Digging their blackened beaks into a rubbish dump on the outskirts of Kampala, several marabou storks are searching for scraps of food. Only meters away, market traders have laid out their wares below a parade of colourful parasols, and mopeds are hurriedly weaving between the makeshift stalls.
The aesthetically unappealing birds have become a permanent fixture on the urban landscape of Uganda’s heaving capital, but they weren’t always welcomed with open arms.
“Now we have over 1500 nests in the city, so there are probably about 10,000 birds,” says ornithologist and Achilles Brunnel Byaruhanga, who conducted a study of the birds many years ago.
Blaming poor waste management for the influx of the scavengers, he ruffled more than just a few feathers by publishing an article in a national newspaper, criticising authorities for plans to poison the birds.
“The town clerk never liked me,” laughs Achilles, who even suggested they were more of a help than a hindrance by shifting 10-20 tonnes of rubbish a day. “But the good thing is they never poisoned the birds.”
Over the years, the 54-year-old Executive Director of NGO NatureUganda has stood up to authorities, protecting fragile ecosystems and the futures of both the wildlife and communities dependent upon them.
In 2008, he stopped the government from allowing sugar cane farmers to cultivate Mabira Forest, outside Kampala, and he is currently supporting the community of Lutembe to fight the encroachment of a flower farm into precious wetlands.
On a boat trip along the edges of Lake Victoria, we pass through an area where up to two million birds have been spotted in the past. But the situation is rapidly changing – toxins have been found in the water; fruit trees in nearby villages are no longer as bountiful, and less birds are visiting.
“Up to 80% of Uganda’s population depend on nature,” says Achilles, who helped the Lutembe Bay wetland achieve Ramsar status. “So we need to make sure nature can provide for generations to come.”
The Ramsar Convention (an environmental treaty established by UNESCO in the 1970s), he explains, gives these wetland areas global recognition.
“This wetland is no longer a Ugandan wetland; it’s a wetland of international importance. It’s not only Ugandans that should be concerned; it’s everybody out there that should be concerned.”
Early on in his career, Achilles conducted a study of wetlands. Many had been drained in the hope of eradicating mosquitoes and were degrading at a rapid rate. He established 34 Important Bird Areas for protection and helped identify and designate 11 or the country’s 12 Ramsar sites.
But his most impactful work has been with communities. Understanding the future of conservation lies in the hands of people, he has helped establish ecotourism projects, such as shoebill tours in the Mabamba wetlands, and empowered Batwa groups in the Echuya Forest.
“The reason why the wetland or forest has been destroyed is this ballooning population that doesn’t have alternatives. I think that’s where we need to put a lot of emphasis,” he explains.
“In the future, we can’t rely on fences to protect areas. People have to be part of the process. We have to harness their energy and give them responsibility. That’s the only way.”