TOURISM & LOCKDOWN
Things do not look great at Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary.
One of Africa's most prominent chimpanzee habitats is struggling to feed its animals after tourist numbers dried up due to the lockdown measures enforced to prevent the spread of the ubiquitous coronavirus.
"This is really a tough time and a time of uncertainty," said Joshua Rukundo, the executive director of the chimpanzee sanctuary, located 23km southeast of Entebbe on Lake Victoria.
"There are no visitors coming and that has affected our revenues," he added.
In late March, Uganda introduced a raft of new measures to stem the spread of the coronavirus, which has killed nearly 600,000 people across the globe. More than 14 million people have been infected around the world.
At 1,056 positive cases currently, Uganda has registered no death related to COVID-19.
With the closure of the airport to passenger traffic featuring on the long list of measures that Uganda instituted to curb the spread of the raging virus, the tourism industry would inevitably take a huge hit.
In fact, experts predict that the industry, which a significant contributor to Uganda's GDP, will bear the full brunt of the lockdown, which is being lifted in a phased manner.
"The tourism sector will be the hardest hit by coronavirus as the Government issues travel warnings to people travelling to, and out of Uganda, under its policy of social distancing in order to prevent and contain infections," PriceWaterhouseCoopers warned in their note about the impact of the virus on Uganda's economy.
Uganda depends heavily on tourists for foreign exchange. Tourism is the country's top foreign exchange earner and constitutes 7.7% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
And yet, for the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary, the lockdown is not the only challenge it is grappling with.
In May this year, the rising water levels of Lake Victoria due to heavy rains immersed nearly 20% of the 100-acre island.
"The flooding has created more problems for us. Our compound has been affected. It damaged some of the staff quarters. Some of the structures are not habitable," Rukundo said, pointing to a dire situation that appears to be getting out of hand.
There are about 50 chimps at Ngamba Island. Many of them were rescued from illegal captivity.
Apart from operational costs, feeding the chimpanzees with both fresh foods and cereal, including oranges, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, avocado, maize floor, millet, soy, pawpaw, cabbages, pineapples and jackfruit were the regular concerns at the sanctuary.
Ray of hope
Businessman Alain Goetz, the former chief executive of African Gold Refinery, may be out of Uganda but he still retains a soft spot for the chimpanzees at Ngamba Island.
Throughout the lockdown, and as and when the tourist numbers pick up, Goetz has pledged to continue supporting the sanctuary.
"It is always a great pleasure for us to do what we do for Ngamba Island and I pledge to continue supporting the sanctuary until the tourists return," he told reporters.
He did not mention the value of the support as that will depend on when the tourists return to the island, thereby the sanctuary becoming self-sustainable.
For Goetz, ensuring that the chimpanzee sanctuary thrives is something that he says he is committed to. While still running the Entebbe-based African Gold Refinery, Goetz on a number of occasions visited the sanctuary.
He also often asked the staff to visit the island with food items for the chimps.
Goetz's connection with the chimps is not new. In the late 1980s, while working in Burundi, he adopted a lost chimpanzee, which he named Cheetah.
While thinking of returning the chimpanzee to its natural habitat, Dr. Jane Goodall, who is considered to be the world's foremost expert on chimpanzees, set up a foundation in Burundi, a transit sanctuary for chimps. It was then that Goetz contacted Goodall and took Cheetah to the newly-formed sanctuary.
When war broke out in Burundi, some of the chimps were moved to Uganda at Ngamba Island while others were taken to neighbouring Kenya.
"Chimpanzees are very interesting animals and it is important that other companies can also come up and support Ngamba Island," said Goetz.
On his part, Rukundo said he could not thank Goetz enough, saying he has been a true friend of the sanctuary for a long time.
Why Ngamba Island
The chimpanzee sanctuary remains one of the model habitats for primates in Africa. It is a tourist attraction, fetching Uganda much-needed foreign exchange.
"We have set a standard for Africa. It will be unfortunate if our standards fell because of lack of resources to maintain the place," Rukundo weighed in.
At least 65% of the budget that is used to run the sanctuary comes from tourists. However, the sanctuary has not received any visitors since February, according to Rukundo.
He said they are negotiating with Government for support.
It is not clear when this support will come. Government is cash-strapped due to the slowdown of the economy, which has inevitably led to a drop in tax revenues.
The sanctuary has a number of ways in which it mobilizes money. For instance, one can adopt a chimp or feed it.
For now, protecting the chimps from the coronavirus remains critical to Rukundo and his team. He said they need to buy sanitizers, soap, and any other item that is critical in fighting the spread of the virus.
All that, and much more, needs money.