A couple of years ago, Zakayo, the long- serving chimpanzee at Uganda Wildlife Conservation Education Center (UWEC), received a more dignified burial than many Ugandans can ever hope for, and his birthday celebrations were always a source of ire in some circles that care less about wildlife.
Naming ceremonies for mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable and Mgahinga national parks are often accompanied by ceremony and much fanfare.
And now the animal lovers have delivered another fruit of their labour of love: Uganda’s first animal ambulance at UWEC, regardless how many human accident victims are still bundled onto police pickup trucks because of a shortage of human ambulances.
For wildlife fans and the Paradise Wildlife Park in the UK who made the ambulance donation, that is not the issue here; animals too have rights and need to be treated with dignity. After all, tourism is still Uganda’s top forex earner, by far!
The UWEC executive director, James Musinguzi, unveiled the ambulance at their premises in Entebbe last Wednesday.
The donation is part of an 11-year-old partnership between Paradise Wildlife Park and UWEC, which has also seen the latter’s staff trained in wildlife conservation.
The 50,000-pound vehicle (about Shs 243m) is fitted with a strong lighting system to enable rescuers move to the different animal habitats even during darkness, a dash camera that enables management to track the movement of the vehicle especially in dangerous places and other custom-built amenities.
The ambulance will be able to carry wild animals especially in the cat species, which include cheetahs, lions and leopards.
It will also carry chimpanzees, baboons and other primates to locations where they can be treated and rehabilitated.
UWEC rescued up to 441 birds of different species, 180 reptiles and 284 mammals between 2014 and 2019 that resulted from the conflict between human activity and wildlife.
The zoo has often been called in to capture crocodiles in communities that feel endangered by the animals, as well as to recover parrots, monkeys and other species being illegally kept as pets, among others.
Musinguzi said whereas the ambulance is a great achievement for the wildlife industry, government needs to buy a lot more in order to improve the industry, which serves as an enabler for Uganda’s tourism.
“Time will come when it is overwhelming, because the numbers are big and this is the beginning. One vehicle cannot be enough for the whole country,” Musinguzi said.
A hotline has also been set up for a search and rescue team under a new structure put in place by the new wildlife law that will provide for more jobs for personnel in the search and rescue department to immediately help animals endangered by illicit wildlife activities and diseases.
Barbara Alapo, the team leader of curators at UWEC, said communities that encroach on wildlife habitats have negative perceptions against some wildlife and will kill them on sight.
“We have had cases where animals are picked in very sad situations…some are beaten to death, for example owls [which are considered bad omens in many Ugandan cultures],” Alapo said. “[With the van], rescue efforts are going to increase.”
Aaron Witnall, an officer from Paradise Wildlife Park, the lead organization that donated the ambulance, said there is need for all stakeholders to look at wildlife as a contributor to the country’s tourism earnings and preserve them.
Currently, tourism brings in the dollars, yet to many Ugandans, animals are not worth any special treatment unless when being reared for meat and milk.
In places where humans and wildlife have to share spaces, the conflict has often resulted in the death of both humans and scores of animals.
Flavia Kabahenda, the UWEC board chairperson, said illicit wildlife activities such as poaching and illegal hunting remain a huge challenge that requires multinational cooperation so as to protect the remaining wildlife across the world.