Uganda

Pandemic Tests a Refuge’s Dedication to Reptiles

Economic woes brought on by international travel bans hinder a Ugandan sanctuary’s conservation efforts — and threaten some of the world's most vulnerable animals.

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Pandemic Tests a Refuge’s Dedication to Reptiles

Patricia Lindrio, GPJ Uganda

Lawrence Lutaaya holds an African rock python at the Uganda Reptile Village in Entebbe. The python is nonvenomous so Lutaaya uses it to help tourists overcome their fear of snakes.

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ENTEBBE, UGANDA — Yasin Kazibwe was a 13-year-old orphan living on the streets of Kampala when a man approached him with an exciting proposal. Would he be willing to join the business of trafficking snakes?

“I loved snakes, so I agreed,” he says.

The man assigned Kazibwe the job of hunting crickets and rodents to feed the snakes waiting to be smuggled to buyers in Europe and North America, who kept them as exotic pets. But as Kazibwe grew older, he began to see how hypocritical it was to say he loved snakes while engaging in activities that could contribute to their extinction. He quit the illegal trade when he was 16. In 2004, he founded the Uganda Reptile Village, a community-based sanctuary in Abaita Ababiri, a neighborhood of Entebbe, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Kampala.

But economic hardship tied to the coronavirus pandemic’s international travel restrictions is hindering the conservation efforts of Uganda’s first privately run reptile and amphibian refuge, which has rescued more than 10,000 animals.

Amphibians and reptiles are among the most vulnerable animals in the world. New developments to keep up with human urban population growth have led to the destruction of their natural habitats. Reptiles are also some of the most trafficked animals. Globally, about 20% of them are listed as threatened with extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

International tourists, the major source of the sanctuary’s estimated annual budget of $15,000, stopped coming when the world went into lockdown in March 2020, as did students, whose school field trips brought in significant revenue.

“No one thought about us when the world shut down,” Kazibwe says.

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Patricia Lindrio, GPJ Uganda

Lawrence Lutaaya educates visitors about the types of reptiles available at the Uganda Reptile Village in Abaita Ababiri, Entebbe.

The Reptile Village rescues animals such as snakes, crocodiles, tortoises, chameleons and other native species that would otherwise be killed. And it rehabilitates injured animals before releasing them into protected national forests. Kazibwe’s work has made him one of the country’s leading conservationists. Ugandans call him the snake man. But over the last two years, as funds dried out, his dedication to reptiles has been tested.

He has sent letters to the government asking for help but hasn’t received any responses. Bashir Hangi, the communications manager of the Uganda Wildlife Authority, says the agency has no power to make grants that aren’t in its budget.

James Watuwa, the co-founder and chief executive officer of the Uganda-based Endangered Wildlife Conservation Organization, says reptiles and amphibians are at risk of extinction because Ugandans don’t understand their importance.

“No one thought about us when the world shut down."Founder of the Uganda Reptile Village

“There is a need for education to inspire and empower people to support conservation efforts and protect these animals from extinction,” he says.

The idea of reptile conservation is fairly new in Uganda. Before the 1980s, the country had no local experts trained in herpetology, the study of reptiles and amphibians, says Mathias Behangana, a conservation biologist and technical director at NICE Planet, a Ugandan organization that researches the animals. By 2016, however, Ugandan scientists had identified 211 new native species of reptiles and 107 of amphibians. One of their most significant discoveries was that the Mount Elgon torrent frog had become critically endangered. They still haven’t found the species.

Behangana says reptiles and amphibians need strict laws like those protecting iconic mammals such as elephants and rhinos, which attract more international tourists. The government should do more to fund local conservationists like Kazibwe, he says. “The people who want to do this don’t have the money.”

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Heavy rains that flooded most of the facility a year ago have exacerbated the sanctuary’s struggle to stay open. The flooding has forced Kazibwe to take another job as a tour guide to pay for repairs and part of his employees’ salaries.

“It has been a struggle getting by daily,” he says.

One of Kazibwe’s dedicated employees is Lawrence Lutaaya. As soon as he arrives at work, he hurriedly puts on his boots, grabs a snake hook and, without hesitation, enters the herpetarium housing five African rock pythons. He uses the hook to wake the giant snakes. They hiss and swirl, but he remains calm.

His expertise belies the reality that he once feared snakes. “I used to run and curse at the sight of one,” he says.

Then Lutaaya began volunteering at the village to learn more about snakes. Eight years later, he is the assistant manager of the center. “Each snake house used to have at least 15 snakes, but now we have from four to nine,” he says. “And sadly, we had to let some animals, even those that were not fully rehabilitated, back into the wild.”

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Patricia Lindrio, GPJ Uganda

Hafswa Jagwe, in glasses, and members of her family pose for a photo with an African rock python during their first-ever visit to the Uganda Reptile Village.

The sanctuary remains open to serve as a community education resource for the local tourists like Hafswa Jagwe who trickle in. She brought her extended family of four adults and 11 children to see the animals for the first time. Jagwe grew up terrified of snakes but thought visiting the sanctuary would help combat her fear.

Lutaaya’s “approach to helping people overcome fear is genius,” she says. Jagwe says learning that 85% of snakes are nonvenomous gave her and her family the courage to touch and play with pythons.

“I didn’t think at the end of my visit I would be cuddling a python,” she says. “My feelings toward reptiles have changed, and if I ever see one in danger, I will call” the Reptile Village.

But Kazibwe isn’t sure how long that will be possible. “I am really worried about the future of this place,” he says.

Patricia Lindrio is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Kampala, Uganda.