Virus Jeopardizes Care for Vulnerable Animals

Dwindling visitors and decreased funding threaten Uganda’s main conservation center, putting the lives of hundreds of creatures at risk.

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Virus Jeopardizes Care for Vulnerable Animals

Patricia Lindrio, GPJ Uganda

Esther Nandutu, an assistant animal keeper at Entebbe Zoo, gives goat milk and eggs to a lion cub whose mother refused to feed her. The zoo can no longer afford formula for baby animals.

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ENTEBBE, UGANDA — The lion cub skids on the concrete floor of the clinic, grasping in vain for her mother.

The cub landed at the clinic in Entebbe Zoo, Uganda’s main conservation center, after her mother refused to feed her. Diverse species make the country an international safari destination, and hundreds of vulnerable animals like her are nursed back to health in this urban oasis on Lake Victoria outside the capital, Kampala.

But a decrease in visitors due to the pandemic has squeezed funding at the country’s primary animal sanctuary, threatening the lives of the creatures its staff are trying to save. Medicines and food are in short supply. Veterinarians have had to stop giving routine checkups because the zoo can’t afford tranquilizers. Babies forgo formula.

The zoo this summer experienced a food shortage for nearly 300 animals — from baboons to camels — and pleaded with the public to help.

“Our donations were cut off because most of the agencies that fund conservation work globally were cut off,” says Dr. James Watyiwa, a senior veterinarian at the zoo. “Some Ugandans love animals, but more needs to be done to appreciate their value.”

The government, assisted by the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, opened the Uganda Wildlife Conservation Education Centre in 1952 to care for animals that were injured, sick, orphaned or rescued from illegal trade — an important issue in a country prized for its varied wildlife.

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Patricia Lindrio, GPJ Uganda

Anek Florence looks at the zebras at Entebbe Zoo outside Uganda’s capital, Kampala. Many visitors have avoided the conservation center due to the pandemic, leading to a decrease in entrance fees. Employees struggle to afford medicine for the animals.

Officials also made it a zoo in the 1990s to promote local tourism and encourage Ugandans to interact with their wildlife. Widely referred to as Entebbe Zoo, the facility is filled with more than 120 kinds of birds, dozens of monkeys, giraffes, donkeys, pythons, leopards and countless other creatures.

The organization receives some money from government grants, donors and research groups. But much of the funding comes from gate collections. And visitors have all but disappeared.

Schools are the zoo’s biggest clients but remain closed, says Eric Ntalo, the public relations officer for the zoo. Instead of large groups of students, only a few remaining visitors are around to hear the echoes of chimpanzees and braying zebras.

Uganda closed its borders in March to minimize the spread of the coronavirus, and only recently reopened to those crossing who take a test for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

The zoo closed at the end of March and reopened in August with a cap of 300 visitors per day. But it hasn’t been needed.

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Patricia Lindrio, GPJ Uganda

Assistant animal keeper Filius Atuhaire feeds a 2-week-old African buffalo under the supervision of Dr. James Watyiwa, senior veterinarian at Entebbe Zoo. The zoo cares for orphaned animals like this one and then releases them back into the wild.

The zoo receives up to 100 visitors a day during the week, compared with up to 1,500 a day before the coronavirus, says David Musingo, manager of education and information. The zoo saw about 380,000 visitors a year before the pandemic.

“We have been working on a minimum budget, basically looking at issues of feeding the animals,” he says.

The government and international partners, such as the African Wildlife Foundation and the Beijing Zoo, usually fund nearly half of the zoo’s budget. This year, government officials have assisted with 700 million Ugandan shillings (UGX) ($190,270) and other partners have given about 80 million UGX ($21,743), Musingo says. But this has done little to cover the organization’s annual operating budget of at least 5 billion UGX ($1.4 million). The center will need about 8.5 billion UGX ($2.3 million) to recover.

It’s unlikely to come from the country’s once-thriving tourism industry.

The tourism sector will not return to normal until around 2022, says Brian Mugume, a board member at the Association of Uganda Tour Operators.

Tourism — largely from foreigners headed to one of the country’s 10 national parks — contributed to nearly 7.5% of the total gross domestic product in 2017, making it one of the country’s most lucrative industries. But travel remains a luxury to most Ugandans, Mugume says. “Theoretically, local tourism should come in and bridge the gap but practically, it cannot. The domestic market cannot comprehend [the] losses during COVID-19.”

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Patricia Lindrio, GPJ Uganda

Zookeeper Sarah Okalebo plays with an elephant at Entebbe Zoo. Nearly 300 animals live at the sanctuary.

The funding downfall not only risks the health of the animals currently at the zoo, but an untold number of others displaced by trafficking or abuse who require care. On a recent day, two sick crocodiles, a bell-hinged tortoise and an elephant all waited in the clinic for treatment.

“These animals, once rescued, need medical attention and are quarantined for almost 90 days before either being sent back to the wild” or further rehabilitated, says Watyiwa, the veterinarian.

The East African country has struggled to stem trafficking of its diverse wildlife, including pangolin meat and hippopotamus teeth. Laws in recent years have sought to decrease illegal trade, but a 2018 report by TRAFFIC, a British-based nonprofit that tracks wildlife trade, says it continues.

As millions around the world suffer from the pandemic, it’s hard to elicit support for sick animals. The government has confirmed more than 27,000 COVID-19 cases among Ugandans and over 200 deaths.

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“I cannot afford to give the little I have to animals when sometimes my children have one meal a day,” says Nanyonjo Mariam, a grocery store worker in Entebbe, who has lost two friends to the coronavirus. The mother of four has never visited the zoo, although she lives 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) away.

A few take solace in the quiet.

Anek Florence walks through the zoo exhibits that represent Uganda’s national parks, enjoying the greenery. She stops at the zebras and peers over the fence.

“At least I get to see the animals without hovering over anyone’s head,” she says. But it isn’t the same. She’s avoided bringing her daughters, who live with their grandmother; she worries the girls could pick up and spread the virus to the older woman.

“I miss the sound of children’s voices playing, interacting with the animals, sounds of excitement,” she says.

The zoo is almost eerily silent, except for the occasional warthog grunt or leopard roughhousing.

Filius Atuhaire, an assistant animal keeper, worries about animals he practically parents, like the wobbly lion cub or the 2-week-old African buffalo abandoned by its mother.

“Survival is dependent on how kind we are to them,” he says, as he feeds the calf milk from a tub. The animal laps it up until there is no more.

Patricia Lindrio is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Kampala, Uganda. She specializes in health and migration reporting.