NU members visiting Mabamba bay

Using eco-tourism as a wise use strategy to promote the conservation

Using eco-tourism as a wise use strategy to promote the conservation of wetland biodiversity: What do we learn?

Nature Uganda has promoted ecotourism as a conservation tool in many sites with successful results. Ecotourism refers to a type of tourism where the environment, local community and visitors all benefit without imposing a negative impact to the environment. It is a niche that conservationists use as a marketing tool to promote any form of tourism that is related to nature. This form of tourism ensures that natural areas are conserved and at the same time the well being of local communities and the general public are improved. The conservation status of wildlife and habitats they are found in can be enhanced if they are appreciated, valued and seen to be a major contributor to income by the public. This encourages the local communities to become major stakeholders in conservation efforts through such ventures.

Some key learning experiences:

There is no one clear cut model of an eco-tourism venture that can be recommended. The most important is to follow the general principles of community-led ventures. Most important are the group formation and related management structures, membership, records and record keeping, revenue collection and benefit sharing, transparency and participation of members. Aware that eco-tourism is a tool whereby people are encouraged to promote actions that conserve nature, the community needs to be empowered to achieved that. It combines conservation, aspirations of local communities and sustainable use of nature.

The model can take examples from Bigodi wetland community experience that was supported by various institutions. This community initiated conservation of a wetland in proximity to a National Park. With opportunities offered by tourists visiting the Park, the community realized that venture was a worthwhile initiative and the embraced it. The benefits are ploughed back to the community through various projects such as water, schools and up scaling income generating activities. This takes into account the local population there by minimizing negative impacts on the host community because otherwise the local population may come to dislike the presence of the venture and this could undermine its long-term prospects.

Another successful eco-tourism venture is Mabamba wetland well known for the Shoebill Trekking. The Mabamba Bird Guides Association (MBGA) was started by Nature Uganda to blend bird guiding and conservation and has worked well. This site has a long history of community engagement in various programmes and processes of livelihood improvement. The key strength of the group and a gain to conservation is the ability to monitor threats and promptly reporting them. The direct benefits the local community gets through boat hire and bird guiding ensures continued support to conservation. This compliments good traditional practices and other sources of income that the community is engaged in such as fishing.

Nature Uganda supported Katwe Tourism Information Center (KATIC) in promoting tourism in Munyanyange Crater Lake and Katwe as a whole.  The groups’ activities include education to schools, Tailored Talks to tourists, Environmental Education amongst others. There are specialized areas and of importance is playing the care taking role of Munyanyange wildlife sanctuary. The take home is that eco-tourism alongside education should emphasize education among all parties, from local communities to tourists. This will emphasize local conservation through efforts mobilized locally.

Opportunities present themselves differently. Eco-tourism initiatives therefore should be able to identify such opportunities and turn them to realistic ventures. At Nabajjuzi, the “Sitatunga Conner” as it is known aimed at promoting community participation in wetland conservation on realization that the site presented unique features. It presented the best opportunities to view the Sitatunga and the Shoebill, both species are sought after by tourists. The site is also a major route to most National Parks and the Albertine Rift rich biodiversity hot spots. Emphasis is on local participation and this maximizes the early and long-term contribution of local people in the decision making process, kind of enterprises and of the method of general operations. Local involvement is a significant element of sustainability.

Fox’s weaver

In the next few years, Bisina and Opeta wetland system shall be the destination point for tourists especially birders. This is the only area with the only Ugandan Endemic Bird Species the Fox’s Weaver. However, experience shows that developing an eco-tourism venture takes time. It requires dedication and commitment of both the communities and the local leadership. It is important for the host population to realize some economic benefits from ecotourism without which, the host community will have little reason to positively accept the initiative and protect the environment upon which tourism depends. The fact that ecotourism is mostly found in designated protected areas means that eco-tourism will also thrive where environmental regulations are adhered to and this may be major threat.

For eco-tourism ventures to succeed, all the necessary structures and facilities need to be in place. This includes but not limited to infrastructure, transport, and services that will ensure successful execution of tourism activities in wetland areas. The activities need to be well planed for maximum satisfaction of the visitor. Marketing of the site and activities are key elements that need to be continuously done. However, traffic needs to be controlled to avoid negative effect on both vegetation and fauna through removal or disturbance or accidents. Such impacts can be reduced by  additional financial levy related to prevention, protection and habitat restoration. Significant conflicts related to inequitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of wetlands by tourism can be handled through group conflict resolution processes.

Conclusions and recommendations:

Eco-tourism is one way that community participation in conservation can be enhanced. It however, requires that the venture be planned and executed with great consistency and dedication. It may come with challenges and setbacks but this has been demonstrated to be by far one of the wise and sustainable strategies of managing natural resources especially wetlands. In all successfully implemented eco-tourism initiatives, group cohesion is observed. No one individual knows it all. Team work is the best way of eliminating dominance, nonetheless a strong leadership is necessary. For other areas to take up eco-tourism and promote it as a conservation strategy, it should be noted that it takes TIME to perfect the art.