“If you are lucky, you will see some chimpanzees,” John Bagumirabingi welcomed us on a cold Sunday morning.
For a man a few months shy of 80, his firm handshake came as a surprise to the team of journalists, tourists and The Chimpanzee Trust staff whom he met at the makeshift camp that leads you inside his 150-acre Mairirwe forest in Mairirwe, Hoima District.
The private riverine forest, which sits right in the middle of 400 acres of farmland is home to about 60 chimpanzees and other primates which Bagumirabingi, together with Paragon (U) Limited directors Roy, Rita Barbara and Ronald Philip Baguma are conserving through Mairirwe Chimpanzee Conservation and Eco Tourism Project.
It is also home to several tree species, birds, monkeys, snakes as well as butterflies.
“After retiring from Uganda Development Corporation (UDC) about 24 years ago, I directed my efforts towards developing this farm,” he says as we start the long, tiring three-hour trek into forest which also boasts several water streams that flow into Lake Albert.
At UDC, Bagumirabingi says he worked in the Department of Hotels and Lodges and Wildlife from 1967 to 1995. It is here that he developed an interest in Wildlife Conservation.
Through Paragon, he approached government in 2010 with a proposal to collaborate and conserve part of his farm.
“I spoke to Uganda Wildlife Authority and National Forestry Authority in vain,” he says as he tries to cross a makeshift bridge hanging precariously over one of the streams along the Muganzi trail.
“In fact, I nearly approached Unesco (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) for support.”
Eventually, in 2018 Paragon Uganda received a Chimp license from UWA to protect the endangered species.
He also works hand in hand with The Chimpazee Trust.
According to Nebat Kasozi, a conservation officer with Ngamba Island, Bagumirabingi is one of the three large land owners that they have worked with to create spaces for primates living outside of the government protected areas in Bunyoro region.
“In total though, we have worked with 450 private land owners with the number peaking to 2,000 in terms of awareness,” Kasozi said during the Second World Chimpanzee Day celebrations on July 14 in Hoima.
Started by Dr. Jane Goodall in 2018, the World Chimpanzee Day is a celebration of chimpanzees – the closest living relatives in the animal kingdom.
Dr. Goodall is also celebrated for her ground-breaking research and publications on wild chimpanzees in Gombe, Tanzania.
Working with the communities
Currently, The Chimpanzee Trust is engaging 130 private forest owners in Bunyoro directly, although a previous project involved 342.
Bunyoro is home of the largest population of Chimpanzees in the country.
Most – an estimated 300 – of these live in private forests between Budongo in Masindi and Bugoma Central Forest Reserve which has been affected by deforestation, habitat loss and human-wildlife conflict, according to Dr. Joshua Rukundo, the acting executive director for Chimpanzee Trust.
Others can be found on the 372-hectare Itohya Tropical Rainforest.
Quite often, stories will emerge of farmers whose fields of cocoa, sugarcane, jackfruit, paw-paw, bananas, mangoes, pineapple, maize and pumpkin have been destroyed by Chimpanzees. The farmers or locals are then forced to deliberately hunt and kill the chimps or set traps that have left many of these apes maimed for life as a way of protecting themselves and their crops.
What is not highlighted however, is the fact that most of the Chimpanzees’ natural habitat has been destroyed to pave way for the farms.
In order to minimize on the human-wildlife conflict, the Chimpanzee Trust started a programme which saw forest owners receive some kind of incentive in form of cash every month to encourage them not to destroy trees.
Also, with funding from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) the Chimpanzee Trust has since January 2018 implemented the ‘Piloting a Scalable PES Model to Conserve Bugoma Forest Ecosystem’ project in four villages where River Rutoha (one of the Bugoma Forest catchments) flows.
Here, they signed contracts with over 100 farmers to conserve, restore and carry out good land management practices along the riverbank.
So far 311 hectares of land have been re-afforested, according to Kasozi. But this has not mitigated the fact that the annual deforestation rate in Bunyoro still remains an estimated high of 5.1 per cent ahead of the national average estimated at 2.1 per cent.
In return, the farmers who have met the set benchmarks have been rewarded with water tanks and solar system.
Dr Rukundo believes the involvement of locals in creating safe spaces for the Chimps as well as the training of primary and secondary school students to embrace conservation has reduced human wildlife conflict.
But a lot still has to be done.
“Locals still believe that Chimps are more of a danger to them rather than a benefit,” Dr Rukundo said as he led a tree planting campaign along the banks of River Rutoha. “But I believe we are on the right track and that humans and chimps will eventually co-exist.”
Unfortunately, we did not see any inside Bagumirabingi’s forest because, according to the site manager Simon Mugenyi, ‘we woke up very late.’