By William Olupot
--In Bwindi gorillas increased to 320 in 2002
I wish to correct the impression created by the article titled, â€œGorilla numbers fallâ€ (New Vision May 22). The article gave the impression that gorilla numbers are currently declining. But that decline happened 10-25 years ago and gorilla numbers are now increasing. In addition, the people quoted in the article are not aware of the use of gorillas (or any other Ugandan primates as such) for medical research. Further, contrary to what was reported, there are no gorillas in the Rwenzoris. The only parks in Uganda with gorillas are Bwindi and Mgahinga. At Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, gorilla numbers increased from 292 individuals in 1997 to 320 in 2002. In the Virunga forests, of which Mgahinga is part--Parc Nationale des Virunga on the DRC side of the border and Parc Nationale des Vulcans on the Rwandan side, gorilla numbers have also increased. Mgahinga is far smaller than its sister forests. Within the Virunga forests, 235 individual mountain gorillas were counted in 1980; 320 in 1989; and 380 in 2003.
Gorillas are scientifically grouped with man and other animals resembling human beings in the Order Primates, a group of animals bearing close resemblance to man. In Uganda, non-human primates include bushbabies and pottos; monkeys such as baboons, vervets and colobus; and the two species of ape, chimpanzees and mountain gorillas. Non-human primates (simply called â€œprimatesâ€) are valuable to people from cultural, ecological, and economical viewpoints. Traditionally, Ugandans use non-human primates as cultural totems but that is a far smaller value compared to other ways in which they are beneficial.
An even more striking value of primates is the ecological role that they play in the forests they live in. Primates are important in maintaining the structure, composition and function of forests. They pollinate plants and contribute to regulating populations of insects that harm trees when in large numbers. They also move around and disperse plant seeds. One study in Kibale National Park found that the rate of forest renewal was lower in forests with fewer frugivorous primates than in forests where there were none. In savanna areas, monkeys have been credited with forest expansion by transporting seeds out of the forest into areas outside the forests favourable for seed germination. Non-human primates are thus a vital component of the forest ecosystem whose functioning
-Cleans air by absorbing carbondioxide and poisonous gases while supplying oxygen -Cools the air
-Locally increases the number of rainy days
-Stores and supplies clean water to human communities.
Although people benefit monetarily from primates in several ways, the biggest economic value of non-human primates probably lies in their value as a tourist attraction. Primates are popular with tourists because of their high visibility, their captivating behavioural repertoire, and similarity to humans. Except for the Mt. Elgon and Rwenzori forests which are located on high mountains which attract mountaineers, primates serve as the main basis for tourism in forests like Bwindi, Kibale, and Mgahinga for which the topography is not the main attraction. Promotion of tourism in such forests will ultimately depend on conserving primates in those forests. Primate tourism is important to Uganda to the extent that most tourists that come into the country actually do so to view primates. Uganda has some of the most diverse and most densely populated primate populations in the world, and maintaining those populations is crucial for the countryâ€™s competitiveness as a tourist destination.
As with anything of value, there are costs associated with conserving primates. Costs include maintenance of the ecological conditions in the habitats they live in and addressing issues that threaten both the primates and their habitats. Challenges to primate conservation in Uganda include forest loss, which has in some instances displaced primates living therein, exacerbating conflict with people particularly at crop gardens. Crop raiding by primates is common near edges of the big forests and in many small dwindling forest fragments such as the forests of Buvuma Island, Bujuko and Lwamunda. Other conflicts with people involve killing of livestock particularly chicken and sheep by baboons. Primates also occasionally attack and kill human infants.
Despite these problems, incentives for primate conservation outweigh the costs. UWA has been working to minimise some of these costs using a number of strategies but such effort can only achieve limited results without cooperation of other sectors and involvement of the general public. Conservation of non-human primates in Uganda, as it is for wildlife in general, ultimately rests on active support and effort by Ugandans.