AT DUSK, children from homes in the Ugandan village of Kisoro assemble with their pots and pans. They head into the darkness, moving swiftly between trees full of ripening fruit, banging their cookware. The loud noises carry into the night, reaching the ears of hungry elephants and baboons in the neighbouring rainforest, hopefully scaring them away from the village’s banana supply. Although the children’s efforts are effective, the downside is that their school benches will sit empty in the morning. 

Protection efforts have created some problems. When the area’s first conservation programs were established in 1925, governments expelled Indigenous peoples without offering anything in return, often stripping them of sacred sites, resources and medicinal herbs. Living at the perimeter of the parks, these people now share their backyards with protected elephants, lions, baboons and buffalos. Their food security – and that of the wildlife – is constantly under threat. Elaine Hsiao describes this nightly ritual to explain the ongoing tension between wildlife and humans in the rural populations surrounding eight national parks in East Africa. A PhD scholar in Resource Management and Environmental Studies at UBC in Vancouver, Hsiao spent most of 2011 visiting communities in the Central Albertine Rift Transfrontier Protected Area Network in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) researching how transboundary conservation programs engage and affect local residents, and vice versa. 

Hsiao says the most effective conservation programs are the ones that integrate locals instead of alienating them. Often the solutions are as simple as introducing an alternative protein to bush meat or a power source that isn’t charcoal. Some of the parks now reserve a percentage of their entrance fees for bordering villages to purchase livestock or hydroelectricity projects, building a tangible link between protection efforts and the welfare of surrounding communities.

Central Albertine Rift Transfrontier Protected Area Network
Map data: NASA, International Peace Park Expeditions, Google

The eight Albertine Rift parks cover a network of bamboo and rainforest on the slopes of volcanic mountains overlapping the borders of Uganda, Rwanda and DRC. The parks’ vast biodiversity features numerous endangered species, including the mountain gorilla. In 1991, the International Gorilla Conservation Programme was created to confront rapidly declining populations in the parks through a transboundary conservation effort. The number of mountain gorillas has since been steadily rising and, at 880 individuals, is estimated to be 40 per cent higher than in 1989. Despite the success of the gorilla program, park wildlife is still under constant pressure from poachers, wars and habitat loss.

To strengthen conservation efforts, Uganda, Rwanda and DRC signed a memorandum of understanding in 2005, recognizing the eight parks as one protected area, allowing rangers and wardens to coordinate their efforts. While issues like resource ownership remain challenging, a transboundary protection treaty was developed in 2010, and final negotiations leading up to its signing are expected in 2014. “Although the exact contents of the treaty are not public, it is expected to address some of the current restrictions on collaboration between rangers,” says Hsiao. For example, poachers from the DRC frequently shoot elephants in Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park, but rangers can’t cross international borders to pursue them, and cross-border poaching has increased significantly since 2010. 

The parks and the surrounding communities have no buffer zones between them, and animals and locals constantly compete for resources and space.

Park territories can also be threatened by armed conflict, such as during the Rwandan genocide or Uganda-Tanzania war. The current conflict in DRC has forced rangers to flee, leaving parks unsupervised and vulnerable to armed rebels and poachers. When wildlife flees into neighbouring countries, their migration increases pressure on adjacent villages. 

Given the area’s volatile history, Hsiao was anxious to explore the parks by herself upon arriving in Uganda. That feeling quickly faded after she got her research clearance and bought an old jeep. Her network grew as locals began recognizing her beat-up car and friendly Mzungu face – Mzungu is Swahili for someone who wanders around aimlessly, aka a white person. 

“I felt like I was walking into my own home everywhere I went,” says Hsiao, her eyes lighting up. They darken as she describes some of the transboundary project’s many obstacles. The parks and the surrounding communities have no buffer zones between them, and animals and locals constantly compete for resources and space. Because an AK47 rifle costs US$25 [CAD$27] and an elephant tusk will fetch US$20,000 [$22,000], Hsiao says it is not difficult to understand the dilemmas locals face when jobs and education access are limited. 

Hsiao spent nine months talking to villagers, rangers, researchers and authorities, exploring the interplay between locals and the transboundary protection program. Her work focused on encouraging collaboration, environmental peace building and solving individual villages’ water access and quality challenges. This resulted in many communities becoming directly involved in park management. To prevent illegal resource extraction, for example, researchers and rangers are now training villagers on how to sustainably manage a certain resource, like wood for fuel or medicinal herbs. Once trained, they extract that resource from the parks and report it to the rangers. 

University of British Columbia PhD candidate Elaine Hsiao studies the interplay between locals and transboundary 
protection efforts in communities bordering the eight national parks that for the Albertine Rift.

One of the most impressive examples Hsiao observed was the Mgahinga Community Development Organization (, which runs a lodge next to Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and funds local projects through ecotourism and other engagement events. It also provides opportunities like scholarships for students to create and support conservation and other leadership programs. 

Hsiao’s research resulted in a documentary film called Transcending Boundaries: Perspectives on Transboundary Conservation in the Central Albertine Rift, which premiered at the 21st Environmental Film Festival in Washington in 2013. Hsiao was disappointed that none of the African villagers could be there. “They are too poor to travel, have very little electricity available to them and have no chance of seeing what came of my work in their communities,” she says.

To overcome this, Hsiao is raising funds to take Transcending Boundaries back to Uganda, Rwanda and DRC in 2014. As electricity is both unreliable and expensive in those areas, screening her movie will require an alternative power source. Hsiao is aware of two bicycle-powered movie projectors in a neighbouring park and is hoping to use the same technology to screen them in the Rwandan and Ugandan communities that she visited. She hopes to show locals their importance to the transboundary conservation process and how they can benefit from it, opening a discussion that will carry further in the rainforest than the sounds of pots and pans. 

Anne Steino is a Vancouver-based freelance writer and cancer researcher with a PhD in biochemistry.

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