Uganda’s protection efforts is bringing good news amidst the decline of the elephant population across Africa. This is good news for the elephants, of course, and also good news for tourism. Wildlife safaris of the big five, which includes the grand elephants, are very popular with tourists to the country.
A recent survey confirms the need to establish transboundary conservation programs with South Sudan and Kenya and to strengthen existing collaboration with the Democratic Republic of Congo. Aerial surveys of elephant populations in Uganda’s national parks have shown their numbers are increasing according to Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Uganda Wildlife Authority(UWA). While most elephant populations are declining across Africa, these results show how a commitment to supporting effective protection of elephants can lead to their recovery. The surveys were conducted by WCS and UWA with funding from Paul G. Allen and WCS, as part of the Great Elephant Census®.
“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,” said Dr. Paul Elkan, a WCS Senior Conservationist involved in the surveys. “Continued strong Ugandan Government leadership, 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 in Queen Elizabeth.”
Uganda’s elephant numbers plummeted in the 1970s and 1980s because of widespread poaching and limited resources for the then Uganda National Parks. Elephants became confined to protected areas due to poaching pressures and numbers dropped 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, donors, and conservation partners, elephant numbers have now increased to over 5,000 individuals.
Aerial surveys conducted in June 2014 by WCS and UWA staff estimated 1,330 elephants in Murchison Falls National Park, 2,913 in Queen Elizabeth National Park and 656 in the Kidepo Valley National Park and neighboring Karenga Community Wildlife Management area. 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.
A number of recent elephant poaching incidents were recorded in Queen Elizabeth demonstrating the critical need for reinforcing anti-poaching and surveillance efforts in the Park both within Uganda and along its border with neighboring Virunga National Park in Democratic Republic of Congo. No recent elephant poaching incidents were observed in Murchison or Kidepo Park/Karenga during the survey, which is a notable improvement in security for those areas.
Said Dr. Andrew Plumptre Director for the Albertine Rift Program of WCS: “It is clear that some elephants move back and forth between Queen Elizabeth and Virunga Parks and as a result elephants survived better in this landscape during periods of conflict than the elephants in Murchison Falls National Park. The results of an aerial survey of the adjacent Virunga Park with ICCN, conducted at the same time, estimated fewer than 50 elephants left in that park because of the high levels of poaching there and they have migrated to Uganda for security. Some 3,000 elephants were estimated to occur in Virunga in the early 1960s.”
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.
Said Dr .Andrew Seguya, Executive Director for UWA: “UWA and the Government of Uganda is committed to securing our elephant populations throughout the country and to fighting the ivory trafficking, much of which passes through Uganda rather than originating from our parks. We have established a Wildlife Crime Unit, with the support of WCS, dedicated to tackling the movement of ivory and other wildlife products through Uganda and are looking for further support to increase our capability to tackle this problem.”
While it is encouraging that elephant numbers are increasing, poaching remains a big challenge nevertheless in Uganda and there is a need to remain vigilant. For example, the discovery of illegally killed elephants in Queen Elizabeth Park recently means that Uganda is still not completely secure from poaching but the new survey results provide encouragement for conservationists when nearly every other country in Africa is showing drastic declines in numbers of elephants.