BIRTH OF BIRDING IN UGANDA BY JOHNNIE KAMUGISHA
When we started bird watching here in Uganda, people thought we were mad! We were chased by the locals, arrested by the police, and harassed for doing what we loved.
Eight of us began birding in the late 90s and we hatched a plan to develop bird-watching tourism in Uganda. Having read The Audubon Ark, a history of the National Audubon Society that was started by George Bird Grinnell in 1886, I knew it was not going to be easy…
It all started with forming the Uganda Bird Guides Club, the first National Birding Club on African soil. We started enlightening our colleagues who didn’t know much about bird watching and agreed on how to execute our mission.
We started by monitoring different birding sites and built a birding trail off Entebbe Road that we called Heritage Trail. Early on, we were literally chased by villagers and townspeople with machetes, sticks and other implements. They thought we were measuring their land, photographing their houses, and conducting other nefarious deeds. Many thought my Opticron telescope was a surveyor’s gadget. When chased, we would run, hide our gadgets, then come back and explain what we were doing.
Over time, most people ended up catching the bug – they would call us and point out birds they had
seen, where they were nesting, and other behaviors. The birds even softened the police. Several times,
while my friends recorded birdcalls with a play back machine, policemen arrived, inquired about their
intent, and arrested them. When my friends played back the birdsongs at the station, however, they
were immediately released. One time a famous general approached me at the Heritage Trail and
berated me with questions about what I was doing, but after some time discussing birds and showing
him the birds, he softened and invited me to his land to show me “his” birds.
Like the Audubon Society Wardens, we were ready for whatever would come our way. We started
sensitizing locals (i.e., educating people about birds and conservation) in sites that we birded. An
example is Mabamba Swamp, where boatmen used to hit waterbirds like African Jacana, Squacco
Heron, and African Swamphen with paddles. All that stopped after our efforts to teach them about
birds and now the locals rely on birding tourists to feed their families.
Speaking of Mbamba Swamp, it’s a primary location for Shoebill – with a high success rate of seeing
them. But years ago two colleagues and I were the first tour guides to see Shoebill in Mbamba. Our
friends did not believe us, as literature available at the time said that Shoebills were only found in
Murchison Falls National Park. We organized ourselves the following weekend, went back and lucky enough spotted not one, but TWO Shoebills. This was an exciting find and positioned us well for lead the birding scene.
We continued birding and sensitizing the locals in the field, in their communities, and even on TV. We took guiding and tourism courses and have trained many others to do so. Uganda now has a good number of professionally trained bird guides, on par with any other bird-rich country, and we are still training more. Please come visit us in Uganda.