March 1864: “A magnificent sight burst suddenly upon us. . . . The fall of water was snow white, which had a superb effect as it contrasted with the dark cliffs that walled the river, while the graceful palms of the tropics and wild plantains perfected the beauty of the view. This was the greatest waterfall of the Nile.” -Sir Samuel Baker, The Albert N’yanza
Sir Samuel Baker and Lady Florence Baker were the first Europeans to see Murchison Falls. Nearly a hundred years later, Ernest and Mary Hemingway survived after their plane plunged to the earth near Murchison Falls, only to have the rescue plane crash and burn, too, on take-off. Days later, the Hemingways read their own misinformed obituaries in the papers from the safety of their hotel in Nairobi.
Murchison Falls National Park is best known, though, for the most powerful waterfall in the world. Every second, the equivalent of 200 bathtubs full of water is forced through a gorge less than seven paces wide. The pressure is so great that the ground trembles around it. The water then plummets 43 meters before flowing out toward Lake Albert as a placid river whose banks are dense with hippos, crocodiles, waterbuck and buffaloes.
Murchison Falls is just one part of the 384,000-hectare Murchison Falls National Park (MFNP), established in 1952 and now the largest and most-visited national park in Uganda. The Victoria Nile runs through it, its wide, white rapids flanked by riverine forest and rust-red cliffs. Safari-goers from all over the world motor across the savannas and woodlands that straddle the river. Overhead, vibrant hot-air balloons carrying tourists float like a dream through the dawn mist.
With the thrum of the Falls as the bassline, everything is set to the East African soundtrack: the rumble of an elephant, the honk-grunt of a hippo, the trill of a fish eagle, the breathy call of a leopard like a saw on wood.
During the 1960s, Murchison Falls was not only the most-visited park in Uganda, but was also among the most popular in all of Africa. MFNP was known for its large populations of the Big 5 (leopards, lions, elephants, buffaloes, and rhinos) and for its chimpanzees. The park contained some of the largest concentrations of wildlife in Africa: an estimated 15,000 elephants freckled the landscape with their iconic silhouettes, 14,000 hippos guarded the river, and 26,500 buffaloes stampeded across its savannas.
But in the 1970’s and early 80’s, as Uganda sank into civil war, wildlife populations declined. During a 1995 census, only 200 elephants, or just 1.3% of their pre-war population, had survived. Buffaloes plunged to around 1,000, and hippos to 1,500.
Now, the park once again contains over 70 mammal and 450 bird species and an ambitious recovery plan is underway. Large herbivore numbers have doubled in recent years. Three-quarters of all of the world’s Rothschild giraffes live here, and four of the Big 5 (all but the rhino) survive. The rare shoebill stork calls MFNP home, along with a unique antelope called the Ugandan kob. Over 600 chimpanzees live in the Budongo Forest, the largest mahogany forest in East Africa.
Threats to Murchison Falls
However, the park still faces challenges. For one, over 40% of Uganda’s oil reserves lie under MFNP, and a consortium of oil companies are now engaged in drilling.
We don’t yet know how many elephants survived the past decade of intensive poaching in Murchison Falls. Global Conservation, the International Elephant Foundation and Save the Elephants have sponsored a comprehensive Elephant and Wildlife Census in the park using state-of-the-art imaging technology. These airborne imaging systems will also help to generate detailed land-use and deforestation maps for park management and wildlife corridor planning. Save the Elephants is working with world-renowned pilot Richard Lamprey, who undertook much of the Great Elephant Census flights for Vulcan across Africa.
Global Conservation is also investing in a multi-year Global Park Defense program to bring park-wide communications, the Vulcan domain awareness system, cellular trailcam networks, long-range thermal cameras, and real-time command and control. Already, we’ve rolled out a satellite comms network, enabling rangers to connect to HQ and coordinate with other ranger patrols. These smartphones also support the SMART Patrolling system for collecting data on poaching and biodiversity.
Protecting this unique ecosystem is critical both for its innate value and its value to the Ugandan economy.
We are now supporting the establishment of a Community Tourism Association with certified guides to become ambassadors for the park. The tourism industry in Uganda employs about 1.2 million people, and the tourism industry raises about $1.5 billion a year, or 9% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. Over 50,000 tourists visit MFNP each year, generating over $2 million in revenues. The Uganda Wildlife Authority contributes 20% of these revenues to local community projects, including clinics and schools.
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