Uganda National Parks History You Didn’t Know (Part 1)
You may already know Uganda national parks have a pretty rich history. But like a lot of history, it is not all sunshine and roses. Some national parks were not welcomed with open arms and many vulnerable communities were affected in the process of their creation. Nonetheless, 10 national parks exist in Uganda today. Here is the real story behind some of Uganda’s most famous National Parks.
1. Murchison Falls National Park
To begin, we head northwest to Uganda’s oldest and largest park, Murchison Falls National Park.
This park is named after the dramatic Murchison Falls (the world’s strongest waterfall on the Nile River), which in turn were christened by explorer and naturalist Sir Samuel Baker. Baker named the falls Murchison Falls after the geologist Roderick Murchison, the president of the Royal Geographical Society in the 1860s.
Did you know that during the first half of the 20th Century, Murchison Falls and its surrounds was a hunting playground for the wealthy? In 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt of USA paid a visit to the region as part of the most lavish hunting safari of all time.
By the end of his year-long trip across East Africa, the Smithsonian-Roosevelt Africa Expedition had killed and collected 11,400 specimens for the Smithsonian Institution.
By the mid-century, hunting activities became more regulated and, as animal populations recovered, the then Bunyoro-Gulu Game Reserve became Murchison Falls National Park in 1952.
In 1960s, it was among the premier Africa safari destinations, boasting almost 60,000 visitors annually. Notable visitors to the park included Sir Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway, and several British royals.
However, with the rise of Idi Amin’s despotic reign, the park’s wildlife populations were decimated by uncontrolled and state-encouraged hunting and poaching. The park’s rhinos were killed off entirely, and the elephant populations were reduced to fewer than 500 individuals. Carnivore and herbivore suffered equally at the hands of desperate civilians and soldiers.
Though Amin was overthrown in 1979, it was to be another two decades before the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and the Uganda Conservation Foundation was able to stabilize the core tourism area of the park.
Recovering tourist numbers supported the painstaking work of restoring the park to its former glory. Though poaching, particularly snares set for bushmeat, has remained a serious concern on the outer fringes, concerted efforts have been made to ensure there is investment in the surrounding communities.
In addition to everything from education initiatives to employment schemes, 20% of the gate fees are fed back to the local community. In short, the restoration of Murchison Falls National Park has built a solid foundation for the park’s long-term future.
2. Lake Mburo National Park
While preserving our beautiful landscapes and unique wildlife may seem obviously beneficial, it can often be at the expense of Indigenous people who have called the land home for generations.
At one time, what is currently Lake Mburo National Park was occupied by the Banyankole pastoralists (commonly known as Bahima). They continued to herd their cattle and other livestock in the area until it was granted a gazetted a national park in 1983 by the Obote regime.
The decision to declare the area a National park was in one part targeted to punish the Banyankole who were believed to be supporting the anti-Obote rebels.
Thus, the evicted Banyankole pastoralists were not given any compensation for the lost grazing land and neither were they helped with the resettlement. Therefore, many of them protested the establishment of the park. This was at the time of Operation Bonanza massacre of 300,000 and as a result, the rangeland outside the national park was divided into small pieces and subsistence plots.
When the Obote 2 regime collapsed in 1985, the former occupants re-claimed their land and chaos ensued; they expelled the park’s staff, destroyed the infrastructure and annihilated wildlife.
Eventually, only less than half of the original park’s land area was re-gazetted by the NRM government in 1986 thus, becoming Uganda’s smallest national park.
3. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
Just as fascinating as the majestic mountain gorillas of Bwindi is its ancient lore and history.
You’ll hear more about its many secrets when you spend time in the park on your Uganda gorilla safari vacation. Legend has it that the park takes its name, “Bwindi,” from the term used for Mubwindi Swamp, “mubwindi bwa nyinamuraki,” which is found in Ruhija, the southeast sector of the park.
Approximately 100 years ago, so the story goes, a family traveling from the Kisoro area was trying to cross a swamp that seemed impossible to traverse. After praying to the spirits of the swamp for guidance, they were asked to sacrifice their loveliest daughter in exchange for safe passage.
Faced with the prospect of returning to the south, the family opted to drown their beautiful daughter, Nyina Muraki, so that they could cross safely. As people learned about their sacrifice, they began to call it “mubwindi bwa nyinamuraki,” which translates as “dark place of nyina muraki.”
Fast forward to more recent times: Bwindi came into being in 1932 as a forest reserve. The reserve received a national park status in 1991 and declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1994. The park was specially designated as a protected mountain gorilla viewing destination for tourists in April 1993. Perhaps the only downside of instituting the park in its present status is the effect that had on the Batwa Pygmy People.
For thousands of years, the Batwa lived in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. They lived a typical hunter-gatherer lifestyle: the men used simple spears or bows and arrows to catch birds, monkeys and small antelopes and bush pigs, while the women foraged for wild honey, fruits and berries. They relied entirely on the rainforest for their survival, living in grass huts and dressing in the skins of the animals they killed.
However, when the park was gazetted in 1991, the Batwa were evicted. Given no support or compensation, and with nowhere to go, overnight they’d effectively become criminals on their own land. Forced out and threatened with imprisonment, they moved onto the land on the fringes of the parks. You Can Read More about the Batwa.
4. Queen Elizabeth National Park
The history of Queen Elizabeth National Park is very different to the majority of African protected areas in that human habitation can be traced back on the Mweya Peninsula over 50,000 years. Even up until the beginning of the 20th century, the area was used for cattle production by the Basongora pastoralists.
This changed when a rinderpest epidemic and sleeping sickness hit the area, devastating livestock and forcing an evacuation of the area. The epidemic was believed to be caused by the British colonial government under the guise of a livestock vaccination campaign.
The place was largely evacuated, the game increased, and the colonial government decided to evict the remaining people from perhaps 90% of their lands to create game reserves. Their homes were torched and their livestock slaughtered, causing them to flee across the border and seek refuge in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The park was founded in 1952 as Kazinga National Park. Two years later it was renamed Queen Elizabeth National Park to commemorate a visit by Queen Elizabeth II of United Kingdom.
And the last remaining communal grazing rights of the Basongora cattle herders were rescinded, causing thousands more to move across the border with their herds into the Virunga National Park, most only beginning to return after 1964 due to the strife caused by the Mulele rebellion there.
In 2006 the Basongora were forced to flee across the border from the DR Congo, settling in the park to the north of Lake Edward with their livestock. Attacks by predators on their property, and lack of compensation when their animals are killed, caused them to leave out carcasses laced with poison out to solve the problem, killing off eleven lions in 2018, among numerous incidents.
5. Kidepo Valley National Park
The name Kidepo comes from a Dodoth verb ‘akidep’, meaning ‘to pick up’.
The park was inhabited by Dodoth pastoralists and the 1k farmers before it was a National Park in 1962 — the year Uganda acquired its Independence from the British.
The first Chief Warden of the National Park was Briton called Ian Ross and was replaced in 1972 by a Ugandan named Paul Ssali. Their handover and training was the subject of the 1974 American documentary film; “The Wild and the Brave:’
The Ik people suffered most from the creation of the park. Thought to have been the first arrivals of the Ethiopian migration, the Ik were initially pastoralists who lost their cattle to Karamojong raiders.
Resorting to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle on the lower slopes of the Morungole Mountains, they were ejected from the park in 1962. The only option available to them was to attempt subsistence farming high up in the mountains outside the park borders.
Coinciding with a time of wide-spread famine known as ‘the time of one cup’, the movement pushed the Ik to the very edge of extinction, pushing traditional social practices to breaking point and turning the Ik into a dark shadow of their former selves.
It was during this time in the 1960s that the British-American anthropologist Colin Turnbull lived for three years with the Ik, recording the collapse of their community and how the group members resorted to self-interest in the most horrific of ways. He told the story in the book ‘The Mountain People,’ in which he wrongly referred to the Ik People as a people who did not love. The book causes outrage at the time of publication.
Although Turnbull suspected that his experiences of the Ik were a partial result of their expulsion from the park, he did not fully grasp the impact of the trauma. Turnbull missed the point that increasing prosperity – not just survival – would enable the Ik to restore kinder, more expected, human customs.
The Ik still are some of the most marginal communities on Earth, living in the Morungole Mountains. But they have recovered from their troubles in recent decades.
They welcome guided hikes made by visitors eager to explore the landscape they inhabit and to understand a little more about their unique way of life. It is a difficult trek, both physically and mentally due to the questions that it raises about human rights, sustainable conservation, and human development.
But with fees from the trek going to Ik community initiatives and interest from the outside world going some way to protecting the people from neighbourly threat, it is a compelling experience.
Uganda National Parks History:
Although many of our beautiful landscapes are protected today, the harsh stories throughout national park history cannot be forgotten. In regards to Indigenous communities who were here first, visit with respect, gratitude and appreciation. Although we can’t make up for lost time, we can offer support by keeping their stories alive.