Lions, Hyenas Poisoned in Ugandan Park

Alexis Okeowo in Kampala, Uganda
for National Geographic News
August 20, 2007
Cattlemen living in Uganda's popular Queen Elizabeth National Park are poisoning native predators to protect their livestock, park authorities have said. But the herdsmen deny poisoning the predators.

The Basongora herders originally lived in the area that is now Queen Elizabeth National Park, but were displaced in 1954 when the park was created.

Many of the 10,000 Basongoras moved to the Democratic Republic of the Congo's Virunga National Park, according to the AFP news agency.

But the 1998 to 2003 civil war in Congo, which killed 3.8 million people and affected eight neighboring countries, gave them no choice but to move back to Uganda, and in March 2006 the Ugandan government temporarily resettled the community in the national park.

The herdsmen are now waiting for the Ugandan government to move them to another location. (See a map of Uganda.)

In the meantime, the group has short-term rights to graze its 40,000 cattle in Queen Elizabeth National Park. The herders' goats and cows are often easy prey, said Tom Okello, the park's chief warden. To protect their livelihoods, the herders reportedly started leaving poisoned bait.

Undercover Poisoning?

Park officials say that the herders' presence coincides with a marked decline in wild predators.

To poison the predators, the cattlemen allegedly force some of their calves to ingest agricultural chemicals and then leave them in the open to be taken as prey.

"The problem is that this poisoning is being done undercover," Okello said.

Park officials are often unable to trace the source of the poison, since they find only the carcasses that were used as bait.

But autopsies of the dead predators performed by park officials show that the animals were poisoned with Furadan, a strong agricultural insecticide, Okello told AFP.

Lions and leopards in the park are particularly elusive and difficult to track, so park officials estimate the population of each group primarily through sightings.

Major Drop

"The decline in the number of large predators in the park has been significant," Okello said.

Hyena numbers have fallen by at least 80 percent, while lions have been depleted by 50 percent, he said. Leopard numbers have also dropped. (Related: "'Sex Tree,' Other Medicinal Plants Near Extinction in Uganda" [August 3, 2007].)

Over the past six months, Okello said, he has spotted only one leopard.

A pride of nine lions has "disappeared completely" in the same period of time, he added. (Related: "Lion Killings Spur Fears of Regional Extinction in Kenya" [May 22, 2006].)

Hyenas, which are easier to track, fell from a population of 50 to 10 in just one year in the northern part of the park.

Long-Term Legacy

Queen Elizabeth National Park draws up to 45,000 visitors each year—Queen Elizabeth herself will visit this November.

The park covers 765 square miles (1,981 square kilometers) of largely untouched land and borders two of Uganda's largest lakes, Lake George and Lake Albert.

"It has always been our most popular national park among domestic and foreign tourists," said Lilian Nsubuga, spokesperson for Uganda's Wildlife Authority. Most of the visitors to the park come to see large cats and other carnivores.

"If [large cats] are in very small numbers, it's a big problem for us," Nsubuga said.

"The best thing is for the cattlemen to leave the park," she added.

Ancestral Lands?

But the Basongora may have ancestral rights to the land.

Part of the park land did belong to the pastoral group before it was reclaimed by the British colonial government, said Wilson Isingoma, resident district commissioner of Kasese District, where Queen Elizabeth National Park is located.

"The land was taken without adequate compensation or finding an alternative place for these people," Isingoma said. However, he added, the "process is underway" for the government to find a permanent place for the herders to resettle.

But Wilson Okali, chair of the Basongora Group for Justice and Human Rights, said that the reason his community is in the park has little to do with ancestry—it's because they had nowhere else to go.

"We have been appealing to the government for years, but the problem is we don't have any place to occupy," Okali told National Geographic News.

"We don't want to stay in the park, but we don't have any alternatives for places to go." According to Okali, the government has promised the herders land in Uganda's Kasese District. But the herders are waiting until they can harvest their crops to relocate. "We are ready to move," Okali said.

Concerning the poisoning allegations, Okali said: "We have never poisoned any animals."

Moving On

But even once the herders leave, game warden Okello said, effects of the park's temporary residents may linger for years.

Park veterinarians said diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease—which has already broken out among the cattle—and tuberculosis could be transmitted from livestock to wildlife.

Wildlife are vulnerable because they cannot be vaccinated.

Experts also said that it will take 10 to 20 years for the park predators to return to their original numbers after the herders leave.

"It will take time for us to recover," Okello said.

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