Nakasongola Gets Rhino Haven

SPARSE human population and a semi-arid landscape with extensive grassland have over the years attracted cattle ranchers to Nakasongola district. Because of this, the area was assumed to be part of the cattle corridor.s But this might soon change with the setting up of a sanctuary for endangered rhinos.

At Ziwa Ranchers, located about 200 km from Kampala, the vegetation has attracted the Rhino Fund Uganda to rear rhinos where cattle have grazed for years.

Uganda Rhino Fund an NGO and a brain-child of wildlife authorities was formed five years ago.

We have been negotiating with conservationists in the United States likely to donate four rhinos, says Yvonne Verkaik, who heads the Fund.

She says this would help Uganda to create a breeding stock of 20 rhinos.

The Fund undertook a study, which proved the vegetation was suitable for grazing rhinos. The sanctuary will have both Black and White rhinos. Black rhinos feed on twigs or shrubs and the White rhinos eat grass.

Up to 50 rhinos can be accommodated in the sanctuary, the first of its kind in the country. However, the Fund is likely to open the sanctuary later this year with a few rhinos.

Uganda had the rarest rhino species, the northern white rhino, declared extinct by wildlife authorities in 1983.

Another species, the black rhino, roamed in Kidepo National Park but became extinct in 1984.

The white and black rhinos are on the red data list published by the World Conservation Union as endangered species.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which regulates trade in wildlife, outlaws trafficking of rhinos.

Dr. Arthur Mugisha, who heads the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), blames the extinction of rhinos in Uganda on the lucrative trade in the rhino horn.

He says the horn is used to make aphrodisiacs that are on high demand especially in the Middle East.

Mugisha says the horns are also used to make daggers, which are status symbols in Asia.
So the Fund is taking no chances in making the ranch secure for the returning rhinos. They will be bred before being released into national parks, which UWA refers to as the promised land.

A two-metre high electric fence is being constructed to confine the rhinos to the sanctuary, says Verkaik.
This will be backed by more than 10 rangers UWA is training to keep out poachers, she says.

The idea of returning the rhinos was hatched more than five years ago. The Uganda Wildlife Education Centre (UWEC), formerly Entebbe Zoo, imported two rhinos two years ago. The two returnees called Kabira and Sherrino, which are about five years old, will be relocated from UWEC to the rhino sanctuary.

But Verkaik says the two rhinos, which grow together in a confined environment, were unlikely to reproduce because they avoid mating with their close relatives.

She says about 20 rhinos are needed if they are to mate and increase their population in Uganda.
For instance, only 20 southern white rhinos existed in South Africa, which have now increased to 11,000 in the last 100 years.

Verkaik says younger rhinos would be imported to replace Kabira and Sherrino as exhibits for conservation education.
Should the rhino sanctuary take off, Nakasongola stands to benefit.
The project is likely to encourage tourism because an airstrip has already been put in place.

In future the sanctuary will house tourists in a lodge and camp. The advantage is that Ziwa Ranchers is located along the road that leads to Murchison Falls National Park.

Mugisha says the rhino sanctuary would encourage owners of large chunks of land to take up wildlife ranching.
This would be a better alternative to charcoal burning, a destructive activity to the environment which is becoming a popular economic activity, he says.