ARUA. At 166 square kilometres, Ajai game reserve in Arua district is one of the smallest conservation areas yet it is the only known natural habitat for the coveted White Rhinoceroses.
The residents living in the vicinity of Ajai say their expectations were raised high and had hoped to see White Rhinos when the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) informed them of plan to restock Ajai with the beasts and an announcement of management concession agreement between UWA, Arua district and the Uganda Wildlife Safaris ltd (UWS) was made in 2008.
They are growing frustrated that ten years on there is no sign of White Rhinos ever making their long awaited return, as none of the parties to the concession agreement has implemented its part of responsibilities.
According to the management agreement, Arua district was required to recruit vermin guards to help out the local community against destruction and attacks by baboons, wild pigs and monkeys, UWA plays a supervisory role in addition to providing security to wildlife while UWS is mandated to develop tourist accommodation, sport hunting camps, tourist roads and trails and an airstrip.
UWS is also required to build up the animal population in collaboration with UWA through translocation and manage the conservation and tourism activities such as photographic safaris, game viewing, nature walks, fishing safaris, boat trips, bird watching and wing shooting for which various fees are charged.
The first five years for implementing these activities clarified in the 20-year agreement as phase one has elapsed with nothing done on ground and the second phase to run for up to fifteen years is remaining ten years to elapse.
In 2014, the UWS chief executive officer Christian Weth attributed the delay to develop Ajai to leadership problems and the capital intensive nature of the investment.
He said then that they had planned to invest $10m (about sh36.5b) of which $3m about (sh10.9b) is for fencing off the reserve by putting barbed wires connected to a low voltage electricity to prevent the wildlife from straying to disturb the communities.
Weth explained that the planned translocation of animals from other parks to Ajai is also a costly venture requiring the use of helicopters to chase the animals into a net trap before they can be caught and transported.
Weth disclosed that his organization and UWA were engaging the government on the possible restoration of White rhinos at Ajai but that would only be possible after fencing the place.
Friends from South Africa, he added, had offered to construct a wildlife training school at Ajai as part of the planned redevelopment.
The game reserve
Ajai Wildlife Reserve named after a powerful Madi paramount chief who reigned over the area is dominated by a large island of sprawling savannah forest and grass lands and surrounded by seasonal swamps and hills.
In 1910, the area received the World’s attention when the former president of the United States of America, Theodore Roosevelt visited it to hunt White Rhinos during his then widely reported presidential African safari.
Five years after Roosevelt’s shooting tour, Ajai began supervising hunting within his territory and finally declared a controlled hunting place in 1937 which was officially gazetted by the government in 1964 as Ajai Wildlife reserve.
It is currently bordered by Ogoko, Okollo and Pawor Sub Counties in Lower Madi County.
The game reserve has immense tourism potential with plenty of animals to view or hunt. They include primates such as vervet monkeys, baboons, white colobus monkeys and red monkeys.
The reptiles include pythons, black cobra, green snakes and puff adder snakes and monitor lizards among others.
The antelope family at Ajai is composed of the renowned Uganda kobs, Reedbuck, Oribi, Duikers, bushbucks, waterbucks, sitatungas and DikDik.
The pig family prowling Ajai comprises bush pigs that graze at night, warthogs and giant forest hogs while the many foxes, leopards and civets make up the cat family.
There are over 200 bird species at Ajai according to information from UWA which include eagles, kites, flamingos, the crested cranes, weaver birds and piapiac while multi-coloured butterflies and other insect species add to the diversity of Ajai’s tourism attractions.
The UWA also attaches historical and cultural importance to the acacia trees on the island said to have been Ajai’s main base when he reigned supreme in Madi.
However failure to restock White Rhinos is of particular concern to the neighbouring residents.
Mr William Candia, a resident of Alisu Village, Pamvara Parish, Ogoko Sub County said the population of White Rhinos drastically reduced in the 1970s because unruly soldier used to hunt them without proper control.
The civil instability that followed Amin’s ouster in 1979 only led to more killing of the White Rhinos that the precious species became endangered.
As a result, the t took the only two remaining White Rhinos at in 1981to South Africa and later, brought them back to be stationed at Ziwa Rhino and Wildlife ranch in Nakasongola district under a collaborative project of UWA and Rhino Fund Uganda instead of returning them to their natural habitat at Ajai.
Candia insists that White Rhinos were culturally a source of security and identity for the Madi.
“In our culture, we do not eat Rhinos, but we feel secure whenever they are in our vicinity. People used to identify us by the White Rhinos, now we are feeling bad that they are no more here,” he said.
Candia noted that they have on several occasion, asked the government of Uganda to return the White Rhinos to Ajai Wildlife Reserve, but all in vain.
He said now people of Madi are thinking it is better to utilize the land in the game reserve for farming since White rhinos that symbolised the importance of the place as wildlife sanctuary are not there.
Hajj Abdul Hakim Molli, another resident said locals are no longer benefiting from Ajai Game Reserve since it can’t attract Tourists due to UWA’s failure to restock White Rhinos.
“People don’t want the Reserve because they think it is now useless since it is not benefiting them in one way or the other,” Molli said.
Other locals blamed UWA for extending the boundary of Ajai Wildlife Reserve in to people’s land by over 10 square kilometers without consulting them.
The most affected people are in the villages of Olali, Degia, Yachi, Jawura East and West, all in Ogoko Sub County.
Mr Charles Okuta, the Warden in charge of Ajai Wildlife Reserve reassured the people that UWA will bring back white Rhinos to ajai as he appealed for calm.
“We would have brought the White Rhinos long time but we feared for their security and that is why we were doing everything possible to secure our land so that poachers cannot put their lives in danger again,” Okuta said.
Okuta also refuted the allegation that UWA has extended its boundary into people’s land, insisting that in 2005, UWA hired an Independent Surveyor who used the map of 1964 when Ajai Wildlife Reserve was gazetted, to determine the exact boundary of the reserve which has been secured with mark stones.