Wildlife Conservation Vs Land Rights in Karamoja: What is the Way Forward?



In October, 2005, the Government of Uganda launched the “Gifted by Nature” Campaign to highlight Uganda’s positive qualities.  Besides the River Nile and other water bodies, the beautiful hills, etc., the other positive thing that this campaign highlighted was the country’s national parks—the home of various species of plants, birds and animals.

National Parks are an important source of revenue for government through tourism–highest foreign exchange earner for the “Pearl of Africa” as Sir Winston Churchill described the land-locked East African state many years ago.

However, for people living around these protected areas, conservation often translates into problems–loss of access to resources in the park, crop damage caused by wild animals, death etc. and these are sources of conflict between the National Park authorities and the people neighboring them.

Karamoja Experience

Any attempt at defining the land question in Karamoja will be incomplete  if it excludes the issue of wildlife in the region. For the near two years I worked in six out of the seven districts that constitute  this semi-arid part of Uganda located in the North Eastern region, this was (and still is) a recurring issue. In one meeting in Panyangara Sub-County, Kotido District, an irritated woman remarked thus, …wild animals should all be transported to Kidepo National Park because after all they do not use zebras or abtellopes for marrying us…

This line of thinking is less surprising because with 40.2% of Karamoja’s total land under  protection of Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), the Karamojong have all reasons to be at loggerheads with the statutory body. This is due to the desire for more pasture for grazing and land for crop farming, an alternative livelihood source which is slowly gaining ground in the hitherto largely animal-dependant communities. The sentiment in the community is that there seems to be more priority given to wild animals as opposed to them—the rights-holding citizens. The situation is excerbated by the previous violent clashes between the two parties during past eviction exercises by the government agency, some of which led to loss of human life and destruction of property.

The acrimony that has principally characterized the relationship between UWA and the community therefore creates a need to pursue an amicable solution that can not only end or at least mitigate the bad blood (literally) flowing from this animosity but also enable the parties to embrace the various opportunities that can be tapped from wildlife.  This answer lies in the legal framework governing the sector in the country.

From the onset, it is note worthy that the Constitution of Uganda (Art 377 (1) (a)) vests land in Uganda to citizens of Uganda. However, the same Constitution (Art 237 (2) (b)) creates a trusteeship over game reserves, national parks and any land to be be reserved for ecological and touristic purposes.


A vast chunk of land in Kidepo Park. Such land is a source of conflict between the government and communities around the park because in Karamoja, this land is ideal for animal grazing (Internet Photo)

This means that this land is vested in the government of Uganda to hold and manage on behalf and for the benefit of the people of Uganda. Consequently, Parliament enacted the Uganda Wildlife Authority Act, Cap 200 (hereinafter the Act) which creates the Uganda Wildlife Authority (Sec 4) (hereinafter the Authority) and provides for its functions  as well which principally includes management of wildlife

However,  the Act creates a window for the community to participate in wildlife management. There is a provision for pursuing the development, implementation and monitoring of collaborative arrangements for the management of wildlife under Sec 5 (e). It also roots for the establishment of policies and procedures for the sustainable utilization of wildlife by and for the benefit of the communities living in proximity to wildlife. The Act also, under Sec 14(1) empowers the Executive Director of UWA to enter into any suitable collaborative arrangements with any person for the management of any protected area or a portion of it.

From these legal provisions, it is clear that Collaborative Management between UWA and the communities is an option that can be pursued to solve this issue. The idea behind collaborative management is to regulate and control the use of land by people living within wildlife areas for conservation purposes and peaceful co-existence.


Wild animals at Kidepo Valley National Park, one of the largest in Uganda found in Karenga Sub-County, Dodoth County, Kaabong District in Northern Karamoja. (Internet Photo)

The arrangement should inter alia aim at furthering  reconcilliation between UWA and the communities in the spirit of shared decision making with respect to wildlife, enhance the role of the communities in wildlife management, establish a mechanism to facilitate positive working relations between the parties and provide a framework within which natural resources and access to wildlife management areas will be regulated.

As an implemetation strategy, the arrangement should provide for the constitution of District Wildlife Committes (Sec 12) to facilitate community-UWA discussions on any issues that may arise. It should also provide for the identification and development of training and employment opportunities in the area of wildlife conservation. Most importantly, it must have an elaborate clause on consultation which clearly spells out how the two parties can engage in the decision making process in all matters related to wildlife.

Suffice to note is the fact that Karamoja is not the only part of Uganda where wildlife is present. How are other regions in Uganda handling this issue? I will share two examples;

Kibale National Park is a tropical rainforest in western Uganda located at the foot of the Rwenzori Mountains. It is conserved largely for its biodiversity including its rare chimpanzee and forest elephant populations.

The second one is Mt Elgon, in eastern Uganda on the border with Kenya, is the fifth highest mountain in Africa (4,321 m) and is conserved partly for its afro-alpine ecology and its rare endemic species, but also for its valuable forests and its water catchment functions.

Very rich agricultural lands surround both Parks and by necessary implication, they host a high number of people from the neighboring communities.  In Kibale, the population ranges from 96-133 persons/km2 and from 120-700 in Mt Elgon. These communities depend on the parks for herbs, fruits, wild game, cultivation etc. There is a strong nexus between their welfare and these parks—a relationship built since time immemorial.

So, when the government in the 1990s set out to restore the national parks, “war” was an expected consequence. In fact during the subsequent evictions, there was loss of property—crops and dwellings, and even some lives.

But to save the bad situation, a number of strategies were laid down. However, for purposes of this post, I will focus on one i.e. Use of collaborative resource management arrangements to allow the communities to jointly manage selected wildlife resources. The notion, as earlier on stated is that the benefits, responsibilities and decision-making powers are shared, to a varying extent and context by the stakeholders.

In both Parks, a number of formal Agreements were entered into. In Kibale, the agreements included those on harvesting wild coffee, establishment of bee hives, access to Lake Mburo for fishing and extraction of papyrus, medicinal plants etc.  In Mt Elgon, the agreements signed focused on access to firewood, herbs, among others.

Old Woman

An elderly woman collects firewood from Mt Elgon National Park (Photo: Sean White)

I have argued before that land conflicts are primarily fights for resources on the land. In the two cases, by regulating how the communities can access the much-need resources for their survival in return for them (communities) also protecting the resources in protected areas, conflict has been averted, or at least their consequences mitigated. One may say that Karamoja is a pastoralist community and such initiatives are out-of-context. Well, there is a good example in Masaai Mara where similar projects have been implemented, successfully at that.

Besides the peaceful co-existence, the economic benefits that accrue from wildlife also directly spill over to the communities hence improving on their livelihoods. This in terms expanded grazing areas, access to herbs, shrines, water points, fruits, gum arabic and other resources that are found in protected areas. In Karamoja for example, I was informed by an Officer from UWA that one of the hills that falls in a protected area is the best place in the whole country for Ostrich farming. But until now, such initiative has never been explored because the stakeholders are spending more time whining and fighting each other yet this could generate income for the local people.


Collaborative management is therefore  one of the  best ways of resolving the conflicts that arise from conservation because it is pro-people, even-handed, cost effective and tries to strike a delicate balance between the competing interests—conservation and land rights.

It provides the much needed middle ground in this gridlock that has eluded some parts of Uganda like Karamoja. A lot of sensitization needs to be done to the local authorities and communities to help them come out of this problem that has endured for decades.


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