Andrew Aijuka

In the dense forests of Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, where the echoes of wildlife blend with the rustling of trees, a profound adaptation unfolds.

As temperatures fluctuate and rainfall patterns shift in this part of the world, the iconic mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) residing in this park, celebrated for their resilience, are subtly adapting their behaviors. Rarely seen drinking water, these gorillas are now increasingly seen quenching their thirst.

A concerning development is the potential for human-animal conflict due to shared water sources between these gorillas and nearby communities, many of whom lack access to clean and safe water.

According to the Gorilla Guardians of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, there have been observations of gorillas scooping or drinking water directly from various sources within the park. This behavior is a recent development believed to be influenced by climate change.

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is located in southwestern Uganda, near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Rwanda. It spans across the districts of Kanungu, Kabale, and Kisoro in Uganda.

Dickson Katana, who manages the Southern Sector of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, where there are over 14 gorilla families out of the total 27 in the Bwindi – Mgahinga Landscape, agrees with the Gorilla Guardians.

Katana, attributes this new behavior among gorillas to “climate change”, noting how they now “scoop and drink water.”

The Gorilla Guardians, also known as the Human and Gorilla (HuGo) conflict resolution team, are among several initiatives aimed at promoting coexistence and mutual benefits between humans and gorillas. The teams consist of volunteers residing near the park boundaries.

Initiated by Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) in collaboration with the Uganda Wildlife Authority and the International Gorilla Conservation Programme, the HuGo program engages in various activities. Their primary task is to guide stray mountain gorillas back into the national park.

Uganda is home to approximately half of the world’s mountain gorilla population. They are found in two main national parks: Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. These parks together host over 500 mountain gorillas.

Unlike many other wildlife species, mountain gorillas have a unique approach to hydration: they typically do not drink water directly. Instead, they rely on the moisture found in the succulent vegetation they consume and absorb moisture from morning dew.

Uganda is home to approximately half of the world’s mountain gorilla population. Photo by Apes Reporting Project.

In water-scarce communities like Nombe ward in Kisoro district, the emerging behavior of gorillas is poised to exacerbate human-animal conflicts over water sources. In Kisoro district, which is already grappling with water scarcity, only 42 out of every 100 people accessing clean and safe water.

Human-animal conflicts frequently plague communities residing near Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Reports of animals raiding crops and assaulting women and children are common in districts such as Kisoro, Kanungu and Rukiga in south western Uganda. 

Penninah Mushabe, a mother of five living in Nombe Ward, Kisoro District, says her husband regularly stays away from home for days, guarding their crop garden against wild animals from the nearby park that ravage their crops before harvest.

She describes this as “a significant threat to our family’s food security.”

Just like Mushabe, Dickson Katana, who manages the Southern Sector of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park also acknowledges the area’s water scarcity challenge.

“Families without water tanks in their homesteads have women and children moving up to 3km to fetch water,” narrates Katana.

With communities already grappling with these challenges of proximity to the park, a water conflict would escalate tensions and pose risks not only to these communities but also to the mountain gorillas themselves.

Mushabe Penninah sharing with journalist Cliff Abenaitwe during a field visit during the Vanishing Treasure workshop. Photo by Andrew Aijuka

Mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) are part of the Eastern Gorilla species, which also encompasses the Grauer’s gorilla found in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). They are found only in three East African countries: Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Recent reports have indicated an increase in the Mountain gorilla population. However, conflicts with humans could harm this growing number.

Community resilience through water solutions

In Nombe ward, located within Rubuguri Town Council in Kisoro District, residents have recently benefited from the installation of a water tank provided by The International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP).

This initiative aims to support communities living near national parks inhabited by Mountain Gorillas by improving access to water, thereby helping them adapt to peacefully coexist with the park’s wildlife.

From Left, Byamugisha William, Rwandan Journalist Eric, and Marienet Juliet pose next to the home’s water tank. Photo by Andrew Aijuka

Apart from this initiative, some families are investing in building water tanks for themselves. Byamugisha William and Marienet Juliet are examples of families taking proactive steps to improve their water access. Leveraging Byamugisha’s construction skills, they successfully constructed their own water tank, thereby enhancing their household’s water security.

This reliable access to water is now reducing the need for local residents in this village to venture into gorilla habitats in search of water. But also, these initiatives are not only promoting conservation efforts but also enhance the quality of life for communities living adjacent these parks.

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