BY INNOCENT KIIZA
Kiiza is an accomplished environmental investigative journalist with a dedicated focus on matters pertaining to climate change, aquatic resources, and the preservation of wildlife.
Forests, vital ecosystems teeming with biodiversity, provide essential services for human well-being. Among the diverse wildlife inhabiting these forests, chimpanzees stand as an emblematic species closely connected to people in Africa.
This story takes us to Karuswiga East, a place of hope and harmony, in Kagadi District, Uganda, where the “Friends of Chimpanzees” have embarked on a journey of conservation using indigenous knowledge to protect these iconic animals and their forest habitat.
The Harmony Between Indigenous Wisdom and Conservation:
Katyobona Forest, nestled within Bugoma Forest, along the Albertine Rift Valley, covers a vast 411 square kilometers. This tropical haven is home to approximately 500 chimpanzees, constituting 10% of Uganda’s chimpanzee population.
However, an existential threat looms over the forest. Over 8,000 hectares have already succumbed to the expansion of sugar cane plantations, setting the stage for a conflict between nature and industry.
A Dream Turned Mission:
Swaleh Kuteesa Kadoma, the guardian of Katyobona Forest and the founder of the “Friends of Chimpanzees” family, had a dream that ignited a lifelong connection with these primates. Kadoma’s love for chimpanzees traces back through generations.
In his youth, he grappled with the inexplicable dreams of a giant chimpanzee invading his consciousness, compelling him to protect and conserve these remarkable creatures.
The Spiritual Call to Return Home:
Kadoma embarked on the path of the modern world, leaving his village for the bustling city of Kampala in search of opportunities. Yet, the dream persisted, whispering, “Go back home; honor me, and you’ll honor yourself.” Kadoma’s journey saw him working tirelessly at various odd jobs, but a tragic accident, a bus collision, intervened.
In 1991, he was struck by the vision of chimpanzees once more. This vision propelled him into action. He gained strength and skill, even winning boxing prizes.
But, the voice from his dreams urged him further: “Seek knowledge, understand your connection with me.” His quest led him from place to place, working diverse jobs, until another voice implored him to return to his roots.
Kadoma eventually discovered himself in the sacred forests of Buganda, embracing the role of a protector and keeper of inherited traditions. These mystical encounters in the heart of the forest during full moon nights marked his connection with the Mwirium spirit, a guardian of nature and a fighter for its preservation.
In 2005, Kadoma received a call, a voice that resonated deeply, naming itself the “Friends of Chimpanzees” family. He was pedaling his bicycle towards officials from the Uganda Wildlife Authority, a pivotal moment where the journey of the organization commenced.
A Battle Against Forest Fragmentation:
Katyobona Forest has stood for six decades but faces immense pressure from human activities, leading to fragmentation, degradation, and biodiversity loss. The story takes us to Karuswiga East in Kagadi District, where indigenous wisdom is seamlessly integrated into the conservation of forests, chimpanzees, and wildlife.
It exemplifies how local communities effectively manage natural resources, often relying on moral values, public sentiment, and traditional rituals to protect their environment.
The Katyobona Forest, spread over 15 hectares and adorned with kapok trees and entandrophragma cylindricum, serves as a living testament to how indigenous knowledge forms the foundation for chimpanzee preservation. This wisdom, orally transmitted across generations, signifies the deep connection between the local people and chimpanzees.
Balancing Tradition and Science:
Yet, the lack of scientific guidance for ecological protection remains a challenge. As residents encroach on the forest land, conflicts between chimpanzees and humans intensify. Swaleh Kuteesa Kadoma, the custodian of Katyobona, recognizes the importance of finding a middle ground. He believes in the power of education, changing perspectives, and making chimpanzees a source of opportunity for tourism. The locals, under Kadoma’s guidance, now attract chimpanzees by planting jackfruits and fruit-bearing trees, aligning with indigenous knowledge and preservation principles.
Moses Ssemahunge, a conservationist and Manager of the Bulindi Chimpanzees Community Project, highlights that rapid social and economic development has placed indigenous knowledge at risk. Much of this wisdom now resides with the elderly, struggling to transfer it to younger generations. This loss of knowledge plays a significant role in the ongoing loss of biodiversity.
He goes on to explain that although the number of chimpanzees hasn’t increased, their habitat and food sources have been eroded due to forest clearance. This, in turn, forces chimpanzees to move into new territories, resulting in frequent encounters with humans and human-wildlife conflicts. Such encounters are one of the reasons chimpanzees have become more visible.
Ssemahunge contends that the challenges and bad living conditions faced by chimpanzees could explain their increased aggressiveness. The frequent disturbances they experience due to habitat loss and human encroachment may be driving this change in behavior. In fact, these remarkable animals are among our closest animal relatives, sharing similarities with humans in terms of behavior, family life, and intelligence.
Bashir Hangi, the Uganda Wildlife Authority spokesperson, praises the work done by the “Friends of Chimpanzees” family. The Uganda Wildlife Authority has deployed community conservation rangers to ensure the safety of those living near the forest. Hangi encourages the community to cooperate with the rangers in case of an encounter with chimpanzees, which has occurred in the past.
He also warns against any attempts to harm chimpanzees, emphasizing that they are protected by Ugandan law. This legal protection reflects the significance of these animals not just within Uganda but as part of the global natural heritage.
As we delve into the heart of Katyobona Forest, the story emerges as one of hope, harmony, and a remarkable fusion of indigenous wisdom with modern conservation practices. It serves as a testament to how protecting biodiversity and the chimpanzee population requires a delicate balance between tradition and science, emphasizing the importance of local communities’ role in safeguarding our natural world.
The “Friends of Chimpanzees” family’s efforts underscore the resilience of indigenous knowledge and the potential it holds in shaping a sustainable future for the forests and wildlife, leaving an indelible mark on the preservation of Uganda’s chimpanzees.