Alex Ngabirano was born and raised in the Bwindi Community, South Western Uganda, and has dedicated his life to the protection of wildlife in the area. Alex manages Bwindi Development Network which focuses on reforming poachers and creating more sustainable livelihoods, with a focus on the eco-tourism industry in Uganda. The Bwindi Development Network was founded in 2014 and is located in the Buhoma-Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, which was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1994. The area is home to two species of great ape; the mountain gorilla and the chimpanzee, with over half of the world’s remaining population of mountain gorillas living in the park. Alex kindly answered some questions for us on what inspired his choices and the work being done the Bwindi Development Network.
What made you work in conservation? What was your inspiration?
First of all, I believe that in conservation we are one. Personally, I had a love of seeing wildlife animals, and when I was still young, I used to go with my parents to the garden and see monkeys on land near Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Whenever I could see the monkeys, I always wanted to give them food and used to run around with the monkeys. The Bwindi National Park was already gazetted for tourism in 1991, and Community Conservation Rangers (CCRs) started coming at our school. That’s when I came to know that in Bwindi forest there are mountain gorillas which are almost similar to people. However, the CCRs mentioned that people living around Bwindi forest are doing lots of poaching, and killing wild animals which is not good because tourists come in Bwindi to see gorillas and all the other wildlife. A few years later, I started seeing tourists coming to see mountain gorillas and also coming in my village. Since then, I was inspired to study having in mind that I will work in conservation and save wildlife.
What steps led you to where you are today?
Immediately after school, I volunteered and worked for ‘Through Public Health’, an organization that monitors the health of gorillas and the health of people. My role was coordinating and overseeing proper implementation of field activities where I served for 12 years. But all along I always wanted to have more of a direct impact on stopping poaching and the illegal wildlife trade. Because of this I created the first Bwindi Reformed Poacher Centre in Uganda for uniting and reforming local people who are still engaging themselves in poaching. I am trained in Public Health and Information Communication Technology.
What is your favourite aspect of your job? I have always believed that the best way to make a difference and save wildlife is to spread information and engage local people in wildlife conservation. Mostly I enjoy teaching the communities living around the park about wildlife conservation and their habitants, how dangerous it is to eat wildlife (zoonotic diseases) and the benefits attached to wildlife conservation.
What was your proudest moment as a conservationist so far?
My proudest moment as a conservationist is when started implementing our project in the community through sensitizing the community about poaching issues and 10 individuals voluntarily reformed and handed over their poaching tools. Another one is sharing my working experience of engaging locals in wildlife conservation to students, researchers, attending conferences at both national and international levels.
What gives you hope for the future of conservation?
1. Mountain gorillas in Bwindi forest were once critically endangered but because of combined efforts and different interventions being put in place, they no long being critical they are now only endangered
2. Demand of poaching is decreasing
3. Culture is changing
4. Reduced pressure to conservation
What advice would you give to young conservationists trying to build a career?
1. Wildlife conservation is a journey for today and tomorrow, and is not about final destination but about the collaborative journey of passionate individuals.
2. Biodiversity is our strength
3. Need to be patience and teamwork
How was Bwindi Development Network formed and what are its aims?
I ended up in my current job because of the study I did in communities around Bwindi Impenetrable National Park about poaching wildlife animals. I found out that Communities living around the park poach wildlife as means of achieving the following; consumption for change of diet, medicinal, cultural beliefs, bartering for common goods and trade. This led me to establish the Bwindi Reformed Poacher project which I am currently managing. More than 10,000 people live in the remote areas where mountain gorillas are found, and with little alternative income sources, people turned to wildlife poaching in order to meet their basic household needs.
Bwindi Reformed Poacher project is established for tourism attraction site, which engages all reformed poachers on the daily basis working rotationally whenever there are tourists, researchers and interns for gaining experience. This gives direct support to the reformed poachers to earn a sustainable living while improving their livelihoods, and connecting to historical heritage.
Can you give an insight into what an average day is like on the project?
On an average day, we aim to carry out as much community outreach as possible to help educate communities about the negative impacts of poaching and deforestation, and inform them about the wildlife conservation being done, and alternatives to poaching.
How does your organisation interact with the local community?
We are directly working with frontline villages around Bwindi Impenetrable National Park where we engage the community leaders. Before the project started, we had a consultation meeting with the local leaders and gave their recommendations.
What are the organisations biggest achievements?
1. 75 poachers have been accepted voluntarily to reformed from poaching
2. The construction of Bwindi Reformed Poacher Centre where reformed poachers meet, where we provide lecture about gorilla and other wildlife conservation and the engagement of communities in conservation and development activities and visitors take a tour visiting reformed poacher products
3. Reduced pressure to conservation
What are the long-term goals for the organisation?
1. Our long-term goal is to have zero poaching and improved livelihoods of reformed poachers and other community members living around Bwindi impenetrable National Park
2. Form partnerships with conservation organizations, tour and travel companies, funding agencies, research institutions and medias
3. Build rooms for volunteers/students to stay in while they are doing their research at our centre
4. Scale up reformed poacher project to other affected national parks
For more information about how to get involved with and support the Bwindi Development Network, visit their website (www.bwindidevelopmentnetwork.org) or find the organisation on social media. It is possible to volunteer or do an internship with the organisation, or to visit the Reformed Poacher Centre to learn more about the work they are doing.