities to get a bigger share of the permit.

"For the support they have given us, I feel they should get more," he said, adding that local people have been quick to report any activity which may harm the gorilla population.

In memory

Despite the success of Bwindi, in many people's minds it will always be linked with 1 March 1999, when eight tourists were killed - probably by Rwandan rebel forces.

For people in Bwindi, this attack brought home to them the importance of the gorilla dollars and the need for Bwindi to be secure.

That year, just 1,500 people tracked the gorillas, compared to an estimated 6,000 this year.

"That is why people know they are benefiting from the park," Mr Byamugisha said.

"When we had that problem, people suffered, with not even any salt at home."

Travellers have come back to the park slowly, amid heightened security.

A strong military presence greets the visitor and awareness is high of the need to protect travellers and wildlife.

And in memory of those who lost their lives, there is a plaque in Buhoma community rest camp in memory of the tourists who died on 1 March 1999.

It reads: "May the spirit of adventure never be subdued."

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