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Formerly sleepy Wakiso now has a wild side

On a chilly Sunday afternoon, I chose to see what the fuss was about this Kavumba recreation centre in Wakiso district that has become the weekend destination for Kampalans, but does not involve a beach.

The afternoon drizzle may have dampened the lush green environment, but not the mood of revellers, mostly groups of families. Popular for its swimming pool, gardens and other facilities, Kavumba recreational Centre has a privately owned zoo that seems to be a major attraction too.

We walked towards one of the enclosed areas to view some of the wild animals and Alpha Dadaire, the assistant zoo manager, told patrons the Kavumba wildlife conservation and research centre is visited by students, tourists and researchers alike.

Alpha Dadaire, the assistant zoo manager holding a python

With the big gate open, Dadaire asked us to stay behind the wire mesh as he slipped through the small gate into the large field where different wild animals harmoniously grazed. How different they are from humans!

I counted two zebras, two waterbucks, three impalas, one Uganda kob and one reedbuck, locally known as enjaza, a totem among the Baganda.

Dadaire said guests, especially Baganda, are so happy when they see their totems in the flesh; the different animals Baganda revere are quite many in this zoo.

The animals treated us to a moment of thrilling entertainment as they ran back and forth across the field, as if aware that they were being watched.

However, I was frustrated by their constant running that made it hard to capture any photos with my basic camera. Nonetheless, their ‘acrobatics’ and the loud thud of their hooves on the soft wet ground were a thrill.

According to Dadaire, the zebras that were rescued from areas around Lake Mburo national park have lived in Kavumba for close to three years.

Having had enough of these happy animals, we continued to another section of the zoo, at the far end of the facility. At the entrance a huge ostrich paced about, in total oblivion of the drizzle that was getting heavier by the minute.

“It can run up to 60kph,” said Dadaire about the ostrich as he guided us to the crocodiles.

Our excitement was snuffed out upon finding the two crocodiles in the water body where we could not see them clearly. Dadaire said they had retreated to the water to escape the drizzle. Such irony!

Crocodiles at Kavumba

As the drizzle progressed into thick raindrops, we decided to take shelter. I used the rain break to seek out the zoo manager, Joseph Musonda.

Taking me through Kavumba’s history, Musonda said the wildlife and conservation centre was opened in December 2012 with just a few animals and sits on more than 30 acres of land.

Over time, the centre acquired more animals rescued from communities, with hope to acquire more animals to make it a one-stop fauna centre.

“We are not allowed to get animals from parks and protected areas. We only get [rescue] those that stray into the communities,” said Musonda. “So, it takes quite a while to accumulate wild animals.”

The centre operates on a class E license from Uganda Wildlife Authority. Musonda said the facility conserves wildlife for education purposes.

“Researchers come here to conduct studies on various animals, especially snakes, since we have a very wide range of snakes as you will see,” he said.

The snake collection at Kavumba comprises both venomous and non-venomous snakes. The venomous snakes include the forest cobras, Egyptian cobras, blanching tree snakes, Jackson’s tree snakes and eastern vine snakes, among others.

The African rock python, locally known as ttimba, is the only non-venomous snake in their collection. But where the python is lacking in venom, it more than makes up for it in size and muscle strength.

Apart from snakes and crocodiles, Kavumba’s zoo also boasts of monitor lizards, tortoises and turtles. Musonda said the zoo has a whole range of monkeys, including the red tail monkey, locally known as nakabugo, and colobus monkeys known as engeye in Luganda.

The other monkey species include the Uganda mangabey, vervet monkeys and De Brazza’s monkeys from the Central African Republic.

In addition to the two ostriches, Kavumba’s bird selection comprises crested cranes, parrots, Egyptian geese, domestic geese and pigeons, among others. No wonder the groups of patrons I see are mostly families, giving their children educational memories.

For cat lovers, be sure to see the Genet cat, locally known as akasimba, and the serval cat, locally known as emmondo.

The serval cat is a close look-alike to the leopard. Fifty minutes later, a clear blue sky unleashed a bright sun as the last drops of rain faded away. Dadaire summoned the other tourists as I wrapped up my interview to catch up with them.

We headed towards the crocodile sanctuary and found the two huge crocodiles relaxing on the dry concrete just beside their habitat, absorbing the post-rain sunshine as smartphones and any gadget with a camera snapped away.

“We feed them twice a week,” said Dadaire. “They mostly eat chicken and beef.” At the monkey cage, a little girl aged about three years was fascinated but also scared by a red tail monkey that reached for her through the cage.

Another Ganda family from the monkey clan was chattering excitedly about their totem, calling out to their children to pose for photos with their human-like totem.

“Trevor, weddira ki [what is your totem]?” the excited father asked his five-year-old son who timidly responded, “Nkima [monkey].”

“See what I told you?” Dadaire turned to me. “People like seeing their totems.”

As we moved to the serval cat, many were stunned by its striking resemblance to the leopard. Dadaire said the two animals, though both from the cat family, are different and the serval cat does not grow as big as the leopard. After seeing a selection of other animals, we were taken to the snake sanctuary to end our tour.

Different snake species in individual rooms with a glass display, ‘sat’. There are at least 10 snake species, the biggest being the two African rock pythons lying next to each other in one of the cages.

“Does any of you want to see the python at close range?” Dadaire asked.

In response, many revellers just walked away. Dadaire let them go with another guide as he prepared to bring out the python for the brave ones to see. And touch.

Moments later he reappeared with one of the reptiles hanging around his neck. As a few more people took off, only three of us stayed to capture photos of this brave man ‘wearing’ a snake.

“Don’t fear it, I’m holding it firmly and it is non-poisonous. You can touch it,” Dadaire told a young man who was posing for a photo next to him.

Overcoming his fear, he touched it. When my turn came to pose next to Dadaire, I just could not will my hand to touch the scaly reptile, despite all the encouragement.

Those ten seconds I spent within a foot of a python frankly beat every adrenalin-fuelled thing I have ever done. As I made my way out of the zoo, I was transferred to a totally different world as loud music, cheers and merrymaking came from the swimming pool area.

At the far end, a nice hotel beckoned. Along the tarmac roads within the facility, several children were riding bicycles and tricycles.

That is when I realized I was still in Wakiso and not so far away in the wilderness as I had felt moments ago while looking at all those animals.

By the time I drove out of Kavumba, dusk was falling but for the revellers who were just streaming in, their day was clearly just dawning.

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