Uganda expects tourism boost

2001-12-23 09:23

Kidepo, Uganda - Uganda Wildlife Authority hopes that a programme to disarm Karamajong cattle herders in this remote north-eastern region of Uganda will give a much-needed boost to tourism in Kidepo Valley National Park.

"I'm sure the disarmament programme will affect tourism. People are not comfortable travelling where they are not secure and if the disarmament goes through, people will gain confidence in travelling to this area, and visitor numbers will increase," said Joseph Sentongo, chief warden at Kidepo.

Kidepo is a ravishingly beautiful 1 440 square kilometre parcel of open land bordering south Sudan, with the mountain range marking the boundary with Kenya clearly visible on the horizon.

The park, which is full of tall windswept grass, has a greater range of animals than in Uganda's other national parks: lions and cheetahs, giraffes and buffalo, elephants and zebra, but very low visitor numbers.

On average 140 people visit Kidepo a month, compared to the 2 000 who visit Murchison Falls National Park in northern Uganda and Queen Elizabeth National Park in western Uganda.

When this reporter visited Kidepo there was one other car in the park, but the wildlife was remarkable: a coven of hunched vultures pecking the carcass of a dead buffalo; two lions tearing at a zebra by the side of the road.

The problem is insecurity: visitors fear Karamoja because of the herders who until this month have been allowed to carry guns to protect themselves in inter-clan and cross border cattle raids.

Some however misuse their weapons and ambushes along the main roads through Karamoja are common, with the most recent attack involving warriors shooting at the Presidential Protection Unit.

The park authorities hope that if the disarmament programme, launched on December 2, is successful this will change.

Kidepo, like the rest of Karamoja, has been isolated from the rest of Uganda for decades. The region is poor with very low literacy and very high infant mortality.

Karamoja's economic isolation has resulted in bad, neglected dirt roads.

Only with the launch of the disarmament programme have the roads been upgraded and the park authorities hope that this, along with improved security, may raise numbers.

But fear is not the only effect of the gun. Poaching has reduced animal numbers to five percent of what they were in the 1960s.

In 1979, when former president Idi Amin was removed from power, poachers flooded the park, eating many of the animals.

The area filled with guns after the Karamajong raided Moroto barracks armoury during the fall of Amin.

Others armed themselves with weapons available across the border in war-torn Sudan and from the heavily armed Turkana.

"In the sixties this region was full, full of game. Karamoja, South Sudan, Northern Kenya had the highest density anywhere. Now after twenty years what's left ... the AK-47. That's what's left," EU-funded warden Peter Muller said.

The EU is now funding a programme to restock the park, particularly with those animals which have been hunted out of existence like the black rhino.

Some efforts to reduce poaching, put in place in the mid-nineties, have already resulted in higher animal numbers: elephants have increased from 150-200 in 1994 to 410 in 2001.

The removal of guns from the area, if successful, would further reduce the damage by poachers.

Uganda Wildlife Authority is clearly hopeful: there are plans to improve tourist accommodation by selling Apoka Rest Camp, built in the 1960s and overlooking the wide sweep of the Narus Valley.

"I want this concession because I'm a Karamajong and I'm capable of bringing tourism to this area," Cornelius Lorka Kodet said.

"Karamoja takes up ten per cent of the country and with disarmament we hope Karamoja is going to become a tourism centre." - Sapa-AFP