An Eastern Mountain Gorilla forages on a hillside just outside of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. A large deforested zone of inedible tea plants has been constructed in order to keep the gorillas from leaving the park and disrupting local farms. However the gorillas still recognize this area as part of their grazing territory and are bypassing the tea crops to access the remaining patches of wild foliage beyond. Photo: Brian Harries via Flickr (CC BY).
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Uganda: Save Kafuga Forest and gorillas from tea plantations
27th January 2016
Mountain gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest are at risk from tea plantations that would obliterate the adjacent Kafuga Forest, a vital buffer zone for local people, writes Richard Sadler. Deprived of foods, herbs, medicines and clean water from the forest, human pressure on the gorillas would inevitably increase, and expose them to potentially lethal diseases.
We are prepared for people to start clearing the forest at any time. Some of the tea nursery owners have already started buying axes and pangas ready to start cutting the trees down.
One of the last refuges of the mountain gorilla, Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, is under threat from plans to clear fell hundreds of hectares of rain forest for farming.
A group of more than 250 tea growers, backed by district government officials, has announced plans to clear an area of ancient rainforest called the Kafuga Pocket Forest - part of a vital buffer zone on the fringes of the national park intended to protect it from the fast-expanding human population.
The Bwindi Impenetrable Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to 400 critically-endangered mountain gorillas - almost half the remaining world population of 880.
At present thousands of people in the densely-populated farmland surrounding Kafuga depend on the forest, for food, medicine, timber and clean water. Kafuga, which was originally within the boundaries of the national park, is part of the same mountain forest eco-system as Bwindi.
Although it no longer has any gorillas, it supports a wide range of plants and animals including afromontane trees, chimpanzees and rare birds.
Destroying Kafuga would put Bwindi and its gorillas at risk
Conservationists are warning that although the mountain gorilla population has stabilised in recent years - it is still precariously low. If the 250-hectare Kafuga Forest is cleared, the long-term prospects for the survival of the Bwindi gorillas and hundreds of other rare wildlife species will be put in jeopardy.
Not only would its wildlife be wiped out, but local people in one of the most economically-deprived areas of East Africa would also be deprived of an important natural resource. This, in turn, would be likely to lead to a big increase in illegal incursions into the national park, degrading the gorillas' habitat and placing them at risk from increased human contact.
"Because the area around the National Park is so densely populated, there is a lot of competition for resources - so the buffer zone is vital for the protection of the gorilla habitat", says Jillian Miller, executive director of the Gorilla Organization, which works with communities living around gorilla reserves.
"When conservation works well it is the people themselves who are the buffer zone. So if people can get the resources they need within the buffer zone rather than having to reach deep into the forest, the gorillas are left alone and it is a win-win situation."
For the long-term survival of the gorillas, which live in different parts of the forest in distinct family groups, it is also important to avoid human contact because of the risk from potentially lethal infectious diseases like tuberculosis, she added.
Unchecked, illegal incursions into the reserve for timber, game and honey could also seriously degrade the gorillas' habitat: "To answer why the survival of gorillas is important I'd ask: 'Do we want a world without gorillas? Would we want our children growing up in a world without gorillas?'"
"They are among the closest species to us with almost 97% of our DNA. If you look into the gorillas eyes they look straight back at you. It's not like looking at a cat or dog or a horse - there's definitely a connection between people and gorillas."
'Tree felling could begin at any time'
Now an online campaign has been launched to save Uganda's Kafuga Forest by the environmental group Probiodiversity Conservationists in Uganda (PROBICOU). The campaign is being backed by International Tree Foundation, which has been supporting work by PROBICOU to enhance the forest through planting of indigenous trees.
"We have grown the first 8,000 of 30,000 trees and we were at the point when we were about to start planting the trees out when we learnt of proposals to cut down the forest", said PROBICOU's Programme Director, Robert Tumwesigye Baganda.
"We are prepared for people to start clearing the forest at any time. Some of the tea nursery owners have already started buying axes and pangas ready to start cutting the trees down."
He added: "Local politicians and tea companies are increasingly inciting people to clear the forest to open up land for planting tea. Large numbers of tea seedlings have been raised, and the February rains - the peak season for planting - are fast approaching."
Over recent years Uganda has seen a rapid expansion in cultivation of tea, an increasingly valuable export crop, but suitable land is at a premium. Pressure to release more land for tea plantations has been increasing since the Ugandan government launched a multi-million pound initiative to promote tea growing in the south west of the country - including the area surrounding Kafuga, in the Kisoro District.
Under the scheme, designed to increase profitable tea exports around the world, the Government subsidises distribution of tea seedlings - and 200 farmers have recently established commercial tea nurseries close to the Kafuga forest.
More than just people and gorillas at risk
The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest Park is described by UNESCO as representing "a conservation frontline as an isolated forest of outstanding biological richness." Its mist-shrouded hillsides have remained largely intact for 25,000 years.
As well as gorillas it also supports populations of African elephant, antelope, chimpanzee, giant forest hog, baboon, African giant swallowtail butterfly, numerous types of rare monkey - and no less than 347 bird species.
The UNESCO listing makes specific reference to the importance of the buffer zone to the south comprising three areas of ancient, biologically-rich forest, of which Kafuga is the largest, noting that "with increasing population, agricultural encroachment will remain a potential threat."
International Tree Foundation's Chief Executive, Andy Egan, said: "The Ugandan government is a signatory to the Sustainable Development Goals which include a commitment to 'promote the implementation of sustainable management of all types of forests, halt deforestation, restore degraded forests and substantially increase afforestation and reforestation globally' by 2020.
"This is a great opportunity for the Minister of Environment to show that Uganda is taking a leading role. The work of PROBICOU to work with local communities to restore the Kafuga Forest and implement alternative income generating activities for local people through agroforestry is exactly the type of project that the government should be promoting country wide."
Petition to Save the Kafuga Forest (Change.org). PROBICOU is planning to hand over a petition to Uganda's Minster of Water and Environment, Prof. Ephraim Kamuntu, calling for his intervention on 7th February.
Richard Sadler is Communications Officer for the International Tree Foundation and a freelance environment journalist. He is a former BBC environment correspondent and has contributed to various newspapers including the Sunday Times, the Guardian and the Mail on Sunday.
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