Electric fence electrocutes three lions near Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park

The incident raises questions over property development standards vis a vis wildlife conservation in protected areas

Thursday 05 May 2022 21:42 BST
(The Independent Uganda)

By Ronald Musoke for The Independent in Uganda

On April 26, the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) announced news of the electrocution of three lionesses close to Queen Elizabeth National Park. UWA said in a statement that “the lions were found dead on an electric fence at Irungu Forest Safari Lodge with two stuck in the wires.”

The incident at a lodge near Kigabu village in south western Uganda has cast doubts on whether property developers inside or close to national parks understand the protocols of running their businesses profitably without compromising the safety of keystone wildlife species.

Ugandans have also been left questioning the protocols around running businesses in such sensitive ecosystems.

When The Independent asked why the hotel association had by April 29 not issued any statement, Jean Byamugisha, the executive director of Uganda Hotel Owners Association said they felt the statement issued by UWA would suffice. Pressed by The Independent, Byamugisha said the “loss of lions was extremely unfortunate.”

“Our business is dependent upon wildlife such as these lions so the deaths put us in a ‘lose- lose’ situation,” she told The Independent. But Byamugisha was quick to apportion blame on both sides.

“On the side of UWA, there is a need to come up with stronger measures to protect the animals. There are many instances where animals come into the communities and destroy people’s property but UWA does not respond as quickly as possible.”

“I can understand why the lodge owner would erect an electric fence to ward off dangerous animals because the lodge owner’s first responsibility is to protect his guests,” she said, adding: “Imagine if these lions had made their way into the lodge area and killed guests? Everybody would be on TripAdvisor writing about it and the owner would be out of business.”

Irungu proudly markets its prime location in the heart of Queen Elizabeth National Park ecosystem, just 800 metres from Kazinga Channel, the waterway that connects both Lake Edward and Lake George. Among the activities Irungu promises its guests are game drives to see rare species such as the lions that were killed at its property.

Byamugisha, the head of Hotel Owners Association, called it a mishap on the side of the lodge owner to erect an electric fence with strong current.

When The Independent questioned management of Irungu Forest Safari Lodge on their lack of statement, Ronald Rubihayo, the Director, said they cannot comment on the “suspected electrocution of the lions” because the incident is under investigation by both UWA and the Uganda Police.

“We are working closely with UWA and Police to establish the truth,” Rubihayo told The Independent. He added that the electric fence installed at the property is five years old and claimed it is similar to the ones used by UWA in ‘problem-animal-hotspots’ around the park.

UWA and conservationists deny this is the case. A source privy to the ongoing investigation told The Independent that the community living near the park is aware of how dangerous this particular electric fence is. “It made news because lions were killed, but domestic animals have actually been killed by this fence,” the source said.

He added it is misleading to say that the property’s fence is built to the specifications of UWA’s fences because the managers of the property turn up the amperage of the current at night.

According to conservationists, fences in protected areas are not supposed to be dangerous since the amplification, or the current sent through the tensile wires, is very low. They say it is the amps that could ultimately kill.

“That is why electric fencing can get away with a high voltage. The animal could only die in case it gets stuck in the fence,” one conservationist said.

Meanwhile, international conservation organisation, Space for Giants, which in 2019 partnered with UWA and pioneered electric fencing in Queen Elizabeth National Park, referred to the Irungu lodge incident as “unnecessary.”

“The unnecessary loss of any wild animal is always regretted, all the more so when the animals were among the iconic wildlife that attracts tourists to Uganda, driving both local and national businesses and boosting the country’s international image,” Space for Giants told The Independent.

“We wish to clarify that Space for Giants was not involved in any way in the installation or operation of this fence. From images shared publicly, this was a completely different design, using very different materials from fences we have worked with the Uganda Wildlife Authority to install along the borders of Queen Elizabeth National Park.”

“Space for Giants’ electrified fence design does no lasting harm to any animal or person, and these fences are expressly non-lethal. Their purpose is to keep wildlife, especially elephants, away from people’s crops or property, so they are more likely to tolerate living near wild animals that can otherwise ruin their livelihoods.”

According to Space for Giants, although the fences deploy very high voltages, they use a very low current that pulses on-off-on-off. This means that any animal or person that encounters the fences receives a strong but not deadly shock, and can always pull back to be freed from the current.

Space for Giants told The Independent that in its close to two decades of installing such fences in many locations across East Africa, including in areas populated with lions, the only instances of an animal failing to survive an encounter with a fence have been species with long horns that got entangled in the wire and were not able to free themselves. But, the organisation told The Independent, such incidents are rare and also regrettable.

“We are confident that investigations by the Uganda Wildlife Authority and Police will, in the fullness of time, be able to explain how this alarming event happened and highlight any breaches of appropriate protocols necessary to install electrified fences safely.”

John Makombo, the Director of Conservation at UWA told The Independent that “the recent incident caught UWA by surprise.”

Among probable reasons for UWA’s laxity about the lodge and its operations is its location. Makombo explained that the lodge is outside the park’s boundary.

“We have no control over the lodge owner but we sincerely thought this fence was like the one we have erected in other areas of the park.”

“We want to know whether the lodge owner had authorization to erect this electric fence. We want to know who erected the fence. Did it require an EIA certification? If he needed an EIA, did he do it? We are doing a 360-degree investigation,” communications manager at UWA, Bashir Hangi, said.

The death of the three lions came just over a fortnight after a stray lion was killed by villagers in Kagadi District which is not far away from Queen Elizabeth Park, bringing the known number of lion deaths in 2022 to four.

Stretched over a year, nine lions are known to have been killed in Queen Elizabeth National Park. Six lions were killed here in March 2021, in what conservationists said was a poisoning incident.

Over the last three years, more than 20 lions have been slain by humans in this particular conservation area. Stretched over to 2008, the number of known fatalities is 25, according to reports by various wildlife conservation agencies.

Lions are currently listed as “vulnerable” on the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) “red list” of threatened species. For a species that conservationists say is fast declining, the April 25 incident left local conservationists pensive considering that they are struggling to boost lion populations. Conservationists in Uganda say one killed lion sets their efforts of growing populations decades back.

Conservationists say the decline is mainly due to conflict with pastoralists over predation of livestock, or injury to humans. But loss of habitat, illegal trade in lion parts, and climate change are said to be the main drivers in their declining numbers.

After Mountain Gorillas, lions are the most sought-after species by tourists visiting Uganda’s national parks. They are mainly found in the three largest savannah parks; Murchison Falls National Park in the northwest, Kidepo Valley National Park in the northeast and Queen Elizabeth National Park in southwestern Uganda.

Going forward, Makombo told The Independent that UWA will ensure that all the fences within national parks are up to standard.

“There is also a need for environmental impact assessment studies to be done for these kinds of developments in the park,” he said.

Meanwhile Bashir Hangi, the communications manager at UWA told The Independent that resources permitting, UWA will continue erecting fences in all hotspot areas. UWA has so far erected close to 100 kilometres of electric fencing in what the national conservation body calls hotspot zones where problem animals like elephants come into conflict with nearby communities.

This article is reproduced here as part of the Space for Giants African Conservation Journalism Programme, supported by the major shareholder 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.

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