Rangers Build ‘mountain’ From Wildlife Traps In Murchison Falls National Park

Over the past 10 years, we’ve removed about 47 tonnes of snares and bear traps,” says Michael Keigwin, the founder of Uganda Conservation Foundation (UCF), a charity that works with the country’s wildlife authorities.

Speaking from Kampala, Keigwin is referring to a set of photographs showing a 12-tonne pile of tangled snares and metal traps. The images, showing Uganda Wildlife Authority rangers posing with the traps, illustrate an African success story and a world of pain, say those who helped create it.

The pile, nicknamed “snare mountain”, was collected over 12 months as part of continuing conservation efforts at Uganda’s Murchison Falls national park. At the bottom are so-called bear traps, used by poachers to catch elephants, hippos and lions. At the top are wire snares used for smaller animals.

The 5,000 sq km park and its famous Nile River waterfalls once lent cover to the Joseph Kony-led Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), one of the world’s most notorious militant groups. By 2010, the LRA’s power had dwindled and almost as soon as the park was considered free of fighters, the Ugandan government’s wildlife authority began restoration work.

For Jeff Morgan, the founder of Global Conservation, an NGO working with Keigwin and the rangers to restore and protect the park, the snare mountain photos show the risk of animals, rangers and villagers “being maimed and killed”.

To put the reusable traps beyond the reach of poachers for good, the pile, like others before it, is being buried in the foundations of the park’s new buildings, which include ranger accommodation, an armoury, a veterinary lab and a police station.

As well as funding trap collection, Global Conservation is providing Keigwin’s UCF team with close to $1m (£800,000) for park management, ranger and anti-poaching equipment, community development and “ecoguard” training. Ecoguards live in the surrounding communities and their jobs include snare collection and alerting rangers to wildlife that wander out of the park’s protected zone and need to be returned.

Other charities funding UCF include Tusk Trust, the International Elephant Foundation and the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation. Over the past decade, the collective effort to protect the park’s wildlife has seen populations recover. Rothschild giraffe numbers are up from 400 to more than 2,000, and the Uganda kob (a type of antelope) herd has quadrupled from 40,000 to about 160,000, says Keigwin.

But the twin problems of tourist income lost during the Covid pandemic and the damage done to agriculture and fisheries by floods last year have created what Keigwin calls “a poaching crisis”. The past 18 months, he says, have been brutal and the teams are collecting about 100 new traps and snares every day.

“Economically, things are bad here for people. Covid was very bad for the tourist industry [which helps fund the park’s operations], and flooding from the Nile, which was well above record levels, has destroyed crops and harmed people and wildlife,” he says.

The result is that even more people “want the animals to sell to organised crime networks who deal in bushmeat, ivory and wildlife smuggling”.

Another looming problem is oil exploration in the area, an irony, Keigwin says, given that national ranger teams often lack fuel for their vehicles.

For the poachers, hippos are a prime target. More than 60% of the park’s hippos have been taken in the past few years for the ivory in their teeth, and their meat, Keigwin says. To combat the losses, which Keigwin and Morgan describe as a war on nature, and prevent criminal networks preying on animals and encouraging local communities to do the same, they believe tourism must thrive, providing jobs and money.

“The battle for wildlife is in full swing. To win it, we need to support wildlife tourism, Uganda’s largest foreign currency earner which employs over a million people, and we need to create more jobs and more wages. That’s the quickest way to stop people poaching animals to sell to criminal networks,” says Keigwin.

This article first appeared on The Guardian

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