Obituary: Paul Wagaba

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ON 1 March the tragic news broke that in a brutal bid for international publicity Rwandan rebels had stormed the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park headquarters in Uganda and killed eight tourists and one Ugandan. A great deal was reported at the time about the tourists who died but there was barely a mention of Paul Wagaba, a park warden, who was murdered during the assault.

Wagaba deserves to be remembered not just for his heroic actions defending the tourists, but also for the outstanding contribution he made to the conservation of Bwindi Park, famous as home to over half of the world's 650 remaining mountain gorillas.

Born in the Mpigi District of Uganda in 1966, Paul Wagaba became a talented student and graduated at the top of his class at the Katwe Wildlife College. Dennis Babasa, his professor there, remembers him as one of the brightest students he ever taught and an especially skilled communicator. He was ideally suited for his role as Community Conservation Warden at Bwindi Park which he took up in 1995, and where he was given the task of bringing the local people on board to help protect the forest.

Set up as a National Park in 1991, Bwindi faced an uncertain future. It had become a forest island, surrounded by agricultural land in one of the most densely populated regions of central Africa. It also bordered Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, a region wracked by civil war.

When the park was founded, relations with local communities were at a very low point. People were accustomed to taking what they needed from the park and they resented the loss of access to a forest which they depended upon for essential resources such as medicines and agricultural products. The park was threatened by encroachment and the gorilla population was in decline.

Wagaba played a critical role in helping to forge unprecedented agreements between local people and the park to give the communities controlled access to non-timber resources in Bwindi. By doing so he was helping to secure the future not only of the park but also of the local people.

In addition he worked closely with many of the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that had community-based projects in the park, including those run by WWF, Care-DTC and the Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation.

By last year, encroachment into the park had ceased and the gorilla population had at last stabilised. This was a major achievement in such a poverty- stricken and unstable region and stands as a classic case study of how conservation can be achieved by addressing the development needs of the local people.

Wagaba firmly believed in passing these conservation values on to future generations and invested considerable time presenting conservation education programmes to children living in the area and to school groups visiting Bwindi. He was known as an excellent communicator and people of all ages and all parts of society liked and trusted him.

A long-time friend and colleague, Benon Mugyerwas, described how Wagaba served as a role model to the junior wardens and rangers working with him, always willing to offer guidance and help them overcome problems. A colleague from the Uganda Wildlife Authority said, "He was the kind of man who would try to mediate in any conflict. The rebels would not have welcomed that."

Although the tragic incident at Bwindi is likely to lead to a serious decline in eco-tourism and a consequent reduction in the capacity of the Ugandan Wildlife Authority to conduct conservation work all over the country, Wagaba has left behind a legacy of strong community relations which provide some hope for Bwindi Park.

Paul Wagaba was the last surviving child of 12 brothers and sisters and leaves behind a wife and five children, the youngest of whom is 18 months old. He was buried on 5 March near his mother's home in Kasero-Buloba near Kampala.

Wagaba had planned to further his knowledge of park management by taking a diploma at the Mweka College of Wildlife Management in Tanzania. Considering his strong interest in education and the crucial need for training local people of his calibre, a scholarship scheme is being set up in his name at Mweka College so that other young Ugandans can carry on his work. Contributions can be made to WWF-UK, Panda House, Weyside Park, Godalming GU7 1XR.

Paul Wagaba, conservationist: born Mpigi District, Uganda 1966; married (five children); died Bwindi, Uganda 1 March 1999.