Charlotte Beauvoisin talks to Kojo Bentum-Williams about Conservation in Africa during the Pandemic.
The VA Tourism Podcast is a dedicated platform for discussing happenings in the travel and tourism sector. It is hosted by Kojo Bentum-Williams, the Managing Editor and Publisher of Africa’s Leading Travel Media VoyagesAfriq Travel Media.
Listen to the VA Tourism Podcast here (25 minutes). Below is a transcript of our conversation (with links to further reading).
Kojo, VoyagesAfriq: tell us a little about yourself and what you do in Uganda.
My name is Charlotte. My Ugandan name is Nagawa, which in the local language means that I am the protector of the Red-tailed Monkey Nkima. I have a lot of fun with this name. Some of my Ugandan friends call me Nagawa and don’t even know me as Charlotte! Read “Nagawa, you cowardised – a detour via the Congo.”
It’s quite poignant to be called Nagawa because it has a strong conservation message: when you have a Kiganda name you automatically have a totem. It’s your responsibility to protect your totem and I have (quite a glamorous) monkey. Some people have a mushroom, or a tree totem and they are not allowed to kill the animal or eat it or chop down that tree so there’s a nice conservation aspect to having a Kiganda name. Read “Bwindi – eye to eye with my totem.”
Uganda is my adopted home. I’ve been here since 2009 when I arrived as a volunteer with the Uganda Conservation Foundation (UCF), a British charity that does a lot of work on Human Wildlife Conflict and antipoaching in the National Parks. I came here on a two-year contract as a VSO volunteer. VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) is for professional volunteers who want to share their skills with developing countries.
I ended up in Uganda not knowing very much at all about the country. I had heard of Idi Amin and Lake Victoria, but I don’t think I knew much else about Uganda. However, I loved Uganda as soon as I got here. It’s a very beautiful country with incredibly welcoming people. Read “Why #VisitUganda? Dispelling a few myths.”
I had some really great experiences with UCF. We would go to Queen Elizabeth National Park and hang out with the rangers. The most interesting part (of volunteering with UCF) wasn’t just the wild animals but meeting the villagers, the subsistence farmers who live on the edge of the National Park who have to put up with buffaloes and elephants and other animals that were trying get into the shambas and eat their crops. Read “How do you deal with an elephant in your garden?”
UCF has interventions like an elephant trench which is a long trench – several kilometres long in places. The idea is that it is a physical barrier that stops an elephant wandering into your garden. Elephants are incredibly destructive; what they don’t eat, they can trample. That was my first job here in Uganda – fundraising and marketing for UCF.
Our aim was to build the capacity of rangers that work in Queen Elizabeth National Park. In these big remote areas, it’s hard to cover a lot of ground and generally the poachers know the area better than anyone else. We gave the rangers capacity to patrol using boats on the lakes and rivers; it’s quicker to jump in a boat and go straight across the lake than it is to find the vehicle, find the fuel and drive round the lake. Doing things ‘the old way’ on land gave the poachers time to escape. Read “Anti-poaching: the answer’s in the gum boots!”
I cut my teeth in conservation in Uganda although I’m not a conservationist by training, I’m a marketing manager. Uganda is such a diverse country – and a developing country with many environmental issues – so I spend a lot of time volunteering to promote anti-poaching, birdwatching, gorilla tracking and more. Conservation is my big passion and I’m still very actively involved in lots of conservation projects.
Kojo, VoyagesAfriq: At what point did you come into media? When did you launch Diary of a Muzungu?
I heard this blog word about 10 years ago and thought blogging sounded like something I’d like to do. I was working in proposal writing in London, so I had the formal training of business writing and gradually built up my portfolio of CSR projects. I liked writing for the staff newsletter and that kind of thing, so I came into communications through corporate-type work.
I had a strong desire to come and live in Africa (since I was a teenager in fact), and the blog was a way to document this life changing-experience. Rather than write lots of emails to friends and family back home, I said to them ‘if you’re interested in my new life, why don’t you follow my blog?’ That’s how Diary of a Muzungu started.
Early stories were about me sleeping under a mosquito net for the first time and going out into the bush with the rangers. The first few months in Uganda were really amazing. I love birds and the tropical birds that we have just outside our window here in Uganda were things I wanted to shout about all the time. Read “Birds send my heart a flutter.”
The blog was a hobby that kind of got out of control! After a couple of years, I met a Ugandan tourism marketing lecturer who told me I was promoting Uganda in a way no-one else was. This was a lightbulb moment for me. I had no idea I was promoting Uganda. I thought I was just telling the world about my new life and conservation issues here. Now I write to promote Uganda and East Africa for tourism, but a lot of my stories are about conservation because those issues are really dear to me.
Kojo, VoyagesAfriq: How has COVID pandemic affected Uganda? And how has COVID affected conservation in Uganda?
Uganda is not doing badly right now. [This podcast was recorded at the end of August 2020]. We have less than 20 deaths from coronavirus but things have gathered speed over the last two weeks and Ugandans are now starting to realise that COVID is real and that we have to take action. Unfortunately, people are quite reluctant to wear masks and people who have them don’t wear them properly and don’t understand you have to social distance as well. In terms of awareness, we are very much behind the curve here but fortunately the number of infections is comparatively low by comparison, for example, with Kenya and Tanzania. The deaths remain low and we have a very young population (over half the population is under 35) so we are hopeful that we won’t suffer too much because the economy is on its knees. The airport and the borders have been closed for almost five months and tourism is the number one foreign revenue earner. A lot of people are really suffering financially.
Kojo, VoyagesAfriq: Looking at conservation, a lot of funding for National Parks across Africa is through tourism. How are people navigating that now that tourism is effectively shut?
To answer that, let me give you a description of where I live.
I live on the edge of Kibale National Park in Western Uganda which is 795 km². It’s one of our top parks because of the chimpanzee population. There are 13 types of primate here, but the chimpanzees are the people (rather our ‘relatives’) that tourists come to see. Chimpanzee tracking tourism is shut* so even though some of the parks have reopened the primate parks (with chimpanzees and gorillas) remain closed. That’s because we know that they are susceptible to COVID because we are approximately 98% the same DNA.
*Chimpanzee tracking tourism has been reopened since the recording of the podcast.
I live at a place called Sunbird Hill. The land touches the National Park and so the lack of tourism has devastated everything that has been happening around here. All the people that we interact with are guides or rangers and most of them lost their jobs, or nominally still have a job but have been sent home with no money or a bit of pocket money.
The people from the village are doing a little better because they can still farm. We live in a very lush area, so we have two harvests. Villagers are planting cassava, beans, Irish and sweet potatoes, millet and ground nuts.
As for the guides who move up and down the country, they are not getting any tourists. They are not driving tourists around and not getting tips (which can be worth as much as the actual salary). Our guides are really affected because not only are they without salary, they also miss the tips, which are sometimes in dollars.
The Uganda Wildlife Authority have committed to keeping everything going for a year and the UWA Executive Director Sam Mwandha announced that they would carry on funding the anti-poaching patrols until July 2021. They committed to 12 months but there is a huge amount of insecurity within the conservation sector – and of course the tourism sector – because we don’t how long the pandemic is going to last for and at what point we need to source extra money into running those reserves. Read Uganda Wildlife Authority discusses wildlife protection during the pandemic on Facebook Live.
Uganda’s savannah parks have reopened but who’s going there? We don’t have a lot of domestic tourists and besides, domestic tourists pay a lot less than international tourists do to enter the parks. We are in a dire situation now and I’m not sure how we going to make up the shortfall in the long run.
Fundraising is happening, however. African Wildlife Foundation, for example, has been very visible throughout the pandemic and they’ve fundraised to support rangers. Even though a ranger may be on a salary from the Uganda Wildlife Authority, the concern is that these rangers worry about losing their jobs and may turn a blind eye to people going to the parks to poach. We have seen the increase in poaching across Africa and most of it, we believe, is for subsistence. However, there’s still a danger of the commercial poaching element coming in and taking advantage of the fact that people don’t have the money that they used to; also, some rangers can be persuaded to turn a blind eye or will even become poachers themselves.
Kojo, VoyagesAfriq: Sometimes there is a misconception that nature is getting a break in the face of pressures such as land grabbing, illegal mining, wildlife poaching and so on? What’s your stance on that?
We have seen the chimps many times from private land and I do wonder whether they miss human interaction. However, my feeling is that the chimpanzees and gorillas might be enjoying a holiday during lockdown. Although you only spend an hour with the primates if you go on an organised tour, these animals are wild and I’m sure they prefer just being left to do their own thing.
We have seen clearer skies across the world so it’s wonderful to see the environment recovering. Mount Fuji for example is visible and Mount Kenya can now be seen from Nairobi.
I do feel that wildlife and Protected Areas are recovering to some degree but then I’m very concerned about areas that are not Protected Areas; in fact, most of Africa’s wildlife is outside the gazetted areas of the National Parks and Conservancies. Here, for instance, on the edge of Kibale National Park we know a bushbuck was poached. It is not a rare animal but it’s not common to see one so I was very disappointed to find that Sunbird Hill’s site guide (and reformed poacher) found a trap and evidence that an animal was killed on our land a few weeks ago. That’s the first time that we’ve heard of animals being poached on this part of land. We also hear that there was a plan to catch an elephant recently.
The pressing issue we have now is the increasing human wildlife conflict: we had elephants on our land last night. They did quite a lot of damage as they were in our neighbours’ banana plantation and were uprooting cassava and sweet potatoes too. If you don’t have tourists and you don’t have a regular income now – more than ever – you need all those crops. You really don’t need elephants or chimps or baboons coming in and destroying everything, sometimes in one night. Some kids told us that villagers were trying to catch an elephant perhaps because the elephant was going on their land or was it because they are looking for extra money and they want the ivory? (I don’t think you can just kill an elephant and sell the ivory just like that but the plan to kill an elephant is unexpected).
At the same time, more trees are being felled outside the Protected Area. Climate change is going to suffer as a result of thisbecause people are cutting trees to burn charcoal. Charcoal burning creates ‘quick and easy money’ so we are really worried about the environment outside the protection of the National Park.
Kojo, VoyagesAfriq: In terms of policy, have you heard any deliberate policies from the Ugandan government so that we don’t roll back the country’s conservation achievements?
I’m impressed that UWA has made the public commitment to keep people in their jobs and to keep the law-enforcement patrols over the coming year but beyond that I haven’t seen anything from government about supporting conservation in Uganda (during and beyond the pandemic).
I think individuals are trying; individual tour companies and conservation organisations, for example, are trying to do what they can, fundraising for villagers who traditionally earn from tourism but I don’t see anything from government, but somebody may correct me if I’ve missed that.
Kojo, VoyagesAfriq: Do you think domestic tourism in Uganda has good prospects?
I like looking to Kenya to see what they’ve done with their domestic tourism. They have completely overhauled tourism in Kenya over the last five years. It’s incredibly impressive and I love meeting Kenyans because when they go away for the weekend they go to the Maasai Mara or Mombasa. They are incredibly adventurous so it is possible, but Uganda is much further down the line. Having said that, I do meet Ugandans in their 20s and early 30s who are adventurous. They like to travel in groups and they like to go away for weekends somewhere and party. Some of them are into safari activities as well. People might say ‘Africans don’t want to go on safari to see animals.’ Actually, that’s not quite true; I think the younger demographic gets it and they are interested in conservation issues and going out and exploring and seeing animals. Read “How to be a tourist – my top four tips for Ugandans who want to travel.”
Older Ugandans who travel (40s, 50s and above) are still more likely to want to go to Mombasa or somewhere outside Uganda. They don’t see Uganda as a holiday destination and that’s partly because the pricing and the packages haven’t been right but we do talk a lot about domestic tourism now in Uganda and hopefully the moment is right for that. We really need Ugandans and expats living in Uganda to make lodge bookings and to keep the revenue coming in to keep people in jobs.
Kojo, VoyagesAfriq: what is one thing that you think we should do better post-pandemic in the tourism world?
There have been some silver linings during coronavirus for me. Living on the edge of National Park I spend a lot of time outdoors. I have always been an outdoors kind of person but I notice that if I get fed up, I go outside for just five minutes and nature resets my brain. It puts me on a more positive wavelength just noticing the flowers and hearing the birds sing.
I think that’s a feeling that many people have had around the world, even people in towns and stuck in apartments, they have had a yearning to be outside and go to the park
I hope we remember this. I hope we harness this feeling because this could be really powerful: the feeling that nature can make you feel so much better about yourself and about life. How do we harness that so people understand the intrinsic value of nature and wildlife, rather than seeing it as a commodity?
I think things go through phases don’t they? Some would say ‘let’s give a value to an elephant because then we are more likely to protect it, if we see it as a tourism investment’ but let’s not forget that all these living things also have an intrinsic value which I know has really kept me positive during this time.
[Read my #LockdownDiaries that document my daily nature walks. Story no. 12 finds us birdwatching in Semliki Wildlife Reserve in Uganda’s Rift Valley].
I’m a travel blogger so I’m normally on the road. I also teach digital marketing to tour operators so everything I normally do has been put on hold. It’s therefore been really important to get out there and be intrigued and captivated by nature. How do we harness that going forward – that pure joy of nature?
I’ve been listening to a lot of audiobooks. I rarely get newspapers and I have really relied on reading and audiobooks. I noticed that one of the top audiobook downloads was the sound of the forest; it comprises thirty minutes of raindrops and a waterfall. That audiobook showed me how people really yearn for this positive connection with nature. Let’s remember that feeling and try and work with that as we try and push our way out of this situation.
Kojo, VoyagesAfriq: what is your message to tourists and travellers: what ethics do we need to adhere to?
This is a great opportunity for us to rethink how we travel and to plan to travel more sustainably. I was interested to hear your podcast with Judy Kepher Gona of Sustainable Travel Tourism Agenda (STTA) in Kenya who is doing fantastic work regarding sustainable tourism and the future. This is not just about protecting wildlife and getting community involvement in all aspects of the value chain but also looking at reducing our carbon footprint when we travel.
I would like visitors to interact more with communities and to travel more responsibly. I would like to see plastic water bottles banned. Kenya has banned them from the National Parks in June this year. (Please don’t track with a plastic bottle – bring your own refillable metal bottle). These small things make a big difference. As I say, I live on the edge of a National Park and we don’t want a tour van to turn up and empty a day’s worth of plastic bottles with us. We are on the edge of a village; how do we recycle 20 plastic bottles?
I’d also say to potential visitors: if you are planning a holiday in Uganda or Africa, please postpone and don’t cancel. We need you here. It is not just about needing money, but we also need the exposure and the good stories that people take back home and share on Facebook, for example.
How do we support conservation during this lean period? If people can think about making cash donations in the short-term, then please do so because cash does make a big difference to the motivation levels of guides and rangers and local people. I’d also say – because it’s all connected – don’t eat bush meat and don’t buy ivory or wildlife products because this is what is driving the increase in poaching. It’s all connected. So many aspects of our lives are far more connected than we realised until this year.
Thanks Kojo for hosting me on VA Tourism Podcast!