To Save a Species

at 12:35 AM

The premier African safari destination in the mid 1960s was not Tanzania, not South Africa and not even Kenya. It was Uganda. In particular it was Murchison Falls National Park and Queen Elizabeth National Park -- both flagships of newly independent Uganda. There were so many elephants in Murchison they had to cull some in 1963. Thousands of cape buffaloes, giraffes, hippos, knob antelope and even black and white rhinos thrived there. Uganda is unique because it is an ecotone -- an edge area between two major ecological zones -- the far western edge of east African grassland/savannah and the eastern edge of the tropical Congo rain forests, giving Uganda unparalleled ecological diversity.

By 1980 most of the large mammals were gone. What happened? Basically Idi Amin happened in 1972 and chaos, disorder, death and destruction followed. The game parks not only suffered from poor funding and neglect, but rampant poaching by locals and the military. When neighboring Tanzania invaded to throw Amin out, their troops plundered the remaining large mammals. There were less than 300 elephants, down from 4,500.

However, two key elements remained. The first was intact habitat. The park itself was not severely harmed. The plants, the trees and the grass survived, albeit in an evolving landscape now little-affected by grazing animals. Trees now grew where elephants had foraged. Ecological succession took place. The second key was that large numbers of elephants, buffaloes, etc. remained in neighboring Congo.

So as peace came to the region, slowly but surely the animals have made their way back into the park and a recovery basically unaided by humans has taken place. The moral of this story is the overriding importance of preserving habitat and the potential for immigration into the area. It's a lesson not only for Uganda, but for ourselves as well.

This Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

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