Uganda’s Rising Elephant Population Good News for Tourism

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Uganda’s conservation efforts in the past two decades are bringing good news amidst the decline of the elephant population across the African continent. This is good news for conservationists working hard to protect elephants, as well as Uganda’s tourism industry that has a bright future if the natural resources continue to be well protected by the authorities within the country.

According to a recent survey carried out in the country by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), there has been an increase in the elephant populations within various national parks. Aerial surveys of elephant populations conducted in Uganda’s national parks have shown their numbers are increasing. Some of the reasons that account for an increase in the elephant populations include continued strong involvement of the Ugandan Government in fighting against poaching, good leadership within national parks, targeted investment in field based anti-poaching and anti-trafficking action, and transboundary elephant protection efforts will be critical to these sustaining efforts and addressing the poaching problems.

While most elephant populations are declining across Africa, it is surprising that the results show an increase in elephant populations. This is how a commitment to supporting effective protection of elephants can lead to their recovery. In a praising note, Dr. Paul Elkan, a WCS Senior Conservationist who was involved in the surveys said that it is very encouraging to see elephant numbers increasing in Uganda as a result of effective protection in several parks, despite the rampant poaching and ivory trafficking across much of Africa,”

The surveys were conducted by WCS and UWA with funding from Paul G. Allen and WCS, as part of the Great Elephant Census.

Though there is a plus for the rising elephant populations in Uganda, the Wildlife Conservation Society calls for other neighbouring countries to pull up and work harder if more positive results are to be got on the continent. There is a need to establish transboundary conservation programs with South Sudan and Kenya and to strengthen existing collaboration with the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Uganda’s elephant numbers reduced in various national parks in the 1970s and 1980s because of various reasons that include poor governance, widespread poaching and limited resources for the then Uganda National Parks. Elephants became confined to protected areas and the their numbers dwindled to as low as 700-800 individuals in the country. With improved protection since the 1990s and the creation of UWA, together with support from Government of Uganda, donors, and conservation partners, the elephant numbers have now burgeoned to over 5,000 individuals.

The Aerial surveys to determine the elephant populations were conducted in June 2014. The results shown an estimated 1,330 number of elephants in Murchison Falls National Park, 2,913 in Queen Elizabeth National Park and 656 in the Kidepo Valley National Park and neighbouring Karenga Community Wildlife Management area. Surprisingly, the elephant numbers in Queen Elizabeth Park have reached levels similar to those in the 1960s before heavy poaching hit the Park. There is a continued population recovery in Murchison, a former elephant stronghold, and UWA’s protection efforts are yielding positive results for many wildlife species in Kidepo Valley and Karenga.

Dr. Andrew Plumptre Director for the Albertine Rift Program of WCS observes that it is clear that some elephants move back and forth between Queen Elizabeth National Park and Virunga National Park. However the recent results of an aerial survey conducted in the adjacent Virunga Park with ICCN, conducted at the same time, estimated fewer than 50 elephants left in that park. This is largely because of the high levels of poaching within the park and some elephants have migrated to Uganda for security. Some 3,000 elephants were estimated to occur in Virunga in the early 1960s.” This calls for transboundary cooperation between Uganda and DRC so that conservation efforts taken in one country may not come to waste. The survey also confirmed the importance of establishing transboundary conservation programs with Kidepo Wildlife Reserve in South Sudan and adjacent areas in Kenya.

Uganda was labeled by CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) in 2012 as one of the eight countries of primary concern in the ivory trade because of the volume of illegal ivory that had passed through Uganda.

Elephants are among the big five animals that wildlife enthusiasts look for on a wildlife safari in Africa. Therefore an increase in the population of the elephants is a great opportunity for the Uganda’s tourism industry that is based more on wildlife. Most tourists taking safaris in Uganda visit Murchison Falls National Park, Queen Elizabeth National Park and Kidepo Valley National Park, the three best parks for game viewing in Uganda.

On a different note, analysts observed that though it is encouraging that elephant numbers are increasing, poaching remains a big challenge still in Uganda and there is a need to remain vigilant. They cited the recent discovery of illegally killed elephants in Queen Elizabeth Park meaning that Uganda is still not completely secure from poaching despite that the new survey results provide encouragement for conservationists when nearly every other country in Africa is showing drastic declines in numbers of elephants.