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Saving chimpanzee using culture

The culture and conservation nexus

In 2014, the CCFU did research with particular focus on the great apes, which confirmed a significant nexus between culture and conservation in many African countries.

Over a two year period, it was discovered that there are many cultural resources linked to ancestry, genealogy, identity, spirituality, social practices, legends and folklore and traditional medicine in Ugandan communities.

It was concluded that such cultural and social attachments contribute to communities’ motivation to conserve nature, and the great apes in particular.

In 2018, building on the findings of the study, CCFU researched the contribution of positive cultural resources on conservation of the great apes, specifically in Uganda.

The findings revealed that the cultural institution of Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom has cultural values and principles associated with conservation, as well as clan and traditional governance structures that provide stewardship over their natural heritage.

Farther down south, in Bunyangabu District near the Rwenzori Mountains, is the Batangyi clan among the Rwenzururu people also known as the Bakonzo. The Batangyi also identify the chimpanzee as their totem and they also share affectionate tales of the apes.

The research findings confirmed that the two clans, the Batangyi (in the Rwenzururu Kingdom) and the Bayanja (Bunyoro) identify with the chimpanzees as their totem.  Members of these clans conserve and protect their totem from harassment and any other form of harm.

Leonia Candia, the Assistant commissioner for wildlife in the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities says totems are not touched, harmed, killed and they are believed to be supernatural and communities believe they have spiritual power.

“They therefore become part of a community and are passed down generations using folklore and it was easy to conserve these animals,” he says.

In Bunyangabu, the Batangyi clan in 2011 even founded and registered a community-based organisation; the Kyampanika Chimpanzee Conservation and Development Association (KICHIDA), to conserve their heritage focusing on their totem. It has 174 members; including women, men and youth and is on a mission to spread across the Rwenzori region.

In partnership with UWA, KICHIDA has participated in chimpanzee surveys and monitoring for habituation. It estimates that the area along Rwimi River on the border with Kasese District is home to about 300 chimpanzees; a significant population requiring protection.

The UWA has helped the clan establish a 4km long cultural and chimpanzee tracking trail. Besides viewing the chimpanzees and other wildlife in their natural setting, the trail has cultural features such as a traditional shrine and medicinal plants. It hopes to attract tourists through publicity and marketing for the project to earn money.

“We now know that our totem is an important animal and preserving it is even more critical,” says Naome Mbambu, the deputy minister for gender in the Obusinga Bwa Rwenzururu and member of the Batangyi clan. She says conserving chimpanzees instills a sense of ownership of the apes.

Collaborating with UWA

In collaboration with UWA and with support from the World Wildlife Fund, KICHIDA has carried out community sensitisation and awareness meetings and radio talk shows, participated in chimpanzee patrols to minimise encroachment, and organised sports for the youth, including chimpanzee-themed football tournaments in the neighbouring towns of Bunyangabu and Kilembe.

The association is well-placed to influence the community because it is founded by members of the community and addressing its cultural identity. It targets ex-hunters to surrender their trade and tools by offering them an occupation as agents of conservation.

About 25 converted ex-hunters are now volunteers involved in sensitizing communities, carrying out forest monitoring alongside UWA, and removing snares and traps from the forest to safeguard the chimpanzees.

So far over 200 wire traps, 45 metallic traps, and many more log snares have been removed and destroyed. KICHIDA believes that most of the forests on Mountain Rwenzori are now free of poachers and snares.

According to CCFU, the initiative taken by clans whose totem is the chimpanzee has been particularly successful, in spite of limited resources because the implementers are driven by a desire to conserve their heritage.

Still, CCFU says a deliberate effort needs to be made to tap into the cultural values and resources of the clans that identity with the chimpanzees as a totem; the Bayanja and Basiita of Bunyoro and Batangyi of Rwenzururu.  Their roles as agents of conservation within their respective clans should be strengthened.

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