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KYAMBURA, UGANDA: The dry season had only just begun, but Muhammad Bwambale was already running out of options. Money and decent work were always in short supply for villagers in the Ugandan community of Kyambura, but a bad harvest had pushed them to the edge. One tantalizing option remained.
Bwambale and his neighbors lived atop a dramatic escarpment overlooking the vast savannah of Queen Elizabeth National Park—a diverse mosaic of grasslands, lakes, and forests teeming with big game. The community understood its conservation value and welcomed its stream of tourists who occasionally visited the village to buy handicrafts. But there were tensions.
Villagers felt snubbed by the authorities when they failed to get compensation after crop-raiding elephants trampled their valuable produce. And those whose desperate living conditions compelled them to venture into the park and hunt game faced being arrested—or worse.
But if Bwambale could just sneak in and return with a few antelope or buffalo, he could help his malnourished daughter and terminally ill wife stave off hunger, selling the remaining bushmeat to make some money. According to his neighbors, he and four others armed themselves with a rudimentary arsenal of machetes, spears, and traps—guns were far too expensive—and headed into the park before dawn.
Two days later, he was dead.
Wildlife rangers patrolling the park had stumbled on the group, allegedly shooting Bwambale and causing the other four to scatter. Eventually they returned to Kyambura with the tragic news. Soon afterward, his wife died, leaving their young daughter, Bira, without either parent. The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) did not refute the allegations, instead saying it was “not aware of the case of Bwambale’s shooting.”
But Bira would not be the last child from her village to be orphaned by parents who tried hunting to keep their families fed. As hardship drives villagers to poach, a sisterhood has formed to raise Bira and other orphans whose fathers were killed while hunting. Some of these women are themselves widows of the poaching crisis, having lost their husbands in this park—yet forced to mourn in secret.
Anger toward so-called subsistence poachers often outweighs empathy for their difficult circumstances and the families they leave behind. But the pressures on this tiny village point to a wider conflict unfolding globally that divides environmentalists on the most effective and appropriate solution to a complex puzzle that resists easy answers.
As the climate crisis intensifies and wilderness areas are lost at a precipitous level, mainstream conservationists are calling for the expansion of protected areas to safeguard the survival of threatened species and halt the fragmentation of habitats in which they live. But protected areas typically promote the enforced division of people and nature—an ideology that has proven disastrous for Indigenous communities. It raises an uncomfortable question that can no longer be ignored: Conservation of nature may be necessary to save the planet—but what if it creates human disasters of its own?
One humid, overcast morning last February, Dan Namara walked briskly down a muddy track atop the scenic escarpment above Queen Elizabeth National Park. A few hours earlier before dawn, groups of tourists had set off in the opposite direction, packed into four-by-fours for the chance to spot the park’s dazzling array of wildlife. But this wiry, smartly dressed 35-year-old wasn’t interested in the view. He had a meeting scheduled with Martha Kabugho, who had adopted Bira, and her fellowship of foster mothers and had agreed to take me with him.
Three years earlier, Namara had founded a charity called the Kyambura Orphanage Needy Development Centre. Despite the antiquated name, its mission was urgent: to help children whose parents had died from disease or while hunting and to encourage the community to diversify livelihoods and coexist with wildlife. “People living around the park face serious challenges,” Namara said. “They rely on farming for survival, but if their crops are damaged, they struggle to support their children. We help them find alternatives so they don’t retaliate against the animals when their crops are destroyed. If they keep hunting, there will be no park left.”
Namara’s small organization supports 75 children—a third of which are orphans—along with more than 40 widows and single mothers living in hard-up households across five villages. He monitors their welfare and runs traditional dance courses for the youngsters, who perform at surrounding hotels to pay their school fees. When meeting with villagers, he explained the importance of conserving this wildlife-rich area, highlighting its draw to tourists from whom these families can derive an income.
Although his charity dates back to 2017, Queen Elizabeth National Park traces its origins to 1952, 10 years before Uganda won its independence from British colonial rule. Straddling the equator and spanning more than 700 square miles, the area has become a thriving ecosystem encompassing fertile wetlands, grassy plains, and a forested gorge.
Dotted with volcanic craters and framed by the jagged Rwenzori Mountains, it is home to some 95 species of mammals, including 10 types of primate and more than 500 species of birds, from the African emerald cuckoo to the pink-backed pelican. Pods of hippos mingle on muddy banks among buffalo and elephant, while the park’s famous tree-climbing lions lounge in acacias after stalking herds of duiker, reedbuck, and topi antelope. Whether first light or sundown, this majestic landscape appears blessed with awe-inspiring magic.
Yet, as with so many national parks, the idyllic impression of an untouched Eden hides a troubled past of conflict, displacement, and social injustice. These rolling plains once formed the traditional territory of a pastoralist group called the Basongora. Under imperial rule, this community of cattle herders fell victim to outbreaks of sleeping sickness and rinderpest, spread by way of European colonization. They then lost 90 percent of their grazing land to the national park, according to Minority Rights Group International, which describes how they “were evicted, their animals destroyed and huts torched, and no alternative settlement was provided, all in the name of wildlife protection.”
Post-independence governments intensified pressures on this vulnerable, landless group. Facing constant eviction and intercommunal clashes, the Basongoras were forced into the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Compounded by the onslaught of modernity, this protracted exile has eroded the group’s cultural heritage and storytelling tradition—a cornerstone of the group’s collective memory—to the brink of extinction.
The Basongora’s original territory was also changing in dramatic ways. In the decade following the park’s creation, an estimated 30,000 elephants roamed this and Uganda’s other large reserves during the 1960s. However, during the tumultuous 1970s and 80s, as coup followed military coup, poachers decimated the population of these magnificent creatures to a low of 700 to 800 elephants, while Uganda as a whole lost an estimated 50 percent of its biodiversity from hunting and habitat destruction. During the 1990s and 2000s, the spillover effects from the Rwandan genocide and the insurgency waged by the Lord’s Resistance Army intensified pressures further, as poaching escalated alongside a drop in revenue, staff morale, and visitor numbers.
The combination of growing political stability and increased ranger patrols eventually produced a resurgence of elephants in Queen Elizabeth National Park. In 2014, its population surpassed the 3,000 elephant mark, even as the continent’s total elephant numbers continued their decline. Ivory poaching at the park was dropping in tandem with the arrival of refugee elephants fleeing the DRC’s drawn-out war where rebels traded tusks for guns.
In 2006, the Basongora was forced to flee the DRC, and the herdsmen began returning to Uganda with their cattle. Shortages in communal grazing land prompted some to enter the park, bringing them into direct contact with predators like lions, leopards, and hyenas. In retaliation to attacks on their livestock, they started killing off lions and other carnivores by lacing the carcasses of dead cows with toxic pesticides.
These mass poisonings triggered outrage. A Ugandan tourism consultant deplored one such killing as a “national disaster” while a leading Ugandan newspaper published an article under the headline “Tears over Dead Lions,” describing “devastated animal lovers.” “The war between man and animal has erupted again, as it often does, in Queen Elizabeth National Park,” it added.
But few acknowledged the underlying cause of this harrowing flash point: poverty. With the Basongora’s needs and well-being neglected for so long, it was inevitable that herders would start acting on their survival impulses. Park officials faced criticism for slow responses to emergency calls and ignoring demands for compensation from lion attacks. One cattle farmer described his frustrations after a lion attacked one of his pregnant cows. “If it had stayed alive and given birth, I’d have got some milk for my children,” said Francis Kayiwa, speaking to the BBC in 2018. “I went to the wildlife authority, and they promised to investigate. They did not come.” After repeated requests for help, he just gave up.
“As long as a growing rural population remains tethered to poverty, the risk of losing more lions stays high,” wrote Michael Schwartz, a conservation researcher, following another poisoning. “Human poverty and wildlife is like oil and water. Not only are they incompatible, but they exist at the heart of so many tragic events contributing to wildlife loss in Africa. … And if we (the Western world) react to every wildlife tragedy with nothing more than moral exhibitionism toward the disenfranchised, then the root of the problem will stay buried beneath the conflict.”
The tug of war between marginalized communities and vulnerable wildlife species was playing out among Kyambura’s impoverished villagers. Following the death of Bira’s father, her neighbor Doreen Masika lost her husband in 2017 when he and five others went into the park to hunt game, armed only with spears.
On their first day in the bush, a lion attacked and killed him. His fellow hunters fled in terror—one of whom was subsequently killed by a buffalo, gored by its horns. Fearful of punishment, Masika never recovered her husband’s remains, denying her the closure of a burial. “We couldn’t get his body,” said the 33-year-old mother of four. “It’s illegal for us to go in there and look for it. That made it so much more painful as I couldn’t even bury him.”
The following year, a 4-year-old named Cedric—the son of the hunter killed by the buffalo—was orphaned after his mother passed away from diabetes, unable to afford proper treatment. As with her fellow foster mothers, Masika promptly adopted Cedric, buoyed by the strength and solidarity of her sisterhood. However, unable to care for more children, she was forced to send his siblings to relatives near the DRC. “I know it helps the animals, but to be honest, I don’t feel good about the park,” she said. “The children suffer. It’s hard to know the solution.”
Her neighbor Jane Tomushana has faced similar adversity. That same year, her destitute husband hoped to earn some money by selling firewood, but wealthy landowners sealed off areas surrounding the village. The park was the only option. As he collected firewood, he was cornered by an elephant and trampled to death. Today, she struggles to pay rent and afford her children’s school fees. “We’re facing great difficulty,” Tomushana, aged 39, said. “My four kids sometimes miss a whole term of school.”
Although unlawful, the men’s desperate attempts at mere survival pale in comparison to the lucrative, transnational conspiracies of smuggling cartels. In 2019, for example, the year after Tomushana’s husband died while gathering logs, two Vietnamese nationals were arrested in possession of $2.4 million worth of ivory and $1.3 million worth of pangolin scales.
Although low-level subsistence hunters are easy targets, those higher up the chain can act with impunity while driving the most destruction. Uganda’s Entebbe International Airport offers a key hub for smuggled elephant tusks, rhino horns, pangolin scales, hippo teeth, and other animal parts destined for Arab and Asian markets. Ugandan soldiers and even officials of the UWA—the government agency tasked with fighting the illegal wildlife trade—have faced repeated corruption and trafficking accusations, which UWA spokesperson Bashir Hangi dismissed as “mere speculation and conjecture.”
Last year’s lockdown prompted concern that the decline in tourism revenue would fuel a rise in illegal activities as penniless, densely populated communities tried to make ends meet. More than 20,000 people are estimated to live in enclave villages within Queen Elizabeth National Park while an ever-growing population of 70,000 immediately surround it. These concerns appeared to be borne last June when poachers killed a well-known mountain gorilla in the nearby Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park—the first such killing in years.
The chief warden at the park last year reported a surprising increase in wildlife numbers, attributed to intensified patrols and a nighttime curfew. Numbers of savanna elephants there have now surpassed 4,000, even as the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) added the subspecies to the endangered list last week, downgrading its status from “vulnerable” and painting a bleak outlook for its future survival across the wider continent. Buffalo and antelope populations in the park have also grown. Yet this level of law enforcement cannot last as funding plummets from lost ecotourism revenue—Uganda’s leading foreign exchange earner. An emergency United Nations scheme has offered a grant to communities whose livelihoods have been wrecked by the pandemic, but further lifelines are vital.
In February, a year after first meeting Namara, a phone call with him laid bare the economic and social ruin that the lockdown and travel bans had inflicted on the community in Kyambura. “The children’s guardians were affected so much,” he said. “They lost all their income. Lockdown brought everything to a standstill and caused costs to shoot up. Life has been so hard.”
With schools shut, Namara saw an increase in family problems, including a spate of underage pregnancies. The absence of tourists and income forced villagers to cut meals. “Some survived by eating just once a day,” Namara said. “Others would eat one day, then not the next. Life is challenging, but there is nothing we can do but push on.”
Despite past controversies, the authorities highlight the park’s conservation gains and attraction to tourists, which—in less fraught times—has spurred on local employment. “This park is gazetted to benefit the people and future generations, and we should jealously protect it and the wildlife therein,” said Otto Benjamin, chairperson of UWA’s trustees.
Rangers put their lives on the line daily, with dozens killed or injured while on duty in Uganda alone. Organizations likes the Uganda Carnivore Program aim to conserve the area’s lions, leopards, and hyenas while promoting inclusive, educational, and community-based activities as part of what it describes as “a collaborative, holistic plan to reduce deadly instances of human-wildlife conflict.”
UWA spokesperson Hangi declined to disclose how many suspected poachers had been killed since 2010, saying the police were responsible for such records. “Desperate living conditions cannot be a justification for breaking the law,” he added. “It is not common to kill poachers. We normally arrest and hand them to police, and we pursue their prosecution in the courts of law. There are cases where armed poachers engage our personnel and death occurs during the crossfire. In such a case, we report the matter to police, and police takes the body and guns recovered from the dead. Families of the deceased deal with police regarding recovery of the body.”
Hangi said a new compensation scheme is being finalized, under which “people will be compensated for injuries, damage to crops, and death.” The UWA also shares 20 percent of entry fees with surrounding villages to fund classrooms, health centers, income-generating projects, and other public services. The idea behind this revenue-sharing scheme is to instill conservation with a pragmatic, economic value—thereby soliciting support for the protected area in the long run. “Maybe they expect more than what they are getting, but there is a benefit for them,” Hangi said. “We are doing enterprise development for communities to ensure they have sustainable income as an alternative to poaching.”
However, the initiative has previously been hampered by bureaucratic hurdles and has not always targeted local priorities, while community leaders have criticized the substandard quality of its projects. A study as far back as 2005 noted how local communities felt the costs incurred from the park “far outweigh the benefits they get.”
Although a new arrangement will see UWA dispense grants to fund specific projects requested by communities, ill-feeling remains. “We feel forgotten,” said Kabugho, Bira’s foster mother. “When someone is killed, we can’t collect the body. When animals destroy our crops, we don’t get proper compensation. We don’t even see any direct benefit from revenue sharing. Where is that money? There is no accountability. Tourists come to see the park, but they never see us.”
Calls are growing for a new approach to conservation. Violence has always been a part of militarized attempts to save the natural world. Some areas of Africa and Asia are so besieged by loggers, miners, or heavily armed poaching gangs that robust deployments of rangers in defense of nature are critical. But the potential for excess is always present, from the eviction of Indigenous peoples from the United States’ first national parks a century ago to the people murdered in the name of conservation in the developing world today. The question is whether, and how, a balance can be struck between maintaining an ecosystem and emptying it of all people.
The irony of such death and displacement is that it can alienate potential allies among Indigenous communities who often have a proven track record of living harmoniously with nature. Lands governed by such groups in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest, for example, have shown to lose trees at even slower rates than formally protected areas.
This dispute is reaching a crescendo as the United Nations pursues an ambitious plan to protect 30 percent of the world’s oceans and land by 2030. This momentous “30 by 30” proposal aims to halt the decline of biodiversity and avert Earth’s sixth mass extinction by shielding almost a third of the natural world from destruction and depletion. Currently just up to 15.3 percent of land and 7.5 percent of marine areas are protected. The draft text will be put to governments in May at a U.N. summit in China, having been postponed last year by the pandemic. U.S. President Joe Biden has already backed the plan, issuing an executive order in January that committed his administration to protecting 30 percent of U.S. land and coastal seas by the end of the decade.
The proposal has garnered support from major conservation groups, but condemnation from scores of other nonprofits, in a joint letter last year, dismissed the 2030 target as “counterproductive.” They warn it “could further entrench an outmoded and unsustainable model of conservation that could dispossess the people least responsible for these crises of their lands and livelihoods.” The Indigenous-rights organization, Survival International, has gone so far as to brand it “a colossal land grab as big as Europe’s colonial era.”
There are promising signs that the urge to barricade wilderness areas at the expense of blameless inhabitants is diminishing. The total size of protected areas has increased more than five-fold since the 1950s, but the emphasis has shifted away from exclusionary, state-run parks toward a proliferation of sanctuaries that allow local communities to co-manage and sustainably use natural resources. Last year’s U.N. Summit on Biodiversity saw leaders commit to supporting “the full and effective participation of Indigenous peoples and local communities in decision making.”
To bring that commitment to fruition, a clever mechanism has emerged in recent years, which could put their 30 percent target in sight without compromising human rights: “Other Effective Area-Based Conservation Measures”—a concept as innovative as the term is wordy. Known simply as OECMs, these are territories that have not been designated as national parks or other conventional types of protected area yet are managed sustainably. They must have some form of governance present—whether a national authority, a grassroots group, or even some kind of responsible corporate body—which manages the domain in ways that conserve its biodiversity and combat environmental threats over the long term.
Such areas can be inhabited by Indigenous or local communities and promote the functioning of healthy ecosystems without undermining the cultural, socio-economic, or spiritual well-being of the people who live in them. With good monitoring and sustained support, landscapes and seascapes that meet OECM criteria could support the recovery of threatened species, boost sustainable livelihoods, and link up fragmented habitats.
Case-by-case screening is key. For example, OECM status could be granted to lakes, rivers and wetlands that are managed primarily as a water resource but also result in the enduring conservation of local biodiversity. Pristine natural areas used by universities for biological research could also qualify, as could community-led conservation projects or certain forms of low-impact, organic farming that take a holistic, ecologically-sound approach to agriculture by maintaining native species and their habitat. Likewise, tracts of rainforest sustainably populated by Indigenous people in the Amazon or by Bayaka “pygmies” in the Congo Basin are clear contenders.
In some respects, there is nothing novel about OECMs. Although the name is new, the idea underpinning it is as ancient as Indigenous communities themselves. But they subvert the mainstream Western model of environmental protection, which outlaws the presence of humans to achieve conservation. Instead, communities inhabiting and utilizing OECM areas may not have conservation as their primary goal—yet, so synchronized are their lives with the natural order that conservation is the inevitable byproduct of their existence as opposed to pollution, depletion, and destruction.
A landmark 2018 paper found that, worldwide, Indigenous peoples manage or have tenure rights over at least 14.7 million square miles—more than a quarter of the world’s land surface. “Recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ rights to land, benefit sharing and institutions is essential to meeting local and global conservation goals,” it said.
The inclusion of OECMs among other types of protected areas promises to minimize the displacement of vulnerable communities from their biodiverse lands while still helping conservationists meaningfully achieve the 30 percent target by 2030. “OECMs provide a very elegant way around some of the problems of protected areas,” said Harry Jonas, co-chair of the IUCN’s specialist group on the initiative.
Pulling the Earth back from the brink is critical but must not come at the expense of the poorest and most vulnerable, whose environmental impact is tiny in comparison to the industrialized Global North. Disjointed conservation tactics will only reinforce the kind of privations that drove Bira’s father, Basongora herders, and others like them to target ecosystems on which, ultimately, we all depend.
“Poverty has crippling effects on the lives of humans, animals, and the environment at large,” Schwartz wrote. “What if we traded in empty criticisms for helping hands? Once more, that is the essence of what it is to be a conservationist, not to mention what it is to be human.”