The Albertine region (AR) is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. It has over 70% of Uganda’s protected areas, which include; Murchison Falls, Semliki, Kibale national parks, Bugungu, Karuma, and Kabwoya wildlife reserves, Budongo and Bugoma central forests to mention but a few.
As reported by Uganda Rural Fund in 2013, about 85% of the Ugandan population in the Albertine region consists of farmers tilling the land for food production. According to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics, 2018, Uganda’s population grows at a rate of 3.7% per annum, which is among the fastest in the world.
Uganda’s discovered commercially viable quantities of oil in the Arbertine region are projected to be produced in 2023. These statistics coupled with the emergence of coronavirus disease (Covid-19), a global health pandemic, and low levels of livelihood have great implications on the existing natural resources and conservation efforts in Uganda.
In the Albertine region, households have been increasingly converting forests and wetlands into agricultural fields, which have greatly reduced forest cover over the years.
Natural climate variability and anthropogenic climate change also play a part in the increased conversion rates. As a result of climate change, crop harvests on existing farmland frequently underperform, leading smallholder farmers to convert more forest and wetland to agricultural fields to produce adequate food.
Continued reliance on nature and inefficient agricultural measures will ultimately diminish the households’ resilience to climate change, disrupt business supply chains, and reduce peoples’ livelihoods and employment opportunities, all of which in turn exacerbate poverty and food insecurity, and increase dependency on protected areas’ resources.
Moreover, critical habitat for the different taxa species of wildlife such as mammals, insects, amphibians, reptiles, fish, etc. is lost and the risk for species extirpation is likely to increase.
Natural ecosystems and the species in protected areas within the Albertine region are at a greater risk during the Covid-19 crisis. In Uganda’s protected areas, normal activities such as movement of tourists, wildlife research, and maintenance works bring additional eyes and ears towards conservation work.
Their absence will result in a rise in illegal deforestation, fishing, wildlife hunting, and extraction of materials from protected areas for income generation. Covid-19 preventive measures such as lockdowns don’t allow movement of people to workplaces.
Therefore, people near protected areas resort to exploitation of natural resources. The stoppage of ecotourism activities has left fragile ecosystems in protected areas at increased risk of illegal encroachment on the fragile ecosystems as neighbours seek alternative means of survival.
In a recent public statement on measures undertaken to contain Covid-19 disease in protected, Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) suspended wildlife research, primate filming and tracking and noted that the measures have implications on tourism activities and earnings. This will therefore lead to reduced revenue to the surrounding community accruing from tourism under the revenue sharing arrangements.
The Northern Albertine Rift Conservation Group (NARCG) comprising of international conservation NGOs have implemented a couple of conservation programs in the Budongo- Bugoma conservation corridor.
They have administered conservation pledges among different private forest owners associations, trained private forest owners in conservation farming, improved livelihoods, and provided them with access to rural financial services in return for forest and wetland conservation.
Covid- 19 is likely to reduce funding of these conservation NGOs which will further reduce conservation efforts in the AR. Beyond Covid-19, there is need to minimize its negative impacts on conservation by training and incentivizing households to adopt conservation farming techniques and enhancement of alternative sources of income.
There is also a need for continued monitoring for effects of NARCG projects on forest cover through the Global Forest Watch platform and on-the-ground visits. Attention must be given to threats on natural resource bases as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and consequential social and economic impacts.
If the crisis is prolonged, many households will be forced to abandon existing conservation practices like sustainable utilization to generate income quickly, potentially resulting in further poverty and over-exploitation of natural resources and ecosystems. This, therefore, calls for judiciously integrated conservation interventions to achieve sustainable development.