About a day to the event, a WhatsApp message comes in: ‘don’t wear bright clothes. Birds will be scared’. For a first-time birder, I could not help but be curious.
A group of journalists was going on a bird-watching expedition in Mabira forest. Everywhere in this country, residents wake up to the beautiful sounds of bird calls and songs, but because it is an everyday thing, Ugandans think every country is just as gifted with so many birds.
Nope; in fact, tourists travel thousands of miles to come and see the bird species Uganda has, although many of its natives cannot accurately name even 20 birds. The tropical rainforest located along the Jinja – Kampala highway boasts more than 315 species of birds – a possible birding haven.
Uganda has well-marketed sites as top birding areas like Kibale Forest, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Queen Elizabeth national park, Budongo Forest, Lake Mburo, Mabamba wetland, Semliki Valley, Mgahinga national park, Murchison Falls national park and Kidepo Valley national park. Add Mabira forest to that list.
Last week, Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) staff, passionate birders and guides led us into the forest. Although the visit was cut short by the rains, I left convinced birding was a tourism activity worth a try.
There was no time to identify all the bird species the forest hosts, but my Jaluo roots could not miss the weaverbirds fleeting through the canopies. While a birder would aim his binoculars on this bird, my people would possibly be aiming a slingshot at it in hope of having meaty dinner on the table.
The forest, which also attracts tourists because of its hydrax (akayoga in Luganda) – a nocturnal, winged, squirrel-like creature with a blood-chilling scream – has woodpeckers, the Jameson’s Wattle Eye, Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher and the great blue turaco, among others.
Herbert Byaruhanga, an ardent birder explained that the favorable climate all year round accounts for the availability of the birds in large numbers throughout the year. Uganda also receives large numbers of migrant birds.
“Birding is one of the leading outdoor tourism activities with less disappointment; so far, Uganda has 1,080 species, and already we have 200 guides, so there is no reason why people should not visit Uganda,” he said.
Lilly Ajarova, the CEO at UTB, explained that birding can also be a big component and the tourism board is trying to give it the deserved attention as a product of what Ugandan tourism offers.
“We are holding the Pearl of Africa, Birding Expo 2019 and UTB will be in charge; the objective in to create awareness and excitement; we are trying to attract international tourists,” she said.
The Pearl of Africa Birding Expo 2019, whose theme is People and Birds Conserving Fox’s Weaver, will take place on December 6 to 8 and it is expected to attract both local and international birders.
Ajarova said, “Unlike gorilla tracking which can take two to three days, birders spend more days; between 17 and 20 days. On all those days, a tourist will be spending [money].”
Achilles Byaruhanga, the executive officer, Nature Uganda, said a bird watcher spends at least $7,000 in the country compared to other tourists, because birders spend longer time.
Ajarova said this year’s expo will focus on conserving the Fox’s Weaver, which is Uganda’s only endemic bird species. Restricted to the northern and eastern Uganda, its records are not clear.
“This bird now is on demand; international researchers are looking for it, so it is high time more efforts to conserve it are put in place; so this year we are dedicating the expo to the bird.”