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Are big cats at risk of extinction?

One of the main reasons people go to national parks is to see wild animals in their natural habitats.

Among the animals one does not want to miss are the big cats, notably lions, leopards and cheetahs. A game drive can only be satisfactory once one sees those three, and this has been the trend in all parks where all or some of these cats roam. But all over Africa, this trend is changing. Africa is facing a major decline in the number of the big cats mostly due to human activity.

Minister Kiwanda Suubi walks alongside Miss Tourism Rwenzori during this year’s World Wildlife day in Kasese

This is why the World Wildlife day, celebrated annually on March 3, had the theme “Big cats: Predators under threat” for this year, with Uganda localising it as “Creating a safe environment for the survival of Uganda’s big cats.”

The celebrations held in Kasese district were filled with different activities that included a game drive through Queen Elizabeth national park. Rebecca Wamala, a student from St Lawrence Paris Palais, was disappointed at not seeing the lions after a long ride on her first time in a national park and she wondered what stories she would tell her friends back at school.

“One of the animals I wanted to see was a lion. The rest of the animals I have seen don’t interest me a lot; however much I have had fun, I am kind of disappointed,” she said.

The tour guides told Wamala the lions would be located further away at that time of the day, but the honest answer she took back to school was that the numbers of the big beasts were dwindling in this particular park of late.

“The ranger said people kill them when they attack their cattle. Even the elephants are killed when they attack their crops,” Wamala said.

The lion population is estimated at 400 in Uganda, in three protected areas including Queen Elizabeth national park; leopards are slightly above 2,000 and a handful of the elusive cheetahs can only be found in Kidepo Valley national park.

At the World Wildlife day celebrations in Kasese was a group of former poachers, now creating awareness against the vice. One on them, who declined to be named, told The Observer that whereas the elephant, pangolins, and other animals are marketable, killing of the big cats is done mostly as revenge, for pride and for their skins.

“If you get a leopard’s skin, for example, you might not work for the next two months after receiving the pay. Buyers from Europe will give you about Shs 8m and they will resell it at an even higher price,” said the former poacher.

On the game drive, we managed to see a single leopard tucked away high up in the trees. Our efforts to find more of the cats were futile. However, we came across several herds of elephants, many antelopes and kobs, warthogs, buffaloes and several bird species.

No matter what we saw and all that which excited us, many of us left disappointed at not seeing a single lion. Being my first time on a game drive, I was expecting to at least see the mighty beast take down an antelope live, the way they do on NatGeo Wild, but it never came to pass.

According to rangers, the wild cats are easier to spot during early morning game drives.

At the main function held in Kasese town, the mayor, Godfrey Kabyanga, asked Tourism ministry officials to consider fast-tracking the president’s directive of putting up electric fences around the parks to prevent animals from crossing into people’s gardens and kraals where they risk getting killed. This, he said, will help to salvage the number of big cats in Uganda’s wild.

The minister of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities, Ephraim Kamuntu, however, was not sure on how and when this could be put in place.
National parks cover hundreds of square kilometres and Uganda has 10 of them.

He told the gathering that his ministry was undertaking a feasibility study on the issue while in the meantime using other methods of protecting the animals like engaging the community through sensitisation.

“These animals fear bees. So, we are working with communities around the parks to do beekeeping at the borders, the animals won’t cross and the communities will get income,” Kamuntu said.

Also, Uganda Wildlife Authority shares its revenue with the districts where the parks are located, which has increased the sense of stakeholding among the communities.

Hopefully, the communities will similarly be more protective of the animals that attract most tourists to their districts.

Best places to see the big cats in Uganda

Lions
The best places to see lions in Uganda include; Kidepo Valley, Murchison Falls, and Queen Elizabeth national parks.  There are also lions in Lake Mburo national park and in the Semliki wildlife reserve, but more often heard than seen.

Cheetahs
In recent years people have spotted cheetahs on the northern side of Murchison Falls national park. The best wildlife park to see cheetahs in Uganda is in East Africa’s remote Kidepo Valley national park.

Leopards
Leopards call many national parks home and can be seen in Kidepo Valley, Murchison Falls, Lake Mburo, Queen Elizabeth and Semliki national parks.

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