Conservation loses a hero



Posted on 19 March 1999  | 
Bwindi, Uganda: The Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in southwestern Uganda lost one of its most experienced and committed wardens when Paul Ross Wagaba was killed in late February, trying to defend the park headquarters and the terrorized tourists against Interahamwe rebels. He was buried 5 March near his mother's home in Kasero-Buloba near Kampala.

Paul Wagaba, 31, came to Bwindi in 1997 to serve as Community Conservation Warden. He initially served in Ruhija in the southern sector of the park. He was transferred to the tourist sector at park headquarters in Buhoma in June 1998, where he continued his community conservation work.

At the time of his death, Paul was filling two management positions. He also served as law enforcement warden in the understaffed park. This latter function likely contributed to his murder: he might have been specifically targeted by the Interahamwe attackers who were in search of weapons.

His long-time friend and colleague, Benon Mugyerwa emphasized that Paul Wagaba's death will leave a huge gap at Bwindi both in terms of his experience and dedication to conservation. He noted that "Paul served as a role model to the junior wardens and rangers serving with him, was always willing to offer guidance and help them overcome problems."

As the Community Conservation Warden, Paul Wagaba played a critical role in linking the park to the people who lived around it. When the park was first gazetted in 1991, relations with the local communities were at a low point. People were accustomed to taking what they needed from the park and resented the increased law enforcement that came with higher levels of protection. Pilot programmes initiated in 1993 gave the local people access to nontimber resources in limited areas of the Park adjacent to their parishes.

Community Conservation wardens played an important role in working with these community groups to determine what resources played a vital role in the welfare of the community. They helped select those community representatives who would have direct access to the forest, and invested the local populace as stakeholders in protecting the Impenetrable Forest.

Because of his excellent relations with the local people, Paul Wagaba was also asked to represent the Park on the local Community Steering Committee of the Mgahinga Gorilla Bwindi Impenetrable Forest Conservation Trust. He also presented conservation education programmes to children living around the area and to school groups visiting the park. Anyone fulfilling such a complex role was of necessity a good communicator and people of all ages, educational levels and from all levels of society liked and trusted Paul Wagaba. Not surprisingly.

Paul gave early notice of his promise. He was a talented student. After attaining his A levels, he attended a two-year course at the Katwe Wildlife College from 1993 - 1995. Dennis Babasa, a professor there and later Paul's colleague at Bwindi in the Ecological Monitoring Programme of the Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation, said that he was one of the brightest students he ever taught. "Paul was an especially skilled communicator," he added.

Although his native language was Luganda, Dominic Bayarungaba, Local Coordinator for the WWF People and Plant's Programme, remembers "how impressed the local people were at the rapidity with which Paul learned Rukiga, so that he could communicate with them in their own tongue"

Benon Mugyerwa, who attended college with him, noted that their course covered all aspects of protected area management and that Paul excelled in all of them. After graduating as the top student at Katwe in 1995, he worked as a junior warden at the Katonga Wildlife Refuge on the border of Murchison National Park, before transferring to Bwindi and Uganda National Parks (now Uganda Wildlife Association).

Paul Wagaba's outreach programmes also brought him in contact with many of the NGOs working around the park including WWF-sponsored projects such as the Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation and the People and Plant's Programme. He participated in many workshops and training sessions as both a leader and participant.

Always eager to learn new skills and contribute his special insights as the major go-between the local people and park management, Paul Wagaba was well positioned and able to transfer his knowledge directly to the cause of conservation. His many contributions will be remembered. All those who were privileged to work with him will miss the abilities he brought to forging partnerships for conserving a unique ecosystem.

(770 words)

* Nancy Thompson-Handler works for the Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation at the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda

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