Paul Ssali: the Ugandan ranger who blazed a trail amid war and dictatorship

Gun-toting rebels, poachers and even assassination attempts by Idi Amin were occupational hazards for legendary warden Paul Ssali. Ahead of the of the inaugural meeting of the Giants Club, of which Uganda is a founding member, his son Josh Ssali Sentogo tells his story 

Friday 29 April 2016 14:15 BST
An elephant in Murchison Falls national park, Uganda, where Paul Ssali was chief warden
An elephant in Murchison Falls national park, Uganda, where Paul Ssali was chief warden

Paul Ssali served as chief warden in three of Uganda’s largest national parks at a time when top conservation jobs rarely went to black Africans. During his life he contended with poachers, habitat destruction and an assassination attempt by Idi Amin.

A 1974 documentary on his life, The Wild and the Brave, was nominated for an Oscar, and his story is being made into a Hollywood feature film. Here his son Josh reflects on his father’s legacy.

Why did Paul Ssali become a ranger?

He fell in love with wildlife the very time he visited a national park aged 14 in 1956. The following year he set out on a 700 mile round trip around Uganda’s wildlife and geographical sites. His journey was covered on national radio.

Why did Amin want to kill him ?

At first Amin was impressed with Paul’s conservation efforts and the fact that he was confident enough to stand up tothe feared dictator. This is why he entrusted my father with running Kidepo and Murchison Falls national parks simultaneously. Trouble came when certain high ranking commanders, who were in cahoots with poachers, spread rumours that my father was helping anti-Amin rebels.

How did Amin try to kill him?

My father was a pilot and they tried to booby-trap his aircraft with a grenade. Following behind was an execution squad in case he survived. He escaped by masquerading as a bus driver to pass roadblocks.

What Challenges did your father face that today’s rangers don’t face today?

Today’s rangers don’t have to face a ruthless dictator, undisciplined army officials, armed rebels, poor and inconsistent pay. Nor do they have to source their own equipment by lobbying international conservation agencies.

What challenges do today’s rangers face that Paul Ssali didn’t face?

Today’s rangers are up against more sophisticated poaching syndicates and ammunition – my father warned this would happen.

Is your father well known in Uganda?

Despite being awarded a medal by the President, he is relatively unknown to the current crop of younger conservationists. In Uganda we are not so good at preserving our conservation history.

Were you tempted to follow your father in the field of conservation?

It might be a different kind of conservation, but as a marketer, I help wildlife causes by promoting sustainable tourism. I am also a film tourism consultant and film producer. My first film, an adaptation of a conservation story, will raise awareness of environmental issues.

Has poaching in Uganda increased or diminished since your father was a ranger?

Poaching has significantly reduced since he was a chief warden but it requires persistent effort as we still have incidents.

What is your father’s legacy?

Today tourism is Uganda’s number one foreign currency earner and that is thanks to the effort of people like my father whose conservation efforts, especially in Kidepo National Park, which has been designated one of the best parks in Africa at the World travel awards four years in a row. If it hadn’t it been for his courage and steadfastness during the turbulent Idi Amin years, we would not be in this strong position.

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