Nature crusaders: Nwoya paraprofessionals trumpet peace, save wounded elephants

NWOYA, May 12, 2024 – The elephants from Murchison Falls National Park have provoked the peace of farmers in Nwoya district for quite a long time.

In silence, elephants invade food crop fields. In noisy retreat, the wild beasts flee back to the national park as scouts, farmers, and community members bang empty tins, blow whistles, and fire improvised “handguns”.

What began several decades ago has surpassed the cat-and-mouse game, becoming heavily brutal and lethal to both parties.

The brutality of the elephants on the locals gets renewed every time the tempting sweet aroma of white maize, paddy rice and finger millets lands 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 sub-counties in Nwoya district, and effectively signaling a long and tiresome period of watching over the crops in the dead of pitch-dark fearful nights.

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 soupy human diet just before Uganda’s sunrise usher in the hues of the rainbow.

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

Some of the locals who sleep in temporary structures to protect their crops from elephants (Photo by Simon Wokorach).

The portrait of Community Scouts

Youth and adults aged between 18 and 65 years form the membership which includes women, former poachers and community leaders. Participants in the electric fence project as trench diggers and workers. Membership is voluntary as there is no payment, and nor there are penalties for non -participation.

The group practises alternative income generating activities including piggery, goat rearing and beekeeping. Uganda Wildlife Authority [UWA] introduced the community scounts to apiary and chili growing to ward off elephants from their crop fields.

The secret elephant language

Situated just three kilometres 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 to each other. Some of these sounds are too low that they may be missed by the human ear. They signal the 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 [UBOS] data.

“The victims of the 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 LCV 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 using a Shs 4.5 million loan.

“The damaged 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 sell to settle her loan obligation.

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

Lanyero told theCooperator News that she was expecting 18 tonness of rice from her harvests, worth Shs 45 million but the elephants left her frustrated and empty handed.

Justine Kitara, another resident of Purongo Town Council 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 told theCooperator News as he pointed at his son’s grave beside his ransacked mud and wattle hut.

Walter Opiyo was killed by an elephant on March 3 2024. He was 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 place with piercing noise of whistles and empty tins.

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

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

The raid left one scout dead. A one Opiyo was returning from the trading center when he unknowingly entered elephant ambush upon hearing alarms from fellow scouts. His remains were recovered severely mauled near Paraa Primary School.

Tales of similar elephant atrocities run large in neighbouring Got Apwoyo Sub-county. The latest incident happened 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 Got Apwoyo 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.

Micheal Opiyo, one of the local scouts who was injured by an elephant while protecting his crop garden (Photo by Simon Wokorach).

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 already injured neck and pierced cheek bones.

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.

The arsenals of Community Scouts

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

But the elephants seemed to have adapted quickly to other rudimentary tools while Scouts have innovated a handgun to provide sharp sound in response. The metallic tool in the shape of hand gun is welded with two pipes and a hole created inside where matchbox sticks are embedded in.

A trigger like apparatus is plugged in from where the machine is subjected to heat and ignites the match sticks. A bomb like sound is produced accompanied smoke with irritating smell to scare the elephants that 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 aids. They are lucky to be alive, thanks to the healing hands of Anaka Hospital. The wounds were so bad that they had to be transferred to St. Mary’s Hospital Lacor in neighboring 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 or defend our families. The worst curse is to be born near a national park in Uganda,” Ogik lamented.

Compensation for animal attacks

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

Opiyo says while they have heard of the law, there are no beneficiaries to point at in the area. In his case, he sold two acres of ancestral land for his treatment that cost Shs 5 million.

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

Wilson Kagoro, the Warden Community Conservation at Murchison Falls Conservation Area promises a lot of hope for affected communities.

“If a person is killed by the animal, we shall pay Shs 20mln but for permanent deformation, the compensation is Shs 15mln and Shs 700,000 will be awarded to minor incidences once we have received such claims and verified,” Kagoro quoted the law.

Conservation Mission

It is easy to call oneself brave. But it takes a lot of courage to do something for one’s family in time of need. This is the main vocation of the Community Scouts in Nwoya district.

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

Filder Amony, a woman fighting to protect crops from elephants while taking care of those same animals (Photo by Simon Wokorach).

“We came to a point where we realised that the constant chaos was taking us nowhere. Some of our most trusted members were also facing backlashes from Uganda Wildlife Authority rangers because the animosity we had with wildlife,” Filder Amony, a community scout narrates.

It came to a point where they resorted to providing care for poachers injured by the wild beasts. They remove metal traps from such wildlife and release them back into the wild for nature to nurse them back to good health.

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 in their farms. Today, they are the platoons of paraprofessionals on which the community relies on for food security.

They conduct park border surveillance, collect traps and wire snares and inform Uganda Wildlife Authority rangers of the state of affairs.

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

As nature reclaims its species, the illicit wildlife trade still thrives around Murchison Falls National Park. It is a crisis for bush meat, 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 used in poaching (Photo By Simon Wokorach).

About Muchison National Park

The park is Uganda’s oldest and the largest conservation area established in 1952 measuring 3,893 square kilometres of land which sits on the shore of Lake Albert to the North West of the country.

It is here that 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 northern section of the park 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 fives elephants, Giraffes, Leopard, Lions and hippos.

Playful chimpanzees inhabit 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 daily basis. On the outside, Amony has lost counts of the number of traps they have collected over the last six years.

She says, “Poachers set wire snares for up to between 3 to 10 kilometers inside the park. As Got Apwoyo Community Wildlife Scout, we have removed more than 338 snares from the park between October 2023 and March 2024 through our daily operations.”

In January 2024 alone, 188 wires snares were removed along the buffer zone as wildlife radiated outward in search of water sources. Some 104 animals were rescued from snares and leg-hold metal traps.

The figure is a sharp rise in illicit activities in the park, driven by adverse Covid 19 economic impacts compared to earlier data.

In 2021, the scouts in Got Apwoyo rescued and released 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 got 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 centre 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 Shs 800,000,” Okello discloses.

For a while, the illicit activity made sense before Uganda Wildlife authority introduced alternative livelihoods projects in affected communities.

“It’s increasingly became hard to hunt in and around the park after UWA 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 explains with sympathy in his voice.

Okello has sold off up to 10 acres to avoid jail terms, surrendering to rangers of UWA in exchange for Amnesty among 85 other poachers.

Currently, they have 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.

They 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 them resources, equip them and make them functional. But we may now need to drama group 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,” Kagoro explains.

Economic cost of poaching

The population of wildlife in Murchison Falls’ National Park rapidly declined during the 1970s during the former dictatorial regime of President Idi Amin Dada. Elephants were shot for trophies during anting sports.  UWA notes that their number of elephants in the country has risen to 1330, giraffes 1250, hippos 3000, lions 130, buffalos 10,000 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 the reports, snares worth 34 metric tons were removed from Murchison Falls National Park targeting lions, hippos, buffalos and elephants.

“About 5 percent of those species were killed annually which points to a well-poaching syndicate at Uganda biodiversity conservation realm” it 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 high level panel illicit financial flows in Africa estimated an annual loss of US$ 50 billion in the Continent on illicit financial flows with US$ 509mln [about Shs 1.92 trillion] lost alone in Uganda. Wildlife trade remains the fourth largest illicit activity worldwide generating over US$ 23blnn.

Although little is known about these illicit financial flows in sources and transit in areas in Uganda, 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 Shs 2bln to poaching as the reports further note.

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

“We collect a minimum of three snares from Murchison Falls National Park every day and if you go to our laboratory at Para, there is a whole snare mountain you will see,” 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 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 Shs 2.7 trillion from tourists’ arrivals but poaching remains the biggest problem affecting conservation efforts, and causing loss of biodiversity and reducing foreign exchange for the country.

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