My friend Kenneth Tumusiime works tirelessly to conserve the wild creatures and wild spaces of his beloved Uganda. Recognising the pressure being put on the local Shoebill population through disturbance from local fishermen, he has set up the Save the Shoebill Conservation Project (SSCP). A community centric project that depends on engagement with the human inhabitants of the area for its success.
The Shoebill is a shy inhabitant of swamplands that occur in a belt of central tropical Africa, from southern Sudan through eastern Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, western Tanzania and northern Zambia. There is a significant population in the wetlands of Uganda including the Murchison Falls National Park.
It is a unique looking bird, tall, long legged with a huge, broad, boat-shaped bill. And like all specialists, it is very susceptible to disturbance and habitat degradation. The plumage is blue/grey, the wings broad and long. It is, in short, an impressive creature.
The Shoebill usually forages solitary in flooded shallow waters dominated by hippo grass, African wild rice, sedges and rushes, within 50 metres of an active fish weir. It usually flies past a candidate site, or perches on the tallest tree, to observe the activity in the candidate’s site before commencing to hunt. Hunting consists of stalking, squatting and ambush, however Shoebills tend to stand and wait for the prey, often for long periods, and thus require relatively undisturbed habitat.
The Shoebill’s principal prey is fish, while other swamp prey is also taken, including frogs, snakes, rodents, baby crocodiles and other birds. The Shoebill’s preferred fishing sites are in either shallow waters, or deeper water with platforms of flooding vegetation. It will feed in swamps that are low in oxygen where an abundance of fish such as lungfish, bichirs (polypteridae) and catfish are important prey, caught as they surface to gulp air.
SSCP Aims and Objectives
The SSCP is a voluntary, non-governmental, non-political, Eco-tourism conservation project, aimed at building community mindfulness about the importance of Shoebills and other wetland birds around Murchison Falls National Park. It aims to raise awareness of the importance and value of the local Shoebill population and to conserve its habitat. The broader outcomes are 1) to have a sustainable, healthy Shoebill population, 2) monitor, research and conserve Shoebill habitat, and 3) save the areas precious wetlands.
As with all Kenneth’s projects, community engagement and involvement is a cornerstone to success. His objective of sustaining the recovery of the Shoebill population of Murchison Falls National Park, depends on involving local communities in the environment conservation protection programs. Some of this work will involve determining the effectiveness of conservation measures through monitoring and research projects. Shoebills play an important part in attracting tourist revenue into local communities, so all concerned have a stake in ensuring the birds thrive.
Murchison Falls-Albert Delta Wetland System
The site stretches from the top of Murchison Falls to the delta at its confluence with Lake Albert. The delta forms a shallow area that is important for water birds, especially the Shoebill, pelicans, darters, Papyrus Gonolek and various heron species. It is also an important spawning and breeding ground for Lake Albert fisheries, containing indigenous fish species, and it forms a feeding and watering refuge for wildlife during dry seasons.
The shoebill population in this area is estimated at 30-60 individuals, the majority of which live in papyrus. This place has been classified as vulnerable, with the main threats being disturbance by fishermen, forcing the birds to hide deeply in un-disturbed papyrus.
How You Can Help
It has been a difficult year for us all, but for the communities around Murchison Falls it has been particularly challenging. As well as suffering steep declines in the income derived from the tourist industry, a sector that underpins all of the local conservation projects, there has been severe flooding around Wanseko at Lake Albert. Many people lost their properties and are now homeless. Kenneth has issued a plea “Please I call upon all well wishers to come in and help these people. Life here is very hard for them. Any kind support in the form of food or clothes or other essential supplies will be highly appreciated“.
Conservation in this area can only be successful with the engagement of the local communities. When they cannot feed themselves and have no homes, they will be forced to revert to poaching etc. Quite understandably, wildlife conservation is forced down the list of priorities. If you feel you would like to help, please contact me in the first instance by commenting in the box below, and I will liaise with Kenneth on your behalf. Thank you.
You can find out more about this project and follow progress by clicking here.
All Images courtesy of Kenneth Tumusiime