The Ajai Wildlife Reserve, a protected area on the banks of the West Nile in Uganda, was once home to 60 of the 80 southern white rhinoceroses left in Uganda, a symbol of pride and identity for the Madi Okollo people.
But by 1979, as prolonged civil unrest, poaching and encroachment of land for crops, grazing and human settlement continued, the white rhino became functionally extinct in the area.
Today, white rhinos in Uganda can only be found at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, where efforts to protect and rehabilitate the endangered species have been made since 2005. But that is set to change.
In December 2022, the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) announced they would be reintroducing white rhinos to the Ajai reserve, more than 40 years since they were last seen there. Their brief acknowledged that reintroducing the rhino will “be part of the restoration of the cultural heritage and will enhance the understanding of rhino conservation of the West Nile community and their future generations to appreciate and be proud to revive their ancestral heritage.”
The decision, which local communities said was long overdue, came on the heels of increased media coverage and public pressure, sparked in part by a story produced in September 2020 by Ugandan journalist and EJN grantee Richard Drasimaku.
Efforts to revive the protected area, albeit bereft of its iconic attraction, had drawn the journalist’s attention. With the support of a story grant from EJN’s East Africa Wildlife Journalism project, he reported on the conservation successes at Ajai.
Drasimaku’s story for West Nile Today News, “Poacher’s Den Turns Wildlife Haven: the Story of Ajai,” highlighted a collaborative effort between the UWA and local communities that reduced human-wildlife conflict and ultimately led to a clampdown on poaching.
“Previously people used to kill baboons, monkeys and antelopes. But since the beginning of our cooperation with UWA, we have not killed them,” said Margaret Driciru, the Vice Chairperson of Ayavu beekeepers, a 28-member group that was allocated areas within the wildlife reserve for honey production, in an interview with Drasimaku.
The establishment of apiaries by the UWA generated income for local communities, ensuring they would be less reliant on Ajai for basic needs. To further build mutual trust, the UWA allowed the sustainable use of natural resources such as papyrus, reed, thatching grass and building poles by the communities with the guidance of the reserve management, noted Clement Aluma, an external researcher who contributed to EJN’s report documenting the impacts of EJN-supported stories in 2020. In exchange, community members provided the UWA with monthly reports on poachers, intruders, and livestock in the reserve.
“Once people see and feel the benefits of wildlife conservation, they appreciate its importance and see the need to support wildlife conservation,” explained Bashir Hangi, UWA’s Communications Manager.
As for Drasimaku, he wanted to “highlight to the world how community participation in the management of Ajai Wildlife Reserve managed to stamp out poaching, or at least control it,” he said.
Stimulating public debate — and demands for the rhinos’ return to Ajai
In December 2020, three months after Drasimaku’s story was published, it was picked up and covered by a talk show on local radio station Access FM. Mbaaga Madira, the producer of the show, recognized that issues related to the reserve were important to the community, and decided to center the discussion around Drasimaku’s story.
The show triggered a series of conversations about conservation and how to increase tourism revenue from Ajai Reserve. Spurred by the successes that had been achieved so far, the community came on air to call for more action by the UWA. They renewed their demands for an electric fence around Ajai to keep animals from escaping from protected areas into their settlements, to further reduce human-wildlife conflict. The fence had been proposed since 2008, but it had yet to materialize.
Newly energized to turn Ajai’s fortunes around, they clamored louder for the reintroduction of the white rhino to Ajai, which had also been promised to them more than a decade ago.
Panelists and callers asked why so little was being done to bring the rhino back and promote it as a tourist attraction, which would bring money into neighboring communities.
The black rhino is one of the iconic “Big Five” in Africa. Rhinoceroses are charismatic species that many international and national tourists who visit Uganda for wildlife sightings hope to catch a glimpse of. Because rhinos graze openly, they are particularly easy to see and play a pivotal role in boosting tourism.
Access FM continued to run several talk shows about Ajai, and Madira noticed an uptick in community engagement. “It caught the attention of the elders [...] looking to make sure Ajai is protected for future generations.”
For instance, there was a campaign to walk [nearly 500 km] from Kampala up to Arua “in the name of saving the shea nut tree, which grows in the Ajai Game Reserve,” he shared.
The area game warden Babu Bhakhit Olanya joined one of the shows to discuss the issues faced by the game reserve. “We want to work together with the media to disseminate information about the importance of conservation to the communities,” he said.
Federick Dramadi, a radio journalist, read Drasimaku’s story in 2020 and was inspired to produce a segment of his own. “Drasimaku’s style of storytelling was appealing to me,” he said.
Dramadi aired The Fate of Ajai in February 2022, amplifying community voices, who, frustrated with the lack of promised action, threatened to use the land set aside for the reserve for farming and their settlements. “If nothing useful is going to be done [with Ajai], they better give us back our land,” said one community member.
It would be several more months before “useful” progress was made.
The long road to returning rhinos to Ajai
The UWA had harbored plans to re-introduce rhinos to Ajai for quite some time, said Hangi. “Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary [whose mission is to reintroduce white rhinos back into the wild] is reaching its carrying capacity and there is a need to translocate some of the rhinos there,” he explained.
A feasibility study conducted in 2020 confirmed that the Ajai reserve was one of the best habitats for rhinos in the country. However, it was reported that the study advised that additional land is required for rhino conservation, a process that will entail much negotiation and compensation to acquire from the community.
Growing wildlife coverage in Uganda, despite challenges
According to Dramadi, the media in Northern Uganda is still lagging, and fails to carry out investigations that would catalyze policymakers to make informed decisions. Recounting the insurgencies that pushed the region toward poverty, he said: “This affected the media industry…. [there are] a lack of funds to carry out in-depth coverage.” Environmental journalism gets particularly short shrift, he added.
Drasimaku acknowledged the EJN grant allowed him to visit areas that are often difficult to access, due to limited resources. “Given the situation we were in, the COVID-19 situation, we faced financial challenges because we were not making money and therefore the grant came in handy,” he said in an interview with Aluma.
His solutions-focused story resonated with the community and led to increased interest and awareness of conservation. According to the Institute for Applied Positive Research, stories that shift their focus from reporting problems to highlighting solutions make people feel more engaged in their communities.
“Opening the mind to the fact that others have overcome similar challenges and been successful is an effective way to catalyze positive change, as it creates a greater sense of hope and optimism,” the report found. “In other words, the journalist holds incredible power to positively influence the community through story selection and the way it is presented.”
“Journalists must learn to improve their reporting on these kinds of issues to make a journalistic impact,” said Drasimaku, who continues to expand his coverage of wildlife conservation and protection in Uganda.
This approach did not go unnoticed by his peers. “The impact [of the story] has continued, and the media has not stopped there,” said Madira.
Since 2020, Access FM has continued to produce radio talk shows about Ajai that engage the community, translating the shows into local languages to reach larger audiences. “As media, we have a very important role to play when it comes to conservation. At the end of the day, it is a collective responsibility,” he said. In July 2023, Drasimaku published a follow-up story for West Nile Today News, "The Quest For The Reintroduction of White Rhinos in Ajai Game Reserve."
UWA’s Hangi agreed that environmental reports are critical to creating impact on the ground. “Environmental coverage brings issues to the forefront and calls on duty bearers to take action.”
When interviewed for the Monitor in December 2022, Hangi could not give a timeline on when the rhinos would be reintroduced, but the Ugandan government’s new brief has brought them another step closer to their old home in the Ajai reserve.
“I think [my story] did help,” said Drasimaku. “There has been a lot more media focusing on Ajai."
Banner image: The Southern White Rhino in Uganda / Credit: Rod Waddington via Flickr.