Jurassic plants to boost Uganda’s tourism

300 million-year-old cycads thrive in parts of the East African country. Officials say they could attract significant new numbers of tourists 

Monday 16 September 2019 10:29
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By Pamela Amia for Chimpreports.com in Uganda

Cycad Plants, one of the most threatened plants in the wild, are capable of boosting Uganda’s tourism if protected, tourism experts have observed.

The Cycad plant scientifically known as the Encephalartos villosus, is an evergreen ornamental plant categorised as either male or female that lives for a long time and most cases is mistaken for palms or tree ferns.

The male plant produces cones filled with pollen, while the female, usually bigger in size, produces seeds. Cycads are usually found in good landscape areas that are well moist, drained and with a mild climate.

They are believed to be the oldest seed plants on earth traced from 315 million years ago even before the Jurassic period when dinosaurs flourished.

The cycads in Uganda are found only in Kitagwenda, Kayunga and Kitgum districts. In Kitagwenda District, the Cycad Plants are found in the Mpanga Gorge, a very scenic area.

Mpanga Gorge laid out with excellent greenery, with River Mpanga rushing along a steep rocky valley that drops down the East African rift valley’s eastern escarpment to Lake George.

On top of a hill here, you get marvellous views across Lake George, the Northern part of Queen Elizabeth National Park towards the snowcapped Rwenzori Mountains.

Lilly Ajarova, the Chief Executive Officer of the Uganda Tourism Board together with her team visited the cycad village in Kitagwenda District with a major aim of reviewing and assessing opportunities for developing the cycad as a tourism product.

“Assessment of the area provides information on huge opportunity for tourism development. Cycad farms in South Africa earn them lots of foreign exchange from tourists. The scenic set up of the area is (also) a perfect setup for a filming destination,” Ajarova said.

In South Africa and Austria, the Cycad plants have been successfully turned into a great tourism product marketing them as a unique Prehistoric plant.

The tourism board, Ajarova says, will start by profiling the area so that they can know the different opportunities that exist along side the plants and package it for investment opportunities which in turn will attract development in the area.

“I believe that putting cycad on the tourism menu will open Uganda to plant tourism. This will provide a huge opportunity in diversifying the tourism in Uganda since in the past we were majorly concentering on the big five animals. Here is an opportunity now to try and give tourists a different experience with plants tourism”.

Ajarova says the gorge in which the plant grows along River Mpanga also offers opportunities for tourism and hospitality investments like hotels, water rafting, zip lining, cable cars and more exciting experiences like rock climbing, hiking, coffee tourism, bird watching and culture.

About 65 million years ago, it was projected that the cycad plants would dominate flora but this has not been the case.

The plants are also believed to have been food for dinosaurs leading to conclusions that the beasts might have lived in Uganda millions of years ago.

“Look around you and discover the uniqueness of what you have that can be developed into a tourism story and experience. We will (also) be developing ‘The legend of the dinosaurs’ in Uganda as a new tourism product. The local landowners had no idea of the “the gold mine” they have. The future is bright for them as long as they put effort in protecting the cycad,” Ajarova said.

Edward Charlton, a cycad expert from the United Kingdom says that the plant if conserved well has the potential to earn the country millions of dollars in the tourism sector.

He adds that cycad species differ from one another in growth form, coning behaviour, cone size and number, seed size, longevity, drought tolerance, ability to survive fire and these influence their abundance where they grow.

“In other countries I have visited in search for cycads l used to find one or two that are grown by the people I found in botanical gardens which is a different case with these ones since they grow on their own in the wild and are many in numbers also they are the biggest l have seen and they are also the fastest growing cycads”.

Mackay Mwebingwa, a Cycad conservationist, said that when he first saw them in the areas he decided to buy a piece of land where they are and also decided to do research on them and educate the locals as well on the benefits that may come from conserving them.

“When the Cycad plant becomes a full package tourism product first it will bring in tourists who will in turn bring in foreign exchange, create jobs and lead to the development of the area” he said.

The threats against the rare plants were evident during the spot visit. Several farmers on whose land these plants grow are either burning or clearing them to create space for farming.

Some are planting crops around them in pattern perhaps because the soils near them are fertile and they surprisingly possess a great deal of drought tolerance and are an effective way to conserve water in the garden.

World over, the crops’ habitants are being destroyed by mainly development and farming.

In fact, according to PlantZAfrica.com, the genus Encephalartos villosus has been placed on the list of threatened species by the Conservation on International Trade in Endangered Species of flora and fauna )CITES) and is listed in Appendix 1, which means it is too endangered to be traded.

This article is reproduced here as part of the Giants Club African Conservation Journalism Fellowships, a programme of the charity Space for Giants and supported by the owner of ESI Media, which includes independent.co.uk. It aims to expand the reach of conservation and environmental journalism in Africa, and bring more African voices into the international conservation debate. Read the original story here

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