Images by: Sherry McKelvie
By Anne-Marie Weeden of the Uganda Conservation Foundation
Since Uganda Conservation Foundation (UCF) was founded in 2001, we have supported the construction of ten ranger posts and six marine stations for the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA). They form part of a vital network of anti-poaching infrastructure protecting Uganda’s two largest elephant populations in Queen Elizabeth and Murchison Falls National Park. As part of an integrated programme of protection and development – weaving together anti-poaching and anti-trafficking activities alongside community engagement, livelihoods projects, and human-wildlife conflict interventions – they help to support the UWA rangers in what they do best; safeguarding our natural heritage. So how do ranger posts achieve this? And – out of 7,000km2 to choose from – how do we decide where to locate them? The recent completion of our latest ranger station at Kabim provides a window to the strategies and decisions that go into the birth of a ranger station…
In November 2015, our team was invited to join a Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) ranger patrol in an area of Murchison Falls National Park known as Kabim. We walked on foot through this idyllic place; clouds scudding overhead in vast blue skies and palm-studded grassland sloping gently to meet the broad waters of the Albert Nile. Hartebeest and Uganda Kob grazed all around us, raising their heads nervously to glance at the intruders in their midst and an elephant family lumbered quietly across the horizon. At first glance, it seemed the perfect picture of the African wilderness.
And then we found the first snare. Fixed to the roots of a small tree, the rusted wire stretched, almost invisibly, across an animal trail that led up from the riverine forest lining the water’s edge. Blink and you’d miss it but a life or death mistake for an elephant or buffalo wandering through the bush. The ranger bent deep inside the vegetation and deftly undid the base of the snare, removed it and coiled the wire up in his hands. It was far from the first wire snare he had ever handled and certainly would not be the last; on that afternoon alone our team encountered 20 snares in less than one hour. One of these still had the remains of a kob carcass attached to it.
The snares were, sadly, no surprise to the rangers. UWA Law Enforcement rangers have been gathering data on criminal activity across the park, using GPS-enabled cameras as part of another UCF project known as WILD LEO (Wildlife Intelligent Leadership Development Law Enforcement Officer). The data, as well as their firsthand experience, had already confirmed Kabim was the epicenter of wire snare poaching for the entire 5,000km2 area. By mapping the evidence they had collected using WILD LEO, they could show that during the first nine months of 2015, nearly 60% of all snares found in Murchison were located in Kabim.
As well as crunching the numbers from Law Enforcement, the Vet Response Unit had reported an increase in the number of call-outs to treat animals injured by snares in the Kabim area. Many elephants in the area were suffering from some sort of snare injury to their trunks or legs. The situation was most definitely reaching crisis point and the UWA were in no doubt: the area known at Kabim was under heavy attack from poaching and an urgent response was needed.
Strategies were discussed. The area was in desperate need of a permanent ranger presence. Kabim is just 5km by river from the nearest large town of Pakwach and poachers were predominantly entering the area by boat, with the river offering the perfect cover for a poacher posing as a fisherman. The two closest ranger posts were at Pakuba to the south and Tangi to the north. By building accommodation for four rangers roughly equidistant between the two, a new post could recover the area, remove the snares and act as a real deterrent to the poachers entering the park in this area.
But to fully sever poaching routes, UWA would need to get rangers onto the water as well. The UWA Marine Unit – an initiative introduced under the UCF Waterways Project in previous years – has had significant impact in other “hotspot” areas. At Semanya, a Marine Ranger Station completed by UCF in 2013, the Marine Unit regularly patrols the waterways, monitoring fishing activities for any irregularities (which in turn protects fish stock to ensure sustainable livelihoods for legitimate fishing communities) and checking for poachers. They also provide safety and rescue services for local communities, should they run into trouble on the water.
The team at Semanya is doing a great job. Since the commencement of patrols on the waterways and in the surrounding areas, Semanya has seen a dramatic reduction in poaching. Yet they are quite simply unable to be in two places at once! With the banks of Kabim a full 25 kilometres downstream, poachers were able to avoid the marine patrols and nip across the river and into the park to lay their snares.
So it was discussed and agreed with UWA: UCF would fund the construction of a four bed ranger post and Marine Ranger Station at Kabim, with an accompanying jetty, boat and engine, to be done as quickly as possible. The snare removal patrol in November was not just to remove snares; its purpose was also to site the new ranger station. Later that same sweltering afternoon, we identified the perfect spot. A natural break in the tree line along the river’s edge offered the perfect entry point for the marine patrol, behind which the undulating landscape provided natural cover for the ranger post. It was the perfect, strategic location and bang in the heart of the worst of the snare problems.
A week later – in mid November – our contractor set up camp and broke ground. The contractor and his team camped on site for the duration, often looking up from their camp meals to see one of the three resident bull elephants passing silently by, just metres away as these giant pachyderms moved daily down to the river to drink.
Despite November and December being exceptionally wet months, construction continued as quickly as possible; it was a race to get the place constructed in time for “peak” poaching season. Every year, during the driest months (when there is no work to be done in the fields and henceno crops to harvest or sell), poaching activity spikes. The very presence of the construction camp, accompanied as it was by armed rangers, was already providing a deterrent. And by mid-January, just two months after we started the project, the Ranger Post was complete and a permanent ranger team moved in.
It will be a while before they can take to the water – the construction of the Marine Station is well underway at the time of writing, and should be complete by the time you read this story – but in the meantime the rangers stationed at Kabim are already busy, making regular foot patrols of the area. On my visit to the post in early February, UWA Law Enforcement Rangers Vinance Odero and Alfred Opiro proudly displayed the snares and spears they had recovered or confiscated from poachers. It is clear this area’s rangers will be a force to be reckoned with. It is already undergoing a rapid recovery that will become more significant and obvious as the months go by.
Just like the construction crew, Vinance and Alfred also saw the bull elephants regularly. Alfred became animated and his face lit up as he described seeing the elephants playing in the river, a sight even he – as a ranger working in Murchison Falls National Park – felt privileged to witness. Despite the history of poaching in the area, having new neighbours has clearly not bothered these elephants at all. In fact, not one of these six-ton giants has ever shown any animosity towards the workers or rangers. It was almost as if they knew they were there to help.
The construction of Kabim Ranger Post would not have been possible without the support of significant grants from David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, Tusk Trust and the International Elephant Foundation, as well as a generous donation from Jinja-based whitewater rafting company, Nile River Explorers.