Five years ago, a fisherman from Hamukungu fishing village in Queen Elizabeth national park was going about his activities when he noticed a distressed baby elephant in the water.
The lone calf, separated from its herd, was struggling to swim in the shallow waters of Lake George. The fisherman helped the elephant stay afloat as his colleagues alerted the local wildlife authorities.
The baby elephant’s umbilicus was still intact – expected to fall off by three weeks. This was proof that the elephant was still young and estimated to be two weeks old. After two weeks of failing to reconnect with its herd, the calf was transported to the Uganda Wildlife Conservation Education Center (UWEC), popularly known as Entebbe Zoo, for further management.
At the climax of the Group of 77 and China summit in Uganda recently, spouses of the visiting dignitaries were treated to an exclusive behind-the-scenes experience at UWEC. They explored the inner workings of the zoo as well as the progress of the baby elephant whose story caught their attention.
According to Onesmus Mutuuza, an assistant zookeeper, who has hand-raised the calf, now named Pragna Nyakato, it is growing well and will be five years old this September.
“The fisherman requested that we rename the elephant Nyakato after his daughter while Pragna is a well-wisher who fundraised for its milk,” Mutuuza said.
He explained that elephants are protective of their babies to the extent that if one of its own is abandoned, chances are high that its parents would have, perhaps, been killed.
HAND-RAISING BABY NYAKATO
The team at UWEC embarked on an exciting but expensive journey to work as foster parents of Nyakato. During the visit, it was evident that she found solace with the caretakers.
Nyakato listened keenly to all the instructions. When the visitors engaged in feeding and petting, she remained calm in an open space. For two and a half years, Nyakato was fed on SMA Gold formula milk – a tin goes for Shs 120,000 – yet she consumed up to two tins per day.
The manager of the animal and horticulture department at UWEC, Dr Racheal Mbabazi, told The Observer that like humans, animals such as elephants, rhinos, and cats are not fed on cow or goat milk in their baby stages.
“We weaned Nyakato at four years – even their mothers in the wild do so at that age. Currently, she feeds on specific plants, vegetables and water. Nyakato is now off the formula milk because she is adjusting well to the new diet,” Mbabazi said.
Nyakato’s exceptional growth was a huge relief to the UWEC team given the cost implication of feeding amidst funding constraints.
The executive director of UWEC, Dr James Musinguzi, noted that the cost of nutrition for the diverse range of species in the zoo remains an expensive venture. The feeding budget alone stretches to Shs 3bn annually.
“You keep rescuing some animals which you had not anticipated. So, it’s unlikely that we will budget lower than the Shs 3bn that we budgeted for last year. The prices of foodstuffs keep fluctuating, which stretches our budget,” Musinguzi said.
Although he was grateful for the current government support, a lot is left to be desired. UWEC has an operational budget of Shs 9bn and a development budget of Shs 12bn yet each animal has a classified nutrition menu.
During the feeding sessions, visitors got up close and had personal moments with animals such as giraffes, lions, elephants, crocodiles, and chimpanzees. UWEC is home to 67 animal species and more than 400 individual animals ranging from primates, birds, hoof stocks and reptiles.
The carnivores take a huge portion of the funds because they feed mainly on fresh chicken, beef and fish. Chimpanzees feed mostly on fruits.
According to the public relations officer of UWEC, Eric Ntalumbwa, the 22 chimpanzees feed at least four times a day. For instance, they take three cups of porridge for breakfast and one egg each, twice a week.
The day’s menu also includes cassava, sweet potatoes, oranges, passion fruits, jackfruits, pawpaws, watermelons, sugarcane and guavas. In the evening, they feed on vegetables, while posho is served twice a week.
“The large reptile species such as African rock python eat chicken and small animals including rabbits and can be given a kid [a baby goat] as enrichment. Smaller species like cobras and vipers eat chicks and sometimes amphibians like frogs, which have been well inspected,” Ntalumbwa said.
The reptiles feed once a week, sometimes, once in two weeks, and at times more frequently than usual as determined by their molting behaviour and weather conditions. For rhinos, each feeds on 120kg of fresh grass, 10kgs of cow-nut pellets, water, and 35kg of dry Guyana grass daily.
The two crocodiles consume five to 10kgs of beef, chicken, or fresh fish. There are 10 lions at the zoo, with the oldest aged 16. In a day, a mature male lion eats an average of 9.5kg of meat, the female feeds on 7.5kg and 5.5kg for the cubs. They are also supplemented with liver, goat, and cow heads.
With the various feeding patterns, Musinguzi called for an increment of the center’s budget to ease operations.
“The government should attach importance to this center that it deserves because any tourist who misses an animal in our national parks, will find it here. The feeding budget is big but when you rescue an animal, you must ensure that it survives,” he said.
Meanwhile, there are numerous signposts prohibiting visitors from feeding the animals. For those who managed to feed them, they had to thoroughly sanitize and get special permission. There are CCTV cameras mounted in several locations to monitor any unauthorized feeding, which attracts a charge when found guilty.
For animals like baby Nyakato, UWEC does not intend to keep them in captivity but plans to come up with a viable group of elephants and take them back into the wild.
After the UWEC tour, the spouses of delegates were hosted to a luncheon at State House Entebbe, where the first lady, Janet Museveni, encouraged them to return soon and enjoy Uganda’s beauty beyond the zoo.
She wooed the spouses with the country’s endangered mountain gorillas and chimpanzees, lakes, rivers, and waterfalls, flanked by rich forests and wetlands. UWEC 2022 statistics indicate that the center received more than 470,000 visitors. Of these, 70 per cent were schoolchildren.