Elephants at the door: Nwoya’s fight for survival

It is easy to call oneself brave but it takes a lot of courage to surrender life for one’s family in times of crisis. This is the main vocation of the community scouts in Nwoya.

“We realized that the constant chaos was taking us nowhere. Some of our most trusted members were also facing backlashes from the rangers because of the animosity we had with wildlife.” Filder Amony, a community scout narrated.

While the scouts are meant to protect their crops from marauding elephants, they go further to provide care to wildlife injured by poachers.

They conduct park border surveillance, collect wire snares, remove metal traps from such animals and release them into the wild for nature to nurse them back to good health but they inform Uganda Wildlife Authority rangers of the state of affairs.

Amony, a mother of three children, abandoned school due to lack of school fees. Over the last five years, she earned her living through working for other people on their farms. Today, they are the platoons of armies on which the community relies for food security but animals too find peace in their kindness.

“Poachers kill some of the national treasures as they come out to graze. From our experiences, evening time is when they are targeted the most. Some of their parts are trafficked to Kampala and other neighbouring towns and cities,” Amony states.

As nature reclaims its species, the illicit wildlife trade still thrives around Murchison Falls National Park. It is a crisis for bush meat but also a revenge-like activity carefully executed using stockpiles of wire snares and leg-hold metal traps planted inside the park. Some are gunned down while others are speared.

Snares and traps being collected from Kidepo Valley National Park -Photo By Simon Wokorach

Murchison is Uganda’s oldest and largest conservation area established in 1952 measuring 3,840 square kilometers of land which sits on the shore of Lake Albert to the North West of the Country.

Here, the Victoria Nile River surges through an eight-meter-wide gorge and plunges with a thunderous roar into the “Devil’s Cauldron”, creating a trademark rainbow.

The park’s northern section contains savanna and Borassus palms, acacia trees, and riverine woodland. The south is dominated by woodland and forest patches, collectively home to some of the big five, elephants, Giraffes, leopards, Lions and hippos.

Playful chimpanzees don the Kaniyo Pabidi mahogany forest while the Lake Albert Delta is home to rare shoebill storks. There are also game fish in the cascades of Karuma Falls.

To save the fauna and the flora, rangers detonate leg-hold traps and snares on a daily basis. On the outside, Amony has lost count of the number of traps they have collected over the last six years.

Filder Amony, a woman fighting to protect crops from elephants while taking care of those same animals -Photo By Simon Wokorach

She says; “Poachers set wire snares for up to 10 kilometers inside the park. As Got Apwoyo community wildlife scouts, we have removed more than 338 snares from the park between January 2023 and March 2024 through our daily operations.”

In January 2024 alone, 188 wire snares were removed along the buffer zone as wildlife radiated outward in search of water sources and food while some 104 animals were rescued from snares and metal traps in the last fifteen months. The figure signifies a sharp rise in illicit activities in the park.

In 2021, the scouts rescued 36 antelopes, 23 in 2022 and 40 more by December 2023. In the first three months of 2024, Nine Uganda Kobs, five warthogs, three antelopes and an adult buffalo were rescued.

Poachers convert
The kindness of the scouts towards wildlife is slowly drawing poachers to abandon their age-old activities.

Benson Okello, a resident of Olwiyo trading center is one of such poachers. For ten years, Okello had specialized in poaching antelopes for meat which he sold to traders in Gulu and West Nile Sub Region.

“I caught and killed six buffalos, three hippos, several antelopes, Kobs and warthogs but from a mature buffalo, we would earn 800,000 shillings” Okello disclosed.

The illicit activity made sense for a while before the Uganda Wildlife Authority introduced alternative livelihood projects in affected communities. Such activities include piggery, goat rearing and bee farming. In some areas, apiary and chilli growing were introduced to ward off elephants from their crop fields.

“It increasingly became hard to hunt in and around the park after they recruited community informers. Rangers arrested me for poaching on three different occasions for which I had to sell off parts of my land to escape long jail terms. This became unsustainable.” Okello explained with sympathy in his voice.

Okello has sold off up to 10 acres to avoid jails and surrendered to rangers of Uganda Wildlife Authority in exchange for Amnesty among 85 other poachers.

Currently, the group has entered into collaborative management with rangers of Uganda Wildlife Authority to showcase wildlife conservation dramas, folk songs and cultural exhibitions to tourists coming to Murchison Falls National Park for alternative livelihoods.

They also perform in the communities to create awareness on poaching and the vanishing treasures of Murchison Falls National Park.

“We hope we should be able to allocate resources, equip them and make them functional. But we now need to use drama groups because they listen to them more than they listen to us. Our partnership with them is to discourage those who are still involved in poaching” Wilson Kagoro the Warden Community Conservation at Murchison Falls Conservation Area commended.

The economic cost of poaching

The population of wildlife in Murchison Falls National Park rapidly declined in the 1970s during the former dictatorial regime of President Idi Amin. Elephants were shot for ivories. The loot reduced their number from over 16,000 to only 500 then at the episode of long turmoil.

But the Uganda Wildlife Authority notes that their number currently has risen up to 1330, and 1250 giraffes, about 3000 hippos, 130 lions, and 10,000 buffalos while Uganda Kobs posted the most recovery at 35,000 though they are targeted the most by the local poachers.

Between 2018 and 2024, according to Global Conservation reports, snares worth 34 metric tons were removed from Murchison Falls National Park mainly targeting lions, hippos, buffaloes and elephants.

“About 5 per cent of those species were killed annually which points to a well-poaching syndicate at Uganda biodiversity conservation realm,” the report reads in part adding that “one-third of the elephants had snare injuries while some of them had their trunks severed off” during the period under review.

The report on a high-level panel of illicit financial flows in Africa estimated an annual loss of 50 billion dollars in the Continent on illicit financial flows with 509 million dollars lost in Uganda. Wildlife trade remains the fourth largest illicit activity worldwide generating over 23 billion dollars.

Little is known about these illicit money flows in sources and transit in areas in Uganda but a lot of factors come to play, notably lack of political will, corruption, lack of transparency and limited investigations causing an annual loss of over 2 billion shillings to poaching in Uganda.

Dr Patrick Atimnedi is the Senior Manager of veterinary Services at the Uganda Wildlife Authority. He says they treat between 150 to 200 animals wounded by wire snare, bullets and spears across the Country’s wildlife protectorates every year while Murchison Falls alone contributes up to 70% of those animals.

“We collect a minimum of three snares from Murchison Falls National Park every day and if you go to Paraa, there is a whole snare mountain you will see” Dr. Atimnedi disclosed recently in an interview.

To rescue aggressive wildlife from a trap, it is darted with a sleep-inducing drug that kicks in between 5 to 7 minutes to allow the veterinarians to attend to it. It is then monitored for a while on how it is responding to treatment.

The 2022/2023 annual tourism sector performance notes that Uganda earned 2.7 trillion shillings from tourists’ arrivals but poaching remains the biggest problem affecting conservation efforts causing loss of biodiversity and reducing foreign exchange in the Country for its economic growth.

In the dead of night with crops
What began several decades ago surpassed the cat-and-mouse game, becoming heavily brutal and lethal to both parties with the elephants provoking the peace of farmers in Nwoya for far too long.

In silence, they invade food crop fields. In noisy chaos, they flee as scouts, farmers and community members bang empty tins, blow whistles and fire makeshift “handguns”.

Some of the locals harvesting their rice in one one the human-wildlife conflict areas in Lagazi village at Purongo Sub Town Council -Photo By Simon Wokorach

The youths, women, former poachers and communities are not only spectators in the theatre of those chaotic scenes. They found themselves drafted into voluntary community scouts.

The brutality gets renewed every time the tempting sweet aroma of white maize, paddy rice and finger millets land on the dangling trunks of the elephants inside the park. It is a rare twice-in-a-year diet the elephants will not miss.

Such a season spells the end of restful nights inside homes in Got Apwoyo and Purongo and effectively signalling a long and tiresome period of watching over the crops in the dead of pitch-dark fearful nights.

Some of the locals who sleep in makeshifts to protect their crops from elephants -Photo by Simon Wokorach

Desperate to bring a gentle passion to their soul, the browsers sneak out of the park in tens to bathe their shrubby taste buds in a soupy human diet just before Uganda’s sunrise ushers in the hues of the rainbow.

That same night, armies of paraprofessional wildlife rangers go out to lie in wait for the invading wildlife. The goal is to prevent them from oiling their throats with their livelihoods.

Situated just three kilometers from the edge of Murchison Falls National Park, Got Apwoyo and Purongo Sub Counties bear the hallmark of ugly human-wildlife conflicts spanning many years.

The conflicts are planned using secret elephant language in Purrs, chirps, high-pitched squeaks and trumpets as they communicate with each other.

Some of these sounds are too low for the human ear. They signal daily basics such as summoning the herd to a water source, alarming over danger or even communicating a willingness to mate.

Over the last three years, the browsers have decimated up to 85,000 acres of crop fields in the two Sub Counties, home to an estimated 55,600 people according to 2019 Uganda Bureau of Statistics data.

A woman harvesting her rice from Lagazi village, one of the hotspots with human-wildlife conflicts in Purongo Town Council -Photo By Simon Wokorach

“The victims of human-wildlife conflicts are many. Some live with broken limbs while others have trauma of missing loved ones who disappeared inside the parks. And graveyards of loved ones killed by invading elephants are commonplace.” States Emmanuel Orach, the Nwoya district chairperson.

The home of Paska Lanyero, a resident of Lyec-cam village in Purongo Town Council is one of the many scenes of wildlife destruction. In 2023, elephants devoured seven acres of her maize and rice which she planted with 4.5 million shillings loans she borrowed from a credit lending institution.

“The damage forced four of my children out of class. I can no longer afford to send them back to school as they keep being sent away for defaulting on school fees.” Lanyero narrated with sounds of frustration audible in her voice.

In addition to losing her livelihoods, she lost three acres of prime family land which she had to dispose of to settle the loan obligation.

“We can’t harvest anything unless we sleep outside guarding our gardens. My son was forced to join the paraprofessionals. A few months later, his wife divorced him for spending endless nights out of home guarding the fields.” She added.

Lanyero told this Publication that she was expecting 18 tons of rice from her harvests, worth 45 million shillings but the elephants left her frustrated and empty-handed.

Justine Kitara, yet another resident was not that lucky as he lost his 37-year-old son to the elephants while trying to save just three acres of crop fields in the dead of night. He was a member of the community scouts.

“His tomb is a bad reminder to the family. A fallen soldier. He went to save life. Sadly, he lost his life.” Kitara toned low as he pointed at his son’s grave beside his ransacked mud and wattle hut.

Walter Opiyo was killed by elephants on March 3, 2024, near Purongo Cultural Centre and is buried in his home at Lyec Cam Village -Photo By Simon Wokorach

The invading elephants trampled over him during the pandemonium as the scouts filled the atmosphere with the piercing noise of whistles and empty tins.

Those hit by the descending sounds of handguns lost their cool and broke loose through the defence lines of the scouts. The scuffle lasted for some 20 minutes. A lifeless body carried in grave cloth by bruised colleagues united the village in grief. For days, legends told of their survival antics.

On March 3, this year, Lyec-cam village again came under elephant invasion. This time up to 35 elephants sniffed the allure of drying millets, maize and rice stacked in the stores. They overran several homes during the loot.

The raid left one scout dead. Walter Opiyo was returning from the trading center when he unknowingly entered an elephant ambush. His severely mauled remains were recovered near Paraa Primary School.

Tales of similar elephant atrocities run large in neighbouring Got Apwoyo Sub County. The incident occurred as evening rain drizzles accompanied the setting sun to its bed in the West.

Residents estimated that hungry elephants numbering 27 arrived at a 15-acre maize field at the dent stage of growth salivating over the milky kernels.

Micheal Opiyo, a member of the community wildlife scout approached the field from its wide edge, shielded by an ant mount. In the leeward direction lay a wounded elephant dragging a heavy metallic leg-hold trap on its path.

Upset and violent, the elephant grabbed Opiyo by its trunk and hurled him onto a giant tree. With broken shoulder bones, Opiyo awkwardly landed with an already injured neck and pierced cheekbones.

Another scout, David Ogik, suffered a broken arm as he diverted the elephant in haste to save Opiyo’s life but other scouts reinforced the rescue with loud shouts of cries as they banged noisy metal tins alongside acoustics of elephant irritating whistles.

Those scouts depend on rudimentary tools to deter wildlife from invading their crop fields and villages. They include ordinary whistles, empty cans, metals or plastics, spears, bows and arrows for disarming aggressive wildlife.

As this goes on for ages, the elephants seem to have adapted and become hesitant. Now, they have brought in handguns. The innovative handmade guns are meant to reinforce care. The metallic-shaped gun is welded with two pipes and a hole created inside where matchbox sticks are embedded.

A trigger-like apparatus is plugged in from where the machine is subjected to heat to ignite the match sticks. A bomb-like sound is produced accompanied by smoke with an irritating smell to dispel the elephants.

That night, like a stadium hosting the 2010 World Cup in South Africa beaming in the sounds of Vuvuzelas, the whole field resonated with resounding sounds of human-made noise as the elephants scattered in disarray for dear lives into the darkness.

The wounded weeping elephant also limped away in pain as the two injured scouts called for immediate first aid.

An elephant at Kidepo Valley National Park -Photo By Simon Wokorach

They are lucky to be alive, thanks to the healing hands of Anaka Hospital but the wounds were so bad that they had to be transferred to St. Mary’s Hospital Lacor in Gulu City, about 61 kilometers away.

“We volunteer to protect our communities from harm’s way. But we are now too weak to take care of or defend our families. The worst curse is to be born near a national park in Uganda.” Ogik lamented.

Until recently, Uganda had no law on compensation for victims of wildlife destruction. In 2019, Parliament passed the Uganda Wildlife Compensation Act to provide financial assistance to individuals injured or killed by wildlife, compensation for crops destroyed and other property outside the conservation area.

Although the law is promising, Opiyo says, they only heard of it but there are no beneficiaries to point at in the area. In his case, he sold two acres of ancestral land for his treatment at Uganda Shillings 5 million.

“Any injury condemns you to a lifetime of suffering. No one will support you. Isn’t this an injustice in the system?” Opiyo painfully questioned whether human rights are a myth in Uganda.

Micheal Opiyo, one of the local scouts who was injured by an elephant while protecting the garden -Photo By Simon Wokorach

Quoting the law, Kagoro however promises a lot of hope for affected communities. “If a person is killed by the animal, we shall pay 20 million but for permanent deformation, the compensation is 15 million and 700,000 will be awarded to minor incidents once we have received such claims and verified”.