This month, Kidepo Valley National Park is celebrating 50 years since it was gazetted as part of the independence celebrations. Hilary Bainemigisha visited the park and brings you firsthand information of what more is needed, beyond the Golden Jubilee
Kidepo valley was like a beautiful nun in a convent, inaccessible to suitors, but attractive. Fifty years down the road, the nun seems to have completed her celibacy vows and is storming out of the convent gates ready for love, marriage and twins. Will Kidepo valley now measure up to the world expectations?
In January, Kidepo National Park was listed Africa’s third in importance by CNN Travel, a US publication of Cable News Network.
The reasons given were its spectacular landscapes, great buffalo herds and its nature as a real wild park. However, like a beautiful nun in the convent, it has not been a popular destination of tourists compared to its sister parks in Uganda.
According to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics, it received just 3,208 visitors in 2010, as opposed to Queen Elizabeth national Park (76,037), Murchison Falls National Park (52,460), Lake Mburo National Park (20,966) and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (15,108). Even Mgahinga, Semliki and Kibaale got more visitors.
In the last 50 years, Kidepo’s beauty has accumulated a lot of dust with political instabilities, lack of security, hostile neighbours, far location from Kampala, poor roads and lack of prioritisation.
At its jubilee celebrations, the park stakeholders are determined to blow off this dust to let Kidepo’s light shine. What are their chances of success?
According to the park’s chief conservation officer, Johnson Masereka, the future has never been brighter. The park’s fortunes are rising and rising, he said.
“Five to 10 years ago, we hardly got 100 tourists a year. Today, we get 2,500 to 3,000 a year,” said the amiable Masereka.
“Revenue has more than doubled! In the 2010/11 financial year, we made sh384m. Last financial year, it increased to sh466m. If we can market this park maximally, we can even go to sh600m!”
The problem of lack of resources has been taken care of, thanks to the American people.
USAID is funding a Uganda Tourism for Biodiversity Programme, implemented by African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) to support and promote tourism and wildlife conservation through Uganda Wildlife Authority.
According to Abiaz Rwamwiri, the communications officer, AWF, the $10m will turn Kidepo’s fortunes around.
“The four year project is intended to provide communities with opportunities to develop tourism businesses and services that will enhance communities’ appreciation of Uganda’ natural resources thereby protecting critical systems,” he said.
“In Kidepo, the programme is supporting UWA to market the park, develop trails especially the Mt. Murongole trail that goes to the Ik people, plan land use in Karenga and Lubalangit Sub-counties and product development.”
Kidepo’s location, 700km from Kampala should not have been a problem. But for a long time, the poor and slippery roads to the park, the flooding rivers and the hostile and armed communities around the park have been the real threat.
The park is now easily accessible.
There are daily flights at $550 for the two hour journey from Entebbe Airport by Aerolink but for those whose pockets prefer staying closer to gravity, the roads accessing the park through Kitgum and Moroto are fairly fine. The Kitgum road we took was fine but could be better.
The park will still depend on the neighbouring districts to improve their roads in order to increase the variety of vehicles that access the place.
“Government promised to tarmac Gulu-Kitgum road. It is in the budget.
That will definitely open up Kidepo,” Masereka says. “I have paired with UNRA and we are opening up roads heading into the parks.
As for roads within the park, that will be a guarantee. USAID has given us a complete road unit and it will be arriving soon.”
On hostile neighbours, Masereka says it is now a story of the past. UWA always engaged the communities to get involved in conservation. Kaabong district officials have been active in supporting the park.
Another milestone has been Government’s success in disarmed the Karimojong. The army claim of 90% success is correct. The Karamoja elders I talked to were now happy with the exercise. People are more friendly and no clashes have been reported this year.
Karamoja has changed. Roads are built and more, people are more settled and trading centres developing along roads.
Schools are more, crop growing is increasing and cattle rusting has fizzled away. UPDF detatches are littered along the border with Sudan and Kenya, animal branding and tracking devices are in place. All this makes the place more peaceful than it was five years ago.
Kidepo that has 80% more chance of citing lions than any other park in Uganda
The park’s other challenges include poaching especially from the Didinga of South Sudan. “South Sudan is just recovering from war and lots of arms are still in the population.
People cross over for commercial poaching and often there is exchange of fire with our rangers. We lost two last year.”
The UPDF has responded with army detaches along the border. UWA also keeps liaising with colleagues in South Sudan where Kidepo extends but as a game reserve. However, structures there are not as strong enough to stop poachers.
After 50, what next?
The park boss is optimistic, the future has never been brighter. He revealed that there is a 50 year grand plan aimed at pulling crowds with a target of 60,000 visitors a year. It includes infrastructure development to improve roads, tourist handling capacity, and animal viewing facilities.
Asked if this won’t be a tall order, Masereka was optimistic. “It is achievable. We have lots of NGOs in Northern Uganda whose staff can be attracted to spend their holidays in the park, we have rare animals and birds, it is only Kidepo that has 80% more chance of citing lions than any other park in Uganda and visitors often sight cheetahs, which are very shy animals and difficult to see elsewhere.”
Apart from big herd animals, birds and scenery, he added, the park has Kanangoro hot springs, treks, traditional communities like the Ik and Karimojong in the neighbourhood.
“For us, the jubilee is for rejoicing because we are doing a good job. The population of animals has increased, so has people sensitisation, the park has more developments and we have identified more places for lodge developments and invite the public to come and participate,” Masereka said
The public, he added, is invited to invest with UWA in conservation, catering, lodging and transport.
“All you need to do is visit our UWA offices, look at our management plan and see what you can express interest in. Come and add value.”
Kidepo Valley National Park lies in the rugged, semi-arid valleys between Uganda’s borders with Sudan and Kenya, some 700km from Kampala. It is found in Kaabong District, North Eastern Uganda, sprawling over 1,442 square kilometres.
The park actually straddles the Narus and Kidepo river valleys, both located in the great Kidepo basin, bounded by the highlands of Mount Morungole in the southern, the rugged Napore-Nyagia mountain range in the western area, the Natira and Lokayot hills in the north-east, the Lotukei mountains in the south of Sudan marking the north of the park.