Africa's animal refuge: The Ugandan Wildlife Education Centre

It was set up as an animal orphanage, but today it is a haven for 50 species exploited by poachers and witch doctors in a region ravaged by war. Steve Bloomfield reports on a unique sanctuary
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The Independent Online

Few animals are likely to have endured a more miserable existence than Sarah. By the age of four she had spent most of her life being used by a witch doctor in a Ugandan village. Locked in a cage and deprived of any contact with other chimpanzees, parts of Sarah's body would be shaved and her fur used in traditional ceremonies to banish evil spirits.

Spotted by a middleman for an animal smuggling ring, Sarah was bought for a few dollars and prepared to be flown out of Uganda, bound for either the Middle East or Europe, where conservationists believe she would have been sold to a collector. But Sarah refused to go quietly. As she was being taken away in a bag, on the way to Entebbe airport just outside Uganda's capital, Kampala, her incessant wriggling and screeching alerted the police. The trafficker was arrested and Sarah found herself in a new home: the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre (UWEC) in Entebbe. Here, along with more than 200 other animals, including 10 other chimpanzees, Sarah has been nurtured back to health.

The centre aims to recreate Uganda's extraordinarily diverse ecology, from rocky savannahs to lush wetlands, along the sandy shores of Lake Victoria, and allows free-ranging antelope to mix with vervet monkeys and more than 250 bird species.

Set up in 1952 by the British colonial government as an orphanage for abandoned young animals, the centre had fallen into a state of disrepair by 1994. Following a proposal from the World Conservation Society, it was turned into a conservation centre for vulnerable and endangered species.

Funded by the World Bank, the centre is now home to more than 50 species whose existence in the Great Lakes region is under threat. They include an African rock python, which at more than 20ft from tongue to tail is one of the longest snakes in the world. Normally found in a dusty savannah, the conservation centre's specimen had been locked up in a cage and taunted by villagers. Desperate to escape, the python cracked his skull on the metal bars.

Also at home in the centre are spotted-necked otters, which spend their days lazing in ponds, being fed fish brought in by fishermen form the nearby Lake Victoria. Three animals were accidentally caught in fishermen's nets over the past 20 years. The youngest was only brought in after a fisherman visited the centre and saw the other two. After finding the otter caught up in his net, he had panicked and kept it in a drum, unsure of what to do with it.

Birds have also been saved. The centre is home to a shoebill stork, a 5ft tall, grey-feathered bird of which there are only 350 left in the world. It was found in the boot of a car, about to be smuggled out of the country.

Sarah is not the only chimpanzee to have been saved from a life of pain with a witch doctor. Kikyo, who is still being kept in quarantine while vets carry out a thorough examination, had also been kept for use in traditional witchcraft ceremonies.

Poachers and smugglers have long been viewed as the biggest enemies chimpanzees face in sub-Saharan Africa. But increasingly, wildlife officials in the Great Lakes region are finding that chimps are being abducted by witch doctors. In the past six months there have been several reports in Uganda of baby chimps being orphaned after their mothers were kidnapped.

Not all the animals living in the centre have had to be rescued, however. Sherino and Kabira, two rare white rhinos, were imported from neighbouring Kenya in 2003. Uganda's last white rhino was hunted and killed in 1983. Environment officials hope that Sherino, male, and Kabira, female, will mate and produce offspring when they are older which can be introduced into the wild.

Such is the eagerness of the Ugandan government to bring white rhinos back to the wild that two were imported in August from Disney's theme park in Florida. Nande, a seven-year-old female, and Hasani, a five-year-old male, grew up in a manmade savannah at Disney's Animal Kingdom.

The presence of white rhinos in Uganda's national parks would represent an enormous boon for the country's tourism industry. The two-decade conflict in the Acholiland in the north of the country has damaged its reputation as a safe tourist destination. By contrast, in neighbouring Kenya, which has benefited from relative stability since achieving independence and has similar safari potential, tourism is the number one foreign currency earner.

War has held back the economies of the entire Great Lake region, which also encompasses Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Continuous fighting has made environmental protection in the region almost impossible. Uganda's feared rebel group, the Lord's Resistance Army, is now putting the lives of some of the world's rarest white rhinos at risk after it moved west into Congo's Garamba National Park.

Congo's own war, which has claimed the lives of an estimated four million people since it began in 1998, has also caused untold damage to the ecology of some of the country's rarest animals. Hippos are on the brink of being wiped out in the Virunga National Park in eastern Congo. The Mai Mai, a Congolese militia operating in the North Kivu region, killed more than 400 hippopotamuses last month, according to the Zoological Society of London. The Mai Mai sell the hippo meat and the ivory found in their teeth. There are now estimated to be fewer than 900 hippos remaining in the park, down from 22,000 in 1988.

The number of elephants has suffered a similar decline, falling from 4,300 in the 1960s to just a few hundred by 2003. War, and the breakdown of any form of central government, has left most of the wildlife park's staff without pay for several years. But Congo's recent democratic elections, the first in more than 40 years, have led some conservationists to raise hopes that animals such as the okapi and the pygmy giraffe can be saved. Peace talks between the Lord's Resistance Army and the Ugandan government, taking place in Juba, South Sudan, have also shown some signs of promise.

For the animals that find their way to the Ugandan Wildlife Education Centre, though, war has just been one of many threats to their existence. Poachers stalk Uganda's countryside, while the country's borders, particularly with Congo to the west and Sudan to the north, are too porous for wildlife officials to have much of hope of catching smugglers.

But for those like Sarah, the centre offers sanctuary. Or as UWEC's executive director, Andrew Seguya, put it: "We give them a second chance."