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Bwindi Impenetrable National park, The Batwa people and Wildlife

Thousands of years ago there was steep mountains and narrow valleys pushed into shape by the rising western edge of the great East African Rift Valley, intersected by streams,rivers and waterways that flowed down the hills to form the lakes we now call Lake Edward, #Lake #Bunyoni and Lake Mutanda. Because of the geology, the rain fell and the trees grew in abundance until the forest was formed.

The lowlands were warm tropical forest, and the higher altitudes became a cooler, misty rainforest. Caught between the peaks of Rwenzori to the north, the Virunga Volcanoes in the south, the Albertine Rift and the Great Rift to the east and west, the pristine primeval forest stood silent and ancient for millennia.

Then the animals came.over the centuries many thousands of species came and made their homes here and formed one of the richest ecosystems on the planet.

When the world was covered in ice, Bwindi was a refuge for many species that have remained to create one of the most biologically diverse areas on earth. Today there are still over 120 species of mammals, 348 kinds of birds, 220 different #butterflies, 163 species of trees and 104 types of ferns. Migratory birds visit during the wet season, and roughly half of the world’s total mountain gorilla population lives here. It is the only forest in the world where both mountain gorillas and #chimpanzees coexist in the same #habitat.

And then the people came, First were the Batwa tribe, existing in natural harmony within the forest, they lived and worked, raised their families and told their stories for generations as custodians of the land and existed alongside the trees and the mighty #apes,they shared the forest with them, #hunting and #fishing as they took only what they needed for their daily lives.

Other people who followed migrated slowly to the area over many years. some came because they were displaced from their own homelands, some came to escape the ravages of war, some to make a better life from the rich soil and temperate climate, some from mere curiosity of a bigger world. They gave the forest the name Bwindi meaning ‘Impenetrable’, or ‘Place of Darkness’. And many of the people who came brought with them their knowledge of agriculture, logging and mining.

They settled the land all around the forest edge and began to cultivate it. Slowly, the forest began to shrink as the people went into the forest to cut trees, set up saw pits, tend to their bee-hives, collect plants for food and medicine.

As years passed, the forest continued to shrink in size. The tall stands of bamboo and hardwoods at the forest’s edge gave way to agricultural land, and the dense growths of vines and shrubs that covered the forest floor were cleared to make grazing land for livestock. The wild animals moved deeper into the rainforest, retreating into the high #mountains and the deep #valleys as their numbers too began to decrease, however they were followed for another much more lucrative income made by #poaching.

In 1932 the first attempts were made to preserve the rainforest, and 2 large blocks of land were designated as Crown Forest Reserves. In 1942 they were combined, enlarged, and renamed the ‘Impenetrable Central Crown Forest’, and placed under the joint control of the Ugandan government’s game and forest departments. The rising popularity of zoos and wildlife parks in the outside world created the need for live gorillas and chimpanzees to fill their cages. The desire of wealthy businessmen and aristocrats in both the East and the West to own a ‘trophy’ created the demand for ashtrays made from a mountain gorilla’s hand, a skin cape from a large male silverback; a pet chimpanzee; an antelope hide throw; a butterfly collection. Poaching was big business, and paid big money, and some of the local people profited. In 1964 the Reserve was re-designated as an animal sanctuary in order to provide extra protection, mainly to its mountain gorilla population, and in 1966, two other forest reserves were added to its land mass.

Finally, in 1991 the area was combined with Mgahinga Gorilla Reserve, and Rwenzori Mountains Reserve, and achieved its current status of National Park.

Things changed rapidly over the following 12 years, to attract revenue gorilla tracking became a tourist activity in April of 1993 and in 1994 another chunk of land was incorporated into the Park and it was inscribed on the World Heritage List.

The management changed again and responsibility shifted to the Uganda Wildlife Authority who still holds the reins today. In 2003, the final chunk of land was purchased and incorporated; making the total area of the Park its current 331 square kilometres/128 square miles. The reclassification has protected the gorillas the 2006 census showed that the population had increased to 340, from 300 in 1997. More than 100 of these 340 are habituated, and can be tracked all year round from four different points that access the forest: Buhoma, Ruhija, Rushaga and Nkuringo. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its ecological uniqueness and natural beauty Bwindi Impenetrable National Park should now retain its wildlife, its incredibly diverse flora and fauna, and its deep secrets for many generations yet to come.

And what of the people who make this beautiful place their home? How have they fared? the Batwa people, former custodial inhabitants of the forest for centuries have been evicted from their ancestral sites, and despite their historical claims to land rights have not benefitted from any national compensation scheme. They are no longer allowed to enter the park to access its resources, and this has caused resentment, and conflict. The Batwa have been the worst affected; living deep in Bwindi for generations without destroying the area’s ecosystem they now live on its fringes as displaced people, in relative poverty, doing menial work, for minimal income.

The mountain gorillas of Bwindi have suffered and recovered. Their numbers continue to increase thanks to the protection of the Ugandan Wildlife Authority although disease and habitat loss are still threats as is poaching.

Former poachers in the area have been persuaded away from this means of living by re-education and compensation from a shared revenue scheme but sadly where there is demand there will always be supply.

Tourism is a growing source of revenue to the area and gorilla tracking is becoming more popular however the habituation of gorillas to humans in order to facilitate tourism may have increased the damage they do to local inhabitants property and crops as their fear of people has decreased.

Bwindi today has incredible Wildlife outstanding features and landscapes but not without its problems like poverty and conflict between mankind and wildlife.

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