Masaka Region –Uganda
It is sunny mid-afternoon and the locals in the quite greener and hushed Kyandazima village in Kyawagonya parish, Lwengo sub-county, Lwengo district, are going about their daily business.
A cool wind is blowing gently through bushy Kiyanja-Kaku, one of the largest wetlands and crane breeding sites in the district, and the Southern Region.
It is the perfect time for a flock of grey-crowned cranes (crested cranes) to honk and display their theatrical dance strokes. The iconic birds, scientifically called Balearica regulorum gibbericeps, are as comfortable in their surroundings as they bask in the confidence that they live in the safest of environments.
The majority are socialising, unaware that in the same vicinity lurks an ‘angel of death’ determined to end their life at all costs.
There are among 1,359 that are surviving in the district, according to the local crane count conducted in 2020 by the International Crane Foundation in partnership with Lwengo District Local Government, the Endangered Wildlife Trust, and other stakeholders.
Miserably, the national bird is falling prey to the emerging wave of new cultural beliefs that are increasingly sweeping across the district.
They are targeted for ritual practices said to help to bind relationships, reduce impotence in men, help the barren to conceive and bear children, and so on, which has ignited an abnormal craving for the bird in a district with a population of 61, 753 households.
The unfounded beliefs have compelled the residents in Kyandazima, Lwempaama, Kamusoga, Kisaana, Kyakabandagala, Kajjalubanda, Kitwekyanjovu, Kaikolongo, Kyetume, and Katuulo, and other parts of the district to look for the crane meat, eggs, feathers, beaks, nails and other parts for strange rituals.
Johnson Mugabo, 29, a wild bird hunter in Kyandazima, consented to a voice-recorded interview but declined to have his picture taken for safety reasons. He says he used to target all sorts of birds including the crested cranes, their chicks, and eggs, which he sold to witchdoctors.
A pair of eggs would fetch him UGsh30,000 (USD8.43) while crane chicks would cost around UGsh45,000 (USD15.45) each and a mature crane at UGsh75,000 (USD21.07). From 2019, he would sell 4 to 6 eggs and 2 or 4 chicks to the traditional healers in Kyazanga, and Lwengo town councils at least every week.
“I ate three crested cranes weighing about 4 and 5 kilograms during the COVID19 lockdown. When we had nothing to feed our families we resorted to wild bird hunting and did not discriminate against the cranes. I am giving you this information because I want the concerned district officials and tourism or wildlife departments to know that the law is not tough enough to protect the national bird,” he recounts.
Mugabo’s opportunity to profit from the cranes was short-lived after a traditional healer, who used to buy them, was arrested on strong allegations of human sacrifice.
He planned to resume hunting, but he considered sparing the cranes after constant sensitisation by different NGOs and district leaders that the cranes are nearing extinction.
Protected By the Law
Being a National Emblem, the bird takes a special place on the Uganda flag and the national court of arms and is protected under Uganda Wildlife Association (UWA) Act 2019.
Therefore, anyone who hunts, traps, kills, sells, or buys the created crane commits an offense, and upon conviction, the culprit can be liable to life imprisonment or a fine worth 20 million Uganda shillings (Approx. USD 5639.45) or both according to the discretion of the court.
But the bird is not anywhere close to the stipulated protection as the residents have consistently hunted, killed, eaten, trafficked, and sold them to Tanzanian traditional healers.
Even with the tragic development, there are barely any records of arrests and prosecution of the perpetrators at the district and regional police stations and courts in the last five years when the targeting of the cranes intensified, according to the Southern Regional Spokesperson- Muhammad Nsubuga.
As one of the deterrent measures, George Owoyesigire, the Acting Commissioner for Wildlife Conservation in the Tourism Ministry, suggests that a life sentence and a heavy fine of 200 million Uganda Shillings be introduced for trapping and killing a Crested Crane.
Nevertheless, some arrests have been made in Rukungiri and Kisoro districts and in other parts of the country over the crested cranes. In 2016, the Police in Rukungiri district arrested a Ugandan Brian Mucunguzi for being in possession of three Crested Crane chicks.
In January 2020, the police in Kisoro district arrested three people including one Burundian national -Dan Iradukunda, 22, George Habyarimana, 25, from Rwanda and a Ugandan -Hillary Tumushime, 28, resident of Bunagana town council, while trying to enter the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to sell three cranes.
They said they had sold so many previously to a Congolese businesswoman at UGx150, 000 (approx. USD41.01) for each bird.
As of 2021, Lwengo district had a total of more than 2000 traditional healers operating shrines while the quacks are involved in all sorts of crimes including human sacrifice, according to the District Security Committee.
The district has more than 247 churches and 193 mosques making the ratio of shrines to churches and mosques more disturbing. This indicates a ratio of 8 shrines to one church and 10 shrines to one mosque.
“In this district, and the region, people still flock to shrines due to their deep-rooted tradition and trust in traditional healers who offer fast and cheaper herbal and spiritual remedies compared to churches and mosques,” says Remegio Ssentalo, an herbalist/hunter in Malongo sub-county.
International Crane Foundation (ICF)
According to the ICF, Lwengo has some of the largest crane breeding sites in the region and the country. But in September 2021, the ICF conducted a Baseline survey that indicated that all wetlands in Lwengo, Kyazanga, and Kinoni Town Councils plus, Malongo, Lwengo rural, Kisekka, Ndagwe, and Kkingo sub-counties have been encroached on with little district intervention from the district authorities.
Gilbert Tayebwa, the ICF’s South-Central Uganda Crane Conservation Program officer, says one of the attributing factors to the decreasing crane population is the unchecked cultural practices which are difficult to control not only in Lwengo but in the entire southern region and across the country.
Apart from the known 110 cranes which were poisoned between March and September 2021 during the planting seasons, several were eaten, and chicks and eggs are taken since 2022 started.
“Initially, our conservation engagements were targeting farmers to sensitise them on the importance of the cranes and how to co-exist with the birds. Unfortunately, we neglected the traditional healers who have encouraged trapping and eating of the cranes for ritual purposes,” he explains.
He adds that given the fact that the crested cranes faithfully stick to one partner for up to 22 years of their life span, people are inclined to believe that once they eat the crane meat, and eggs and perform rituals using the humble bird, then their marriage and relationships too, can last longer.
The district is in a dry cattle corridor and is often hit by prolonged drought in which crops wither and completely dry, while the existing water sources dry out forcing the farmers into the wetlands where cranes breed. In several communities, food insecurity has compelled people to indiscriminately hunt wild meat whereby they trap cranes among the birds.
Tayebwa noted that they have brought on board over 30 crane custodians and Wetland Management Committee members to manage and strengthen their sensitisation about the importance of the cranes. In addition, the ICF has supplied chicken, pigs, and irrigation pumps to boost crop, livestock, and poultry production in these communities, but the cultural influence is still a challenge.
“We have trained farmers on how to deter cranes from accessing their gardens and shared different techniques such as the use of scarecrows, plastic tape, and compact discs and planting trees around their gardens or planting cassava with their gardens because cranes only prefer open places where they can view their enemies from a distance,” he explains.
“The adult cranes, their chicks and eggs are turning out to be on an abnormal demand for the belief that they help to bond relationships or marriages, improve fertility in women and sexual strength among men,” says Mutwalibu Mugumya, the Kiyanja-Kaku crane custodian. The custodians are tasked with the duty to promote awareness of the plight of the cranes and monitor the breeding sites of the cranes.
According to Mugumya, the farmers had gradually stopped poisoning the cranes for destroying crops until traditional healers spread the word about the cultural values attached to the cranes.
Tobias Kayemba, another crane custodian, noted that the wetlands are not only for water catchment but are a home for numerous bird species, reptiles, animals, fish, and insects which the cranes may feed on.
Cyrus Mwesigwa, the Lwengo District Vermin Control Officer, says that as much as the farmers cultivating near or within the swamps complain about the crested cranes destroying their crops, they are not supposed to poison them since the birds are protected by the law and are nearing extinction.
In collaboration with the District Natural Resources, and the Environment departments, Mwesigwa adds they have reached different communities that host wetlands and sensitised them on how they can co-exist with the crested cranes and how they can protect their gardens and plantations against invasion.
“We are seeing some improvement on the side of the farmers, but the persistent cultural influence is making it hard for residents to avoid trapping the cranes. That is why we are planning to engage the traditional healers in every category about the importance of these birds,” he says.
Lwengo District Environment Officer Mary Jude Namulema revealed that several wetlands have been encroached on and degraded by small-scale farmers, yet they lack funds for regular monitoring and eviction of encroachers.
The degraded wetlands include Kiyanja-Kaku, Nkoni-Kabwami, Nkoni-Nabyewanga, Nabyewanga-Kasaana and Kisansala in Kkingo sub-county. Others are Lwenkakala-Lusaana and Nanywa-Ndagwe in Ndagwe sub-county, plus Buzirandulu and Kyamakata in Kinoni, each with a degraded portion measures over two football fields.
“We have managed to completely restore Nabyewanga -Kasaana wetland through community sensitisation. The encroachers vacated voluntarily, and the wetland was left to restore naturally while we are yet to restore others,” Namulema explains.
However, Nowelina Katwesigye, who owns a cassava garden around Kiyana-Kaku wetland, says that she and other farmers usually rent land from some people who claim to be owners only to be told by the authorities that they cultivated in a wetland.
Godfrey Mutemba, the Lwengo Natura resources officer, explained that several people own titles of the wetlands, and it is frustrating their campaign to protect the crested crane habitats. Mutemba adds that the district has only three wetlands that are gazetted out of the 22 that exist.
He urged the government to provide technical guidance before embarking on the massive wetland evictions to protect the breeding habitats not only for crested cranes but distinct species of wildlife and to fight climate change. Mutemba noted that they have launched a campaign to plant over 25,000 trees in the district to restore degraded areas.
Lwengo shares the same plight with Kyotera and Rakai districts that border Tanzania. In Kyotera, there are several wetlands that habour crested cranes. Nonetheless, it is only the 6-acre-wetland at Mutukula, a Uganda-Tanzanian border post that is protected by police and the army. The wetland is home to more than 20 individual cranes.
Both Ivan Mwesigwa Ndawula and Sadick Ssemakula, are local wildlife and environment conservationists based in Mpawu village, in Kasaali town council-Kyotera. They say that traditional healers in Uganda usually connive with their counterparts in Tanzania to trade the cranes to enhance their traditional ritual practices.
According to Ssemakula, a live crane goes for about UGX130,000 (USD 36.74) and UGX150,000 (USD 42.39) in Tanzania while a dead one is around UGX50,000 (USD14.20) compared to what it costs in Uganda.
“There are so many wildlife traffickers’ secret routes that border security does not know. And those which are known are not regularly patrolled. Since they operate in a network it becomes easy for them to elude border security in Uganda and Tanzania,” he states.
Through Mpawu Briquettes Ltd, a Community-Based Organisation (CBO) in Kyotera, Ndawula and Ssemakula, are working with reformed wildlife traffickers, charcoal, and log smugglers to fight all environmental and wildlife crimes.
“We hold at least four cross-border meetings with conservationists in Tanzania to find a solution to the problems associated with smuggling wild animals and birds and forest products. These reformed groups have helped us a lot, and we hope the trapping of crested cranes will reduce with time,” he noted.
Dr. Adalbert Ainomuchunguzi, the ICF Regional Manager (East Africa), says some of the interventions include monitoring the supply routes of cranes from the source of capture to final destinations, creating local, national, and international awareness of the status of Africa’s resident cranes and the threat that trade poses to wild populations.
In addition, the improvement and enforcement of policies that govern the trade of cranes and strengthen the consequences of engaging in illegal trade. Others are engaging communities in the conservation of Grey Crowned Cranes and their wetland habitats across East and Southern Africa.
He explains that they are working around the clock to implement the integrated community-based projects to protect all significant breeding sites for the Grey-crowned Cranes in Uganda and other countries including Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Zambia.
In Kyotera, the smugglers usually have various trails in Marabigambo forest which stretches from Uganda into Tanzania. In Rakai, Lugenda is one of the most affected wetlands. The crane raiders capture and traffic the birds through Kamuli and Nyakirinzi communities which have shortcuts direct to Tanzania. These secluded routes are unknown to the authorities on either side of the border which is attributed to the laxity of the border patrol security.
There are about 8,000 crested cranes left from 35,000 in 1989, making them some of the most endangered birds in the country, according to the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife, and Antiquities. The Tourism Minister Tom Butime, has commissioned diverse groups of crane custodians in Lwengo district to focus completely on community sensitisation and debunking the traditional myths about the cranes.
“The country has already lost 80 percent of the crested cranes and the survival of the remaining 20 percent still hangs in balance. The birds are prone to extinction if nothing is done about the problem,” he says.
In the fiscal year 2018–2019, the tourism sector earned Uganda’s GDP UGX5.6 trillion (Approx.US$1.60 billion), but later the Coronavirus pandemic hindered the sector, and it is slowly recovering.
The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) does not have specific protection for the Crested Crane considering that being a bird, it can fly anywhere, said Bashir Hangi, the Communications Manager. However, UWA sensitises the communities hosting the crested crane and other animal species about the importance of their protection and associated benefits.
Traditional Healers Respond
Francis Emero Luswata, the Operations Commander for Traditional healers and Herbalists in Uganda, confirmed the existence of the vice saying they started hearing about it over five years ago.
He says some traditional healers deliberately trap and covertly use the crested crane in their rituals and herbal administration. Luswata adds that the traditionalists have kept on introducing beliefs that do not conform to the traditional principles that guide them.
“They operate in a very sophisticated network, and they are well connected making it difficult to track them without tough joint operations and a special fund for whistleblowers to spot and report the culprits,” he explains.
Luswata says they have been actively working with the informants, and local leaders to report the traditional healers who introduced the cranes in their craft, but there have been no arrests, yet the birds are killed now and then.
According to Luswaata, leaders of traditional healers need to be engaged to debunk the myths and misconception about the national bird without which the country will continue losing more of its symbol.
To why the shrines outnumber the churches mosques in Lwengo and the entire country, Luswata explains that the majority people still hold to their traditions in all aspects of life than it is with foreign religions.
After killing 80 percent of the iconic birds in the country, what is the fate of the remaining percentage, and who has not played their part? Environment and wildlife conservationists, traditional healers’ associations, Civil society organisations, and district and law enforcement authorities, say that it would require a high level of nationalism and special interventions such as joint investigations of environmental crimes, and establishing a fund to encourage communities to support wildlife protection policies.
In addition, improving food security in communities where hunting is largely practice, making communities understand the consequences of environmental crimes, debunking of some myths and false impressions that target wildlife in addition to creating a strong information-sharing network, to stay ahead of the game in conserving the remaining fraction of the cranes and to support their reproduction.
This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network (EJN).