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Tourism Players Want Uganda’s Only Wild Rhino Sanctuary Reopened

Rhinos at Ziwa Rhino sanctuary

Tourism sector players have called for the reopening of the country’s only wild rhino sanctuary (Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary), amidst a conflict between the managers of the sanctuary, the Rhino Fund Uganda and the owners of the land hosting the facility, Ziwa Rhino and Wildlife Ranches.  

On Monday, the Uganda Wildlife Authority announced that it had taken over the security of the area to protect the 33 black rhinos at the sanctuary, following an attack by suspected thugs on the facility. The following day, it announced that the facility was closed off to the public, effectively halting tourist activities there.

There have been persistent misunderstandings between the land owners and the Rhino Fund Uganda, which UWA says was posing a threat to the rhinos, hence the decision to avert it. Sources say that the misunderstandings arise from the way the revenues from the tourists are handled, with Ziwa Rhino and Wildlife Ranches saying the Rhino Fund Uganda has failed to give them a share.

Last week, the Rhino Fund says Ziwa Rhino and Wildlife Ranches gave them an order to leave the land claiming that they had failed to agree with the landlord.  Rhino Fund Uganda has gone to court seeking for the order to be quashed, saying it breached the Memorandum of Understanding between the parties.

According to documents tabled in court, UWA informed RFU that their contract had been revoked in January 2021, because they had failed to agree with Ziwa Rhino and Wildlife Ranches, which is owned by Captain Joseph Roy. The conflict has been brewing since as early as 2017 when the landlord attempted to evict the RFU. They went to court to sue for a breach of contract but withdrew the suit after President Museveni intervened in the matter.

RFU also alleges before the court, that Ziwa is the one behind the recent raid on the facility, which came just days after Ziwa had given the government and the Fund up to April 23rd to move the animals elsewhere. The place is located in Nakitoma Subcounty, Nakasongola District about 160km from Kampala along Gulu Highway and about 104km to Murchison Falls National Park.

This gives the tourism sector a good opportunity to do business especially due to the fact that the sanctuary is located near a highway. It is also important because it is located between the capital Kampala and a major tourist attraction, Murchison Falls Park.

Herbert Byaruhanga, the President of Uganda Tourism Association, says the closure of the facility was based on wrong advice to the minister for tourism, wildlife and antiquities. He says much as the area provides few direct jobs compared to the government-owned national parks, it has significant linkages with the rest of the industry.

Byaruhanga wondered what the government is going to do with the tour operators and the managers of the facility themselves, who had already received bookings for tourists. He says making refunds is of the worst actions that the tourism sector would do because it gives a bad signal to the rest of the global tourism community.

The sanctuary is home to more than 40 species of mammal and reptiles, including monkeys, antelopes, hippopotamuses, and crocodiles, as well as hundreds of bird species, most of which rely on the River Kafu, a major tributary of the River Nile. The sanctuary was started as a joint project between the Rhino Fund and the government through Uganda Wildlife Authority, in partnership with a land management company Ziwa Ranchers Ltd.

Details of the revenue sharing agreement have been kept secret, with the Uganda Tourism Board referring the inquiry to UWA, which the latter declined to respond to. “Every Ugandan shares on proceeds from tourism, it brings a lot of Forex to the country which is good for our economic development,” said Bashir Hangi, the Spokesperson UWA. According to data at Zoominfo, a global online information company, the sanctuary receives USD 1m annually, from about 10,000 visitors.

The Sanctuary Manager, David Bakeine’s mobile phone could not be reached. Adult foreign visitors pay USD 50 to trek the rhinos, while Ugandans pay 30,000 Shillings each.  It was aimed at reintroducing the southern white rhinoceros into the country after all the species were whipped out during years of political turbulence between 1970 and the 1980s. They are mainly hunted due to their valuable horn. 

It is suspected that the attack this week by thugs on the properties at the sanctuary is a result of the disputes between the Rhino Fund and Ziwa Ranches over revenue sharing.

UWA’s Hangi refused to comment on the source of the conflict, stating that the government agency is not a party to the conflict.

-URN

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