A pride of lions, including a pregnant female, were found poisoned last week in Queen Elizabeth National Park by Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) rangers on patrol. The three female and two male lions were part of a larger pride, which had split up. The park personnel also found bait near the dead carnivores, thought to contain the lethal mixture of poison used to kill the big cats, and over a dozen dead vultures were also found nearby, having also ingested the poison. UWA veterinarians are now trying to establish the exact cause and identify the exact nature of the poison used.
Queen Elizabeth National Park has, in the past, been the scene of prolonged invasions by cattle keepers seeking pasture, who even then speared and poisoned lions to protect their livestock before eventually being pushed out of the park when the damage to the tourism industry became more and more evident.
Tourism is one of Uganda’s main sources of foreign revenue, but conservation often clashes with the interests of cattle owners, an almost equally big business, and other parks like Lake Mburo had their entire lion population killed in the past, before evidence of renewed lion presence emerged last year over Christmas.
The latest escalation has prompted a strong reaction among the tourism fraternity, which depends on their tourist clients actually seeing game, and in particular the big cats. Several safari operators this correspondent was in touch with demanded a harder line from UWA and government at large to deal with poaching and deliberate game killings.
Said one: “If the lions go, a big part of a safari experience is missing. Our neighbors will tell the market that to see lions, you need to go to Tanzania or Kenya because in Uganda they are becoming extinct. You asked me about budget cuts for tourism, and this is just one more problem our industry now has. Government is not taking this seriously at all. UTB [Uganda Tourism Board] needs more funding immediately. When I read your articles, you always write about Rwanda and Kenya doing so well, but their governments spend a lot of money, but ours here does not. Now they are killing off the lions again in Queen [Elizabeth National Park] like a few years ago. Way back then, it took government many months to decide about the cattle invasion and kept UWA on the short leash. Even now, we believe that there are other political factors preventing UWA from acting prompt and decisive. You see, when there are so few lions now, even reproducing is difficult for them, and one day they will be gone. Why does government ever only does something for our sector when things have gone so bad and never be ahead of problems?”
Another regular contact also dismissed suggestions in the local media that poachers were responsible for the deaths. She said: “No skins were taken; poachers would take the skins, so this is probably just a speculation on the part of authorities. For us, it is clear it was cattle herders to protect their herds, which they keep driving illegally into the park.”