Electric fencing, lodge owners on the spot
Kampala, Uganda | RONALD MUSOKE | On April 26, the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) announced sad news of the electrocution of three lionesses in Queen Elizabeth National Park. UWA said in a 110-word statement that “the lions were found dead on an electric fence at Irungu Forest Safari Lodge with two stuck in the electro wires.”
“Much as the actual cause of death is yet to be established, we suspect electrocution. A post-mortem on the dead lionesses will be done to confirm their actual death,” the statement read in part.
News of the electrocution to death of the three big cats at the lodge near Kigabu village in Katunguru in Rubirizi District on April 25 has cast doubt on whether property developers inside national parks understand the protocols of running their businesses profitably without compromising the safety of keystone wildlife species.
The silence from the property owner of Irungu, Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) and the Uganda Hotel Owners Association has also left Ugandans wondering whether some of the owners of properties in these parks should be running their businesses in such sensitive ecosystems.
When The Independent asked why the hotel association had by April 29 not issued any statement since the incident happened, Jean Byamugisha, the executive director of the Uganda Hotel Owners Association said they felt the statement UWA issued would suffice.
Pressed by The Independent, Byamugisha said the “loss of lions was extremely unfortunate.” “Our business is dependent upon wildlife such as these lions so the deaths put us in a ‘lose-lose’ situation,” she told The Independent. But Byamugisha was quick to apportion blame on both sides.
“On the side of UWA, there is need to come up with stronger measures to protect the animals. There are many instances where animals come into the communities and destroy people’s property but UWA does not respond as quickly as possible.”
“I can understand why the lodge owner would erect an electric fence to ward off dangerous animals because the lodge owner’s first responsibility is to protect his guests,” she said, “Imagine if these lions had made their way into the lodge area and killed guests? Everybody would be on TripAdvisor writing about it and the owner would be out of business.”
TripAdvisor is a global online platform popular with travellers and tourists where prospective tourists usually seek for opinions about destinations and accommodation facilities.
Irungu proudly talks about its prime location being in the heart of Queen Elizabeth National Park, just 800 metres from Kazinga Channel, the waterway that connects both Lake Edward and Lake George. Among the activities Irungu promises its guests are game drives to see rare species such as the lions that were killed at its property.
Byamugisha, the head of Hotel Owners Association called it a mishap on the side of the lodge owner to erect an electric fence with strong current.
When The Independent asked management of Irungu Forest Safari Lodge why they have not issued any statement to the public about the incident, Ronald Rubihayo, the director of the property said they cannot talk about the “suspected electrocution of the lions” because the incident is under investigation by both UWA and the Uganda Police.
“We are working closely with UWA and Police to establish the truth,” Rubihayo told The Independent. He said the electric fence installed at the property is five years old and is similar to the one that UWA has been building in what UWA calls problem-animal-hotspots around this park.
“The electric fence system we have here is the same UWA has been erecting in Queen Elizabeth National Park,” he said.
But a source who is privy to the ongoing investigation told The Independent that actually the community living near this park knows how dangerous this lodge’s electric fence is. “It made news because it is lions that were killed but domestic animals (livestock) have actually been killed by this fence,” the source said.
The source said it is misleading to say that the property’s fence is built to the specifications of the fence UWA has been erecting because at night the managers of the property turn up the amperage of the current.
According to conservationists familiar with how electric fences in protected areas function, they are not meant to be dangerous since the amplification or the current sent through the tensile wires is very low.
They say it is the amps that could ultimately kill. “That is why electric fencing can get away with a high voltage. The animal could only die in case it gets stuck on the fence,” one conservationist told The Independent.
Meanwhile, Nairobi-based conservation agency, Space for Giants, which in 2019 partnered with UWA and pioneered electric fencing in Queen Elizabeth National Park referred to the Irungu lodge incident as “unnecessary.”
“The unnecessary loss of any wild animal is always regretted, all the more so when the animals were among the iconic wildlife that attracts tourists to Uganda, driving both local and national businesses and boosting the country’s international image,” Space for Giants told The Independent in a statement.
“We wish to clarify that Space for Giants was not involved in any way in the installation or operation of this fence. From images shared publicly, this was a completely different design, using very different materials from fences we have worked with the Uganda Wildlife Authority to install along the borders of Queen Elizabeth National Park.”
“Space for Giants’ electrified fences are designed to do no lasting harm to any animal or person, and are expressly non-lethal. Their purpose is to keep wildlife, especially elephants, away from people’s crops or property, so they are more likely to tolerate living near wild animals that can otherwise ruin their livelihoods.”
According to Space for Giants, although the fences deploy very high voltages, they use a very low current that pulses on-off-on-off. This means that any animal or person that encounters the fences receives a strong but not deadly shock, and can always pull back to be freed from the current.
Space for Giants told The Independent that in its close to two decades of installing such fences in many locations across East Africa, including in areas populated with lions, the only instances of an animal failing to survive an encounter with a fence have been species with long horns that got entangled in the wire and were not able to free themselves. But, the conservation non-profit told The Independent such incidents are rare, and also regretted.
“We are confident that investigations by the Uganda Wildlife Authority and the Police will, in the fullness of time, be able to explain how this alarming event happened and highlight any breaches of appropriate protocols necessary to install electrified fences safely.”
John Makombo, the Director Conservation at the Uganda Wildlife Authority told The Independent that “the recent incident caught UWA by surprise.” “We didn’t know that this was a killer fence,” he said.
One of the probable reasons UWA was lax about the lodge and its operations is its location. Makombo explained that the lodge is found outside the park.
“So, we have no control over the lodge owner but we sincerely thought this fence was like the one we have erected in other areas of the park.”
Whatever the case, Bashir Hangi, the communications manager at UWA told The Independent on April 29 Police alongside UWA are carrying on with their investigations. “We want to know whether the lodge owner had authorization to erect this electric fence.” “We want to know who erected the fence. Did it require an EIA certification? If he needed an EIA, did he do it? We are doing a 360-degree investigation,” he said.
21 lions killed in four years
The death of the three lions came just over a fortnight after a stray lion was killed by villagers in Kagadi District which is not far away from Queen Elizabeth Park. It brings the known number of lions which have so far died this year to four.
Stretched over a year, nine lions are known to have been killed in this particular national park. Six lions were killed in this park in March; last year, in what conservationists said was a poisoning incident.
Over the last three years, more than 20 lions have been slain by humans in this particular conservation area. Stretched over to 2008, the number of known lions killed is 25, according to reports by various wildlife conservation agencies.
Lions are currently listed as “vulnerable” on the “red list” of threatened species by the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN). For a species that conservationists say is fast declining, the April 25 incident left local conservationists pensive considering that they are struggling to boost their population.
Conservationists in Uganda say one killed lion sets their efforts of growing the lion population decades back. A 2009 Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) national census of lions showed a decline from an estimated 600 about a decade earlier to about 400.
Meanwhile, a 2017 census of Uganda’s lion population put the number at 493, according to another conservation agency, Wild Aid, with nearly half of these living in Queen Elizabeth National Park.
Conservationists say the decline is mainly due to the conflict with pastoralists over the lion predation of livestock or injury to humans. But loss of habitat, illegal trade in lion parts, and climate change are said to be the main drivers in their declining numbers.
After Mountain Gorillas, lions are the most sought-after species by tourists visiting Uganda’s national parks and they are mainly found in the three largest savannah parks; Murchison Falls National Park in the northwest, Kidepo Valley National Park in the northeast and Queen Elizabeth National Park in southwestern Uganda.
Going forward, Makombo told The Independent that UWA is going to ensure that all fences within the national parks are up to standard. “There is also need for environmental impact assessment studies to be done for these kinds of developments in the park,” he said.
Meanwhile Bashir Hangi, the communications manager at UWA told The Independent on April 29 that resources permitting, UWA will continue erecting fences in all hotspot areas. UWA has so far erected close to 100 kilometres of electric fencing in what the national conservation body calls hotspot zones where problem animals like elephants are always wreaking havoc in the nearby communities.