(Louise Jasper 17 May 2017)
Locals are rallying together to protect Lake Victoria’s valuable wetlands and its inhabitants. The world’s largest tropical lake spans three countries and nourishes both the rich wildlife and the impoverished communities that live around it. But its resources have also attracted less desirable attention – such as traffickers targeting iconic birds such as the Shoebill.
As the sun rises over the Mabamba Bay Wetland on the northwestern shores of Lake Victoria, East Africa, a canoe slowly navigates a winding channel lined with papyrus and reeds. A light mist still clings to the water, and three tourists jump excitedly at every rustle, ripple and flutter of wings as they peer into the dense vegetation. Their guide Julius Musenda, a fisherman from the local village of Kasanje who knows the swamp like the back of his hand, keeps his sharp eyes peeled for the feathered prize they have all come to find.
Mabamba Bay is widely recognised as the best place to see the mysterious Shoebill Balaeniceps rex in Uganda, but a sighting is never guaranteed. Tension is mounting, they must soon return to land to catch their flight and time is growing short. There! He’s spotted one at last: an unmistakeable blue-grey bird with a massive bill and small white eyes, standing still as stone as it waits for its next meal to swim within range. As his clients gasp, focus their binoculars and snap away at their cameras, Julius smiles with relief. His clients will leave Uganda today happy and satisfied; a job well done.
Julius is a member of the Mabamba Bird Guides and Conservation Association, which is in turn part of the Mabamba Wetland Eco-Tourism Association (MWETA), along with two other Local Conservation Groups (LCGs). These community groups are run by volunteers who aim to conserve and sustainably manage the wetlands’ natural resources, and are part of a network of over 2,000 similar groups working at BirdLife Important Bird & Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) around the world.
The Shoebill and a range of other interesting wildlife such as the Blue Swallow Hirundo atrocaerulea, Papyrus Gonolek Laniarius mufumbiri and Sitatunga Antelope Tragelaphus spekii attract ever-increasing numbers of visitors to the swamp, providing vital income for the local people. So in 2013 and 2014 when wildlife traffickers began to target the Shoebill in Mabamba Bay for sale to zoos and private collectors, the community took swift and direct action to stamp out the trade.
The local people were able to act so quickly and confidently because they were well organised and aware of their rights and responsibilities as stewards of the wetland, which is an IBA protected under the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty that provides the framework for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands and their resources.. They also fostered close relationships with local law enforcement agencies and government bodies, and were able to rely on their support when the need arose.
Vitally, they had the motivation to protect their local patch from those who wished to exploit it for short-term gain. MWETA focused their conservation efforts through the creation of a sophisticated Community Action Plan, with assistance from Nature Uganda (BirdLife Partner in Uganda), which also helped them better understand the importance and value of their natural resources.
Mabamba Bay, like some other wetlands in the area, is not included in Uganda’s official protected area system. Its management therefore lies largely in the hands of local people and civil society organisations such as MWETA, who try to conserve it in the face of serious threats including poaching, pollution, invasive species and agricultural encroachment – problems also affecting the wider Lake Victoria Basin.