KAMPALA – The Ugandan government Wednesday suspended primate tourism and research for at least 30 days, adding the country’s highest forex earner on the list of specimens in the deadly coronavirus pandemic.
In a statement, released Wednesday, Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), the agency that oversees tourism activities in the east African country, said the ban is one of the measures its management had decided on to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus among the protected wildlife heritage, the agency’s staff and visitors.
“Primate tourism and research in all the protected areas has been suspended until April 30, 2020,” the statement, signed by UWA executive director Sam Mwandha.
He said the decision, that also suspends filming of the primates, was compelled by the “current situation” in the country following the confirmation of a number of coronavirus cases in Uganda.
Five new cases of the virus that has forced the world on its knees were confirmed in Uganda on Wednesday, bringing the total number to 14, the Minister of State for Primary Health Care, Dr Joyce Moriku Kaducu, said.
Among the latest patients include an eight-month-old toddler and two Chinese nationals.
The Chinese nationals were among five suspected infected persons who escaped from quarantine and tried to flee the country into neighbouring DR Congo. They were intercepted and tests have since confirmed two as having been afflicted by the virus.
All the first nine confirmed cases are Ugandans who are said to have been infected from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
“This is a very critical moment for everyone as the number of positive cases keeps rising. Five more people have been confirmed positive, including two of the six Chinese that were got in Zombo district in West Nile region of Uganda. They cannot be presented in court for fear of further spread,” Dr Kaducu announced through her Twitter handle.
Uganda earned $1.6 billion (about Shs5.8 trillion) from tourism in the 2018/2019 financial year, making the sector the country’s leading foreign currency earner for the fifth year in a row, according to figures released on September 20 last year.
According to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics, Uganda received 1.8 million tourists in 2018, up from 1.4 million in 2017.
Buoyed by the healthy returns from tourism sector, Uganda increased its marketing activities by contracting three more foreign public relations firms to target the markets of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (Qatar and Oman), Japan and China.
Each firm was paid $0.5 million, raising the portfolio to $3 million that the government spent on marketing Ugandan tourism.
While the returns justified the investment, the coronavirus attack now threatens to cripple the sector. Even if Uganda did not suspend tourism, it is difficult to see how any foreign tourists would have continued to part with their dollar to trek the primates at a time most economies are on a lockdown.
At least 439,654 people had contracted the virus as of Wednesday, with 19,744 dead, according to figures from the World Health Organisation.
Although the pandemic has been too fast in spreading to allow scientists to carry out major research in various fields, reports in Hong Kong shows that at least two dogs had contracted the virus from their owners, suggesting that primates like gorillas, chimpanzees and monkeys would be as vulnerable to infection as they human cousins.
Mwandha conceded that the measures the Authority had taken had implications on tourism activities and earnings, but reminded the country that these are necessary undertakings to protect and conserve wildlife resources.
UWA offers concessions
Perhaps this explains why UWA has left nothing to chance, extending the ban to commercial motorcyclists – commonly known as boda boda in east Africa – and pedal cyclists. They are banned from riding in protected areas for the next thirty days.
Mwandha said UWA had formed a task force to liaise with the national task force involved in battling the disease so as to keep updated on the coronavirus implications to wildlife conservation and tourism in protected areas.
He also announced that the Authority would relax the rescheduling of gorilla and chimpanzee trekking and that when the suspension is lifted later, trekkers would be issued with personal protective equipment to avoid passing on any infections to the primates.
“Tour operators are allowed to reschedule tracking permits for a maximum of two times up to March 31, 2022,”
The waivers would no doubt reassure tourists and operators who would otherwise incur losses from the bookings and operations affected by the coronavirus-enforced suspension of primate trekking.
“The measure is intended to give tour operators and our visitors more flexibility to avoid concellation of trips already booked,” Mwandha added.
UWA’s decision is a major positive considering that even in normal times, it is a standard advice for persons showing signs of cough or flue to be excused from trekking the primates.
Mwandha adised UWA staff and tour operators to keep vigilant and follow guidelines stipulated by government such as washing hands with soap and keeping social distance.