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Conservationists want Bugoma Forest made national park

Tropical forests could fetch Uganda Shs 2bn in annual tourism revenues

NEW ANALYSIS | RONALD MUSOKE | A study recently undertaken to identify the tourism potential of Bugoma Central Forest Reserve in mid-western Uganda has found that converting the forest into a national park could fetch Uganda at least US$547,500 (Approx. Shs2 billion) in tourism revenues every year.

The researchers identified chimpanzee and mangabey trekking, bird watching and nature walks as the top tourist attractions in and around this tropical rain forest found in both Hoima and Kikuube districts.

The study titled, “Tourism Opportunities of Bugoma Forest” was conducted between April and June this year by the Inclusive Green Economy Network-East Africa (IGEN-EA), a regional consultancy firm, and it sought to understand what tourism opportunities exist around Bugoma Forest.

Over the last six years, Bugoma Central Forest has found itself at the centre of controversy between the government, sugar manufacturers, Bunyoro Kingdom, and conservationists with the latter insisting that the forest should remain intact given its rich plant and animal life but also the emerging oil industry in the region.

Bugoma Central Forest Reserve which is one of the most biodiverse in Uganda was first gazetted by Legal Notice No. 87 of 1932. The forest was gazetted as an undemarcated reserve of 35,840 hectares. Under Legal Notice 251 of 1944, the forest area was increased to 41,144 hectares. But it has recently been encroached upon by sugar barons, loggers and even cultivators.

In 2016, President Yoweri Museveni officially launched Hoima Sugar, the second major sugar factory in the Bunyoro sub-region which was given a big chunk of acreage out of Bugoma Forest to expand its sugarcane estate.

The company which is found in Kikuube District is owned by Rai Holdings Group. It is valued at about US$42 million and currently produces 1,500 tonnes of sugar per day. It also employs about 2000 workers on its nucleus estate and supports more than 150 sugarcane out-growers.

However, in the new report’s recommendations, the researchers want the government to upgrade Bugoma Forest Reserve to a national park to protect it, especially its biodiversity and promote tourism. The researchers also want the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), the national agency in charge of wildlife conservation, to take over its management. The forest, like all other forest reserves in the country falls under the ambit of the National Forestry Authority (NFA).

“The forest should be put under UWA’s management after being turned into a national park; the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities, UWA and the Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) should in consultation with all other tourism stakeholders develop a tourism development strategy for Bugoma forest,” the report reads in part.

In 2018, government statistics showed Uganda attracted about 1.5 million visitors into the country and about US$ 1.6 billion went into the national treasury in form of tourism revenues. The government later came out with an ambitious plan to increase the tourism sector’s earnings to US$1.862 billion; and maintain the contribution of tourism to total employment at 667,600 people.

The government said it would also embark on a promotional campaign of domestic and inbound tourism by increasing the stock and quality of tourism infrastructure; as well as developing, conserving and diversifying tourism products and services.

Bugoma’s tourism potential

According to research done by Birdlife International, an international conservation organization, of the “65 forested Protected Areas that were surveyed for biodiversity in Uganda, Bugoma ranked eleventh in overall biodiversity value and fifteenth in terms of rarity value.”

The study, “Biodiversity surveys of Bugoma forest reserve, smaller central forest reserves and forest corridors south of Bugoma,” noted that the reserve is home to primates, elephants and other vertebrate fauna. The forest is home to 570 chimpanzees, 225 bird species, the Ugandan mangabey (which can only be seen in Uganda), bush elephants, butterflies and others.

Robert Akugizibwe, the executive secretary of the Association for the Conservation of Bugoma Forest, a local conservation pressure group, is one of the leading supporters of converting Bugoma forest into a national park. His association has over the last five years been taking visitors on exclusive nature walks inside the forest.

He says although the forest has plenty of attractions such as butterflies, insects, birds like Black and White Casqued Hornbill, Black-billed Turaco and the Olive Sunbird, Bugoma’s main attraction is the encounter with the primates, especially groups of the Ugandan Mangabey (Lophocebus Ugandae), which are endemic to this forest. The other primates which are also a common sight are the red tailed monkeys and black and white colobus monkeys.

Indeed, there are already ongoing efforts to habituate chimpanzee families to support tourism and this exercise is expected to be concluded by the Jane Goodall Institute in 2023.  But, seeing the encroachment that is happening on the edges of the forest by the sugarcane growers frustrates Akugizibwe.

“For the last two years, we have been trying to promote tourism but we have been abandoned. No one helps us; even the NFA neglected us. We could not tell exactly where the boundary of the forest ends,” he told The Independent. “Let Bugoma be promoted to a national park and change its management to Uganda Wildlife Authority,” he said.

According to Section 25 of the Uganda Wildlife Act, 2019, which deals with the procedure for the declaration of a wildlife conservation area, the minister may, by statutory instrument, after consultation with the Local Government Council in whose area a proposed wildlife conservation area falls and with the approval of Parliament signified by its resolution declare an area of land or water to be a wildlife conservation area.

“Before making a declaration under sub-section (1), the minister shall ensure that an environmental impact study and any other study that may be required have been conducted in accordance with the National Environment Act, 2019,” the Act reads in part.

Bashir Hangi, the communications manager at UWA told The Independent on Aug.18 that there are no ongoing discussions between UWA and NFA to make Bugoma forest a wildlife reserve.

Economic viability of tourism opportunities

However, the Inclusive Green Economy Network-East Africa (IGEN-EA) study shows the best case scenario of the economic viability of the identified tourism opportunities in Bugoma Forest as well as the anticipated income from the activities and the most preferred tourist attractions as identified by the tour operators who were interviewed for the study.

Borrowing from current chimpanzee trekking practices in already established parks like Kibaale National Park, Kyambura and Kalinzu Gorges where permits cost between US$ 50-200, the researchers say it is possible to organise ape trekking in Bugoma Forest.

For instance, the researchers say, while two groups consisting of eight tourists each are ordinarily permitted to trek chimpanzees in national parks such as Kibaale per day, scientists advise that for newly habituated chimpanzees such as those in Bugoma, only four people per group could trek chimpanzees per day.

They argue that being a new destination that would not be as popular as the older trekking sites, chimpanzee trekking permits in Bugoma forest should be charged at US$50. The study further notes that two trekking sessions with four tourists each would be organised per day.

The study also sets the bird watching activities to one session per day with five tourists paying US$80 each. “Bird watching in forests requires patience and is usually a whole day experience and this means only one session a day can be arranged,” the report reads in part.

The bird watching rate per tourist in Uganda is currently set at US$100. However, given the fact that bird watching in Bugoma Forest is new, if the activity is allowed in the forest as recommended by this study, it would be prudent to offer a cheaper price of US$80 to attract tourists.

For the other activity, the forest walks, the researchers say it is possible to organize two sessions in the mornings and evenings at the current rates of up to US$30.  According to the study, the number of people going for bird watching and forest walks would be limited to five and ten respectively because few tourists should be engaged in the activities to maintain quiet in the forest. This would enable the tourists to listen to the rhythm of the forest, the researchers say.

They add that Bugoma Forest can also be harnessed for cultural tourism purposes. For instance, one of the research respondents interviewed notes that:  “A section of Bugoma Forest was once the capital of Bunyoro Kingdom.”

“Two Bunyoro kings had palaces in that section. In 1830, the Omukama (King) Nyamutukura Kyebambe III moved his palace from Buyaga to Kyangwali, where Bugoma forest is partly located. It is unfortunate that a small section of the kingdom selfishly let this part be destroyed. If conserved, the forest can form part of the cultural heritage of Bunyoro, which could be harnessed for tourism.”

The respondent added: “The forest is also taken in very high regard as a traditional pharmacy with all sorts of herbs extracted from leaves, tree bark, vines and roots. There are other spiritual and/or traditional rituals that indigenous communities perform under the canopy of the forest. This part has the potential of being elevated to a Bunyoro cultural site.”

George Owoyesigire, the Acting Commissioner in charge of wildlife conservation in the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities told The Independent that he would support the upgrade of Bugoma into a national park.

In any case, Owoyesigire said, there is already a joint report done in 2018 by both the Uganda Wildlife Authority and the National Forestry Authority that recommended Bugoma’s protected area status be upgraded to national park status.

He told The Independent that in the past, the government has upgraded former Central Forest Reserves such as Elgon, Kibaale, Mgahinga, Bwindi, Semliki and Rwenzori to national park status.

These, he said, were all converted into national parks and their protection levels were increased; the species have since increased and benefits to the adjacent communities have also been enhanced thanks to the revenue generation from the parks.

“Bugoma should be generating similar revenues,” he said.   Owoyesigire added that Bugoma Forest is about half a kilometre from Kabaale Industrial Area where the proposed oil refinery will be based. It is also quite close to Kabaale International Airport which is about to be opened to international air traffic.

“The combination of emissions from the refinery and the aero planes makes Bugoma Forest’s enhanced protection even more important,” Owoyesigire told The Independent.

Going forward, the researchers say, while developing the strategy and tourism activities in Bugoma forest, the Ministry of Tourism, UTB, UWA and other stakeholders should maintain effective community outreach services around the forest.

“Communities should be trained in tour guiding, crafts-making, beekeeping, catering and other services to enable them to participate in tourism activities in Bugoma forest,” the report notes.

“The government and development partners should also support institutions such as the Jane Goodall Institute to habituate more groups of chimpanzees for tourism purposes in Bugoma Forest. This will create more tourism opportunities.”

“The government should also support communities to establish community-private venture partnerships such as that of the Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge model in Kisoro (southwestern Uganda) to support community participation in tourism.”

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