Uganda: Amazing Race to Save Depleting Rhinoceros Population

by Oct 31, 2010Rhinos

Uganda’s rhino population has over the years been depleted through poaching. But as Sunday Monitor’s Benon Herbert Oluka writes, the race is on to try and conserve the remaining nine, or even get some more: –

In a different setting, what transpired at the start of the Rhino Fund water rafting race along the Nile on Saturday would have been hilarious. However, even the journalists present were expected to keep straight faces in the midst of all the drama because, well, we were part of a competition.

First, three members of our team – which comprised journalists who cover the tourism sector and was named Star Journos – pulled out of the race at the last minute due to in some cases to fear of rafting.

Nevertheless, we scrambled around for replacements and finally chanced upon two other media colleagues who had come to watch the race rather than compete.

Although they agreed to join us, Star Journos was still short of a full team by one person. So even before the race began, there was an incomplete team of unfit participants that even we could not bet on to finish the race – let alone compete.

When race officials eventually counted down to zero to mark the start of our race, the first of three boats in the second heat – which was occupied by a team from the Peace Corps, a US organisation – burst out of the blocks somewhere in front of the Owen Falls Dam to clearly show their competitive edge and will to win. The fact that they had competed in a previous edition of this event, and had been training in preparation for the race we participated in, was clearly evident as they moved in unison and covered more ground than the other two teams.

Limited all the way

The chasing pack behind them on the other hand was in sixes and sevens. With many members of the other two teams holding paddles for the very first time, their boats quickly veered off course as soon as we set off from the starting point and, as a result, they wasted a lot of time merely trying to steer the boats back to the right course.

The media team was the first of the chasing pack to get their act together, turn the boat to the right course and try to catch up with Peace Corps.

But in a competition spanning four kilometres, fatigue is sure to set in for the unprepared. And it soon set in for the media team, resulting in the Dasani team from the Coca Cola Company overtaking us a short distance into the race.

Before the race started, Edward Ojede from Dasani had teased Star Journos that we would need to tie a rope connecting our boats to enable them drag us along when the going got tough. We should perhaps have taken up their offer. With every paddle, the distance between our boat and that of Dasani grew longer – until, at one turn, even they were out of sight. “We thought we came to raft and not to [row] the boat,” complained one member of our team, who had presumably expected to just sit in the boat as the fast waters swept the boat to the finishing line.

Our guide, Peter, explained that because we were amateurs, we had been limited to competing at levels one and two while the professionals compete at the more volatile levels 3-5 waters. As we shifted seats three times, and Peter twice asked us to stop rowing and catch our breaths, we thanked the heavens for small mercies. We could have found ourselves in rougher waters.

Sound of relief

But that consolation was not sufficient for a team that was so far behind that it was no longer logical to compete. When we heard the sound of a motor boat Peter, who said it was the first time a team he had guided on a rafting expedition had come last, joked, “Can we wait for that boat [to pull ours to the shore]?” We would have none of Peter’s suggestion. We may have lost the race, but we were not going to lose our dignity so we paddled on at a leisurely pace.

As we approached the finish line, in about twice the 25 minutes that the winners of our heat had taken, some members of Star Journos sought solace in the consolation that the only good thing out of coming last was we were not going to raft the four kilometres all over again in the finals.

The other reason to be upbeat was that we had competed, along with 20 other teams, in a race whose ultimate aim was to raise funds for conserving rhinoceros, whose population has over the years been depleted through poaching.

The Executive Director of Rhino Fund Uganda, Ms Angie Genade, said Uganda currently has nine rhinos at the sanctuary in Nakasongola District, along with the two used for educational purposes at the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre in Entebbe. She said the nine are ready to be released to national parks for tourism purposes, thereby giving them room to conserve more if they raise sufficient funds.

“Our income is so low that we can do nothing and need to have a huge amount of money each year. Unfortunately, we need more funding to bring in more rhinos and each costs $25,000 (Shs50 million),” she said, adding that the annual budget for maintaining the sanctuary, including buying uniforms and paying salaries for the guards, is $360,000 (Shs720 million).

According to the organisers, this year’s competition raised Shs20 million, which would be injected into the effort to raise and protect rhinos in their sanctuary in Nakasongola.

Last year, according to one of the organisers, Kelly MacTavish-Mungar, they raised another Shs20 million from the 24 teams that participated in the competition. “The event to raise funds for the rhino fund was not targeted at expatriates specifically,” she said. “It was targeted at companies that could pay one million shillings for a raft of six people with a pledge from the organisers that the money that was raised would all go back to conservation. What we encourage everybody to do is to give it a try.”

Ms MacTavish-Mungar, who is the executive director of Pearl of Africa Tours and Travel, said their plan is to have 30-60 rhinos in Uganda within the next 20 years.

Currently, she said, people can visit the rhinos in the sanctuary.

Foreign non-residents pay Shs50,000 ($25), foreign residents (Shs25,000) and Ugandan residents Shs10,000. Around the same time next year, there will be a similar race of what has now become an annual event.