Caroline Asiimwe is a veterinarian with the Budongo Conservation Field Station in Uganda. She leads a group of former wildlife poachers who now act as conservation rangers in a park that faces numerous stressors.

In Uganda, Threatened Chimps Find Protection in Former Poachers

It is little secret that African wildlife is threatened. Human development, after all, is shrinking the native habitat of countless African species. Meanwhile, elephants are routinely and illegally slaughtered to feed the black-market trade in ivory, while rhinos are slaughtered for their horns, which are used in dubious Chinese medicines. Other animals — from birds, snakes, lizards, and other creatures — are often trapped for sale into the exotic pet trade, while still others, including monkeys, crocodiles, and tortoises, are hunted as bushmeat.

The chimpanzee, however, suffers from all these stressors. Shrinking habitat, the illegal pet trade, and the spears and traps of hunters — sometimes targeted, sometimes not — have reduced the African chimp population from approximately one million at the turn of the 20th century, to an estimated 172,000 to 300,000 today. The Jane Goodall Institute U.K. estimates that African ape populations overall “will decline by an additional 80 percent in the next 30 to 40 years.”

In the Budongo forest of western Uganda, veterinarian Caroline Asiimwe and her colleagues — some of them former poachers themselves — are trying to save chimpanzees, though the work isn’t easy. A war has broken out in and around this 168-square mile reserve between the estimated 800 chimps and the human populations that surround them. With their native resources shrinking, Asiimwe says, the chimps have begun scavenging for food in the cultivated fields surrounding Budongo, where human-animal conflict is inevitable. She notes that on the outskirts of another Ugandan forest, in the Muhorro-Kagadi district, chimps have killed eight children in the last five years.

Attacks go the other way too: Near Budongo, some residents have stoned chimps, attacked them with spears, and even put nails in their heads, Asiimwe says. Others have been killed for use in traditional medicine, while others are dying from illnesses — especially respiratory diseases — transmitted by humans. In other areas, chimps are hunted illegally for food, while many continue to be targeted for capture as exotic pets or for shipment to unregulated zoos around the world. But in Budongo, chimpanzees are typically collateral damage — wounded or killed in the many wire or jaw-like traps set for other animals.

These pressures are difficult to combat. Like everywhere else in Uganda, the population around Budongo is booming, with many people attracted by the discovery of oil and gas in the neighboring Murchison Falls National Park. Refugees from conflicts in northern Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo are also adding to the growth.

But Asiimwe says she is optimistic, and she is trying to save chimpanzees and other wildlife in novel ways — including drafting former wildlife poachers into the effort. The Budongo Conservation Field Station, where Asiimwe works as a conservation coordinator, is providing poachers with alternative livelihoods, and in some cases, they have been hired as “eco-guards.” Their mission: policing the forest and removing the very sort of deadly traps that they themselves once put in place.

Hear more about the Budongo field station in this month’s Undark podcast.

About 800 chimpanzees, including this female and juvenile, call the Budongo Forest home. Chimps, which are considered endangered, face a number of risks — from habitat loss and disease, to poaching.
Asiimwe patrols the Budongo Forest with her team of reformed “eco-guards.” As former poachers, they know best how to look for illegal wildlife traps. “You use a criminal to get another criminal,” says Asiimwe.

Asiimwe and her team of eco-guards cross the Budongo Forest by car. Aggressive patrols, which can require the group to spend nights in the deep forest, can uncover as many as 400 traps in a single week.
Eco-guards display a typical “man trap” or “bear trap” used by poachers. The metallic jaws snap on the limbs of animals that step on top of them. Chimpanzees can sometimes escape dragging the trap on their legs or arms, but they are not strong enough to open it.
Nylon cable traps are also used by poachers. Illegal hunters use these to target duikers or bush pigs, but chimpanzees often pass along the same tracks. If they get trapped, they can lose fingers or hands while trying to remove the wire.
Here, Asiimwe with her team rescue a juvenile trapped in a poacher’s wire. Another juvenile nearby is found with his face caught in a wire trap, but he cannot be helped because his family prevented the rescue team from approaching. (Visual courtesy Budongo Conservation Field Station)
The hand of a chimp snared in a trap. To save the animal, the team uses a dart to sedate it — and they must work quickly to remove the snare before the larger group of chimpanzees, seeing one of their members in distress, attacks. (Visual courtesy Budongo Conservation Field Station)

“When I save an animal that is caught in a trap, I feel so happy and relieved to see that I am able to give this life another chance,” says Asiimwe. She was awarded a prize from the World Academy of Sciences in 2017 for her work.
The Budongo Conservation Field Station has found that giving two goats to a poacher often provides enough livelihood to prompt them to give up illegal hunting. Here, a former poacher, Diro Nelson, is seen with a goat provided by the Budongo team.
The Budongo Conservation Field Station team has been expanding the goat program to numerous residents of villages like village of Nyakafunjo, which skirts the forest. More than 150 people have received goats through the program.
“There are very few women who want to work in the jungle …” Asiimwe said. “As most of the men think you should not be managing them.” Here, Asiimwe relaxes at the field station with her daughter.
Asiimwe gives a talk to a group of volunteers at the field station. Operating since the early 1990s, the facility seeks to balance conservation goals and the needs of the local communities who see Budongo as an economic resource.
Although the number of illegal traps and of injured chimps had been declining, incidents have begun to rebound in the last few years, suggesting that Asiimwe’s work — and that of her colleagues — is far from over. “This is our closest cousin,” Asiimwe said. “We need to protect it.”

This project was supported in part by a grant from The European Journalism Center, and is part of the series “African Women Scientists on the Move.” Marco Boscolo contributed reporting for this story.