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We are in the Kikonda Central Forest Reserve in Uganda. It’s 4 a.m. and the stars still have a couple of hours to shine before the sun rises. The African golden cats are finishing their first hunt of the day, and we intend to find them.
“They prefer dawn and dusk to seek out their prey. In this area, there are at least two cats according to the evidence we have gathered in recent years,” says Moses Gonya, a biologist who knows this forest inside out.
The African golden cat (Caracal aurata), a close relative of the caracal and serval, remains one of the least studied feline species in the world. Due to their elusive nature, monitoring them for long periods in their natural habitat is challenging.
They can measure up to 101 cm long and 55 cm tall. The males are larger than the females, with an average weight of 14 kg. Those that have seen them say they are not very different from a domestic cat, just bigger and stronger.
We are joined by two members of the neighbouring communities who have experience tracking the many different animals in this area.
We divide into two groups to increase our chances of a sighting, and head to the natural forest corridors where tracks were found the previous day. We choose hiding places and camouflage ourselves with branches and foliage. We make sure to keep our distance, so the animals aren’t threatened by our presence.
We must be as quiet as possible; a challenge, considering all the insects that suddenly appear, eager to check out the newcomers. In the distance, the first birdsongs can be heard; they are anxious because the rays of light signal that it is time to go out in search of food.
One bird’s call stands out – loud and pervasive. “That is the Hadada Ibis, (Bostrychia hagedash),” whispers Abia Atukanwase, a professional birdwatcher. “It sounds like it’s saying, ‘give me children’, which is why in the past, the locals didn’t appreciate its proximity.”
As the sky begins to turn light blue, we hear movement close to the ground a couple of metres away. The golden cat? Perhaps. Whatever it is, it decides to stay protected among the bushes. Maybe the cat took a different route this morning. We will have to try again at sundown.
Hoima is in the Western region of Uganda, about 200 km from the capital, Kampala. This is where the Kikonda Central Forest Reserve is located. It is one of the main forests that protects the ecosystem of the large, shallow Lake Kyoga.
The reserve covers a total of 12,186 ha and is made up of wetlands and a mix of date palms (Phoenix reclinata), bushwillows (Combretum collinum), bread grass (Brachiaria brizantha) and cogon grass (Imperata cylindrica). There are also patches of natural forest as well as some pine (Pinus caribaea) and eucalyptus (Eucalyptus grandis) plantations.
Plantations in a forest reserve? Yes! In the past, biodiversity flourished in Hoima’s extensive forest coverage. Some members of the surrounding communities recall that when they were small, it was common to encounter wild animals such as antelope, buffalo and even elephant only a few minutes into the thicket. They always had to be on their guard.
However, the 20th century saw the forest being overexploited and the soil converted for agriculture and livestock farming. This meant that only degraded land remained, and endemic plants and animals disappeared with the forest.
It was unlikely that the forest would recover naturally. In view of this harsh reality, the Ugandan forest authorities decided in 1963 to create a reserve to protect water catchment areas and the commercial production of timber.
In 2002, Global-woods AG – acquired by Nile Fibre Board (NFB) Limited years later – secured the concession for the reserve. They took responsibility for reforesting the degraded areas and preserving the wetlands, and whatever could be saved of the natural forest.
Following a detailed study of the soil conditions, NFB decided to plant pines and eucalyptus which, over the years, have transformed the landscape. Where there used to be just degraded earth, a forest re-emerged. The animals gradually made their return.
Since 2013, NFB has been closely monitoring the biodiversity in the Kikonda Central Forest Reserve. They assess the impact of forestry activities to guide management actions that will support and protect the animal species in the reserve.
In 2021, 1,311 birds belonging to 120 species were recorded in the reserve. The most abundant species were the common bulbul (Pycnonotus barbatus), the black-headed weaver (Ploceus melanocephalus), the white-throated bee-eater (Merops albicollis), and the red-eyed dove (Streptopelia semitorquata). Notably, 39 of the recorded species are at risk of extinction, including the grey crowned crane, which is endangered worldwide.
As for mammals, 18 species and 639 signs of their presence were recorded and two of these species are of interest to conservation. The African golden cat is classified as vulnerable according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (lUCN) red list. The second is the sitatunga (Tragelaphus spekii), although this is listed as a ‘least-concern’ species.
How should these results be interpreted? The total number of recorded mammals during the last eight years has increased to 30 species (9 per cent of the 330 that are in the country), while birds have increased to 296 (27 per cent of the 1,060 of the species list of Uganda). This suggests that there is a positive correlation between responsible forest management with FSC® certification and the increase in biodiversity in the area.
“FSC standards enhanced our approach in managing areas set aside for conservation, and also in creating biodiversity corridors,” says Sonai Muthu, NFB Plantation Manager. This helped the forest regenerate naturally, which improved the forest ecosystem and ultimately increased the biodiversity. “It is evident that the forest protection efforts, particularly in the conservation areas, are paying off.”
We experienced this first hand during the morning rounds over the next few days. Entering the forest at 9 a.m. you only need to walk about 100 m from the road before you spot many bird species, each with its own unique characteristics. The woodland kingfisher (Halcyon senegalensis), the red-billed firefinch (Lagonosticta senegala), the white helmetshrike (Prionops plumatus), the dark-capped bulbul (Pycnonotus tricolor), and the lesser blue-eared starlings (Lamprotornis chloropterus) all appear among the trees. There are so many species and distinct songs that it almost sounds artificial, like a mobile phone ringtone.
The village weavers’ (Ploceus cucullatus) nests inspire particular awe. We count more than 40 oval-shaped nests hanging in one tree alone. The birds build them with interwoven grass, leaving a small round entrance at the bottom. Each nest uses as many as 300 strips of grass and leaves.
“A snake!” shouts a member of the team, who saw a long thin shape, approximately 80 cm, rustle through the fallen leaves upon sensing our footsteps. Everyone gathers around. We lift a few leaves with a dry branch and discover a blind snake (Typhlops punctatus) just before it resumes its race to find another hiding place a few metres further away.
After the excitement of the snake, we notice several earth mounds scattered among the pines – some small and others over two metres high, with a diameter of five to six metres. They give the impression of archaeological remains, covered in earth and vegetation over the centuries. In reality, they are termite nests (Macrotermitinae (Termitidae)).
Another surprise greets us: while inspecting one of the mounds, a small wild hare emerges from a hole near the base and scuttles off into the forest. “Termite colonies are everywhere, and their dwelling places are also often the home of other species seeking refuge, such as rabbits or rodents,” explains Annah Agasha, FSC East Africa Coordinator. Given that these insects are renowned for building and repairing their constructions, they must be very active DIYers.
It is not easy making inroads into the natural forest areas beyond the dirt roads. The trees, with their long branches pose a major challenge. More than one person gets stuck and needs the group to help. That’s why Ugandans colloquially call these trees ‘Hold on’, because their thorns always cause a delay and sometimes tear holes in visitors’ clothes.
We continue navigating our way through the trees. The shade is refreshing compared to the 34 degrees endured on the roads. Evidently, the animals prefer the shelter of the forest during the hottest hours. Many of them, especially the mammals, use the forest’s shade to rest while some use it for grooming. Colobus monkeys (Colobus guereza), for example, relax in the high branches, examining their fur for ticks.
It is almost impossible not to spot them. Their black and white coat is very striking, both for its colour combinations and its length. If you don’t see very well, you might think a few skunks climbed a tree. The group is made up of eight individuals who are grooming each other while lying on the branches, far from the scorching sun. They stay there for a few minutes until the leader starts to howl, and after a good stretch they start swinging onwards in their journey.
A few hours pass and we move further into the natural surroundings, spotting even more wildlife. Some fleetingly, like the side-striped jackal (Canis adustus) which we just manage to photograph before it disappears, and a chameleon (Chamaeleonidae) moving slowly along the side of the road. We’re fascinated by its hesitant walk and eyes which rotate in different directions simultaneously. We watch with fascination for a couple of minutes before it is camouflaged in foliage.
As the day draws to a close and the sky turns orange, it is time to set off again in search of the African golden cat. We learn that during a previous search, a group of villagers spotted one walking among the bushes. A very agile and fast cat, it retreated into the forest when it sensed them. They couldn’t get it on camera, but its paw prints are still visible on the soil which was wet from the rain the day before.
The rainfall also accompanies our team over the coming days, making a sighting even more difficult. Even the community members are disgruntled by the weather. “Historically speaking, it normally shouldn’t rain at this time of year; this is a consequence of climate change,” says Annah Agasha.
Some communities live near the Kikonda Central Forest Reserve where members are encouraged to get involved in forest activities. They are typically contracted for forest management, safety, and other duties, and their workers’ rights are always respected in accordance with FSC standards. Sonai Muthu:
“We encourage members of local communities to seek employment at Kikonda Forest Reserve plantation. We have provided more than 80 per cent employment to local communities, and they work in all our departments.”
At the same time, the company is aware of the communities’ needs, for example the water shortage. It built wells so villagers can access this vital resource, both for agriculture and domestic consumption. Community member John Karubanga says:
“the company drilled dams and wells for us in all the surrounding communities. We have less water shortage in the area, and we have given employment opportunities in the project. People are working in the forest.”
Robert Zziwa, who lives in one of the other communities, added:
“Poverty was the order of the day because people didn’t have a way to work and earn money. But when the company came in, it improved people’s lives by hiring them, constructing permanent houses, and contributing to our children's education.”
Other community members have also been trained in forest plantations and some have been encouraged to change from agriculture to forestry, such as Eva Katono:
“I’m pleased with the support from the company for my small plantation. We couldn’t have managed it if the company didn’t support us with the seedlings and knowledge. In eight years, I will be able to harvest and sell timber, and my family will be very happy.”
She now has a eucalyptus plantation at her home.
FSC certification in Uganda is relatively new. The first certificates were awarded 10 years ago, and the certified area is currently just over 40,000 ha, all made up of plantations. They all have conservation areas.
In accordance with FSC policies, certified companies must maintain at least 10 per cent of the area under natural conditions. But some companies in Uganda maintain much more, reserving up to 20 per cent for natural forest conservation.
Uganda’s forestry industry is growing because of increased demand for timber and other forest products. The natural forests cannot provide this, due to the severe degradation of the past. Plantations such as Kikonda Central Forest Reserve show that the authorities are committed to meeting the needs of the population and regaining forest cover.
Similarly, the companies following this model view FSC certification as an added bonus, as Sonai Muthu points out:
“FSC standards are a benchmark of globally acceptable forest management practices. Compliance with FSC principles demonstrates a commitment to a sustainable forest business approach. The forest is being managed in a way that benefits the lives of local communities and workers, and preserves biological diversity while ensuring it sustains economic viability. This enhances the public image of our company in Uganda and offers a competitive advantage in accessing markets such as carbon finance.”
Annah Agasha adds:
“Consumers are aware and sensitive about the products they purchase. They advocate for sustainability and environmental protection; that’s a niche market that FSC certification can bring to those companies. It’s important to add FSC certification to plantation management – it has great value.”
All these efforts by Nile Fibre Board Limited and the communities are bearing fruit in Uganda. When there is a firm commitment, both the forest and all those who depend on it benefit and establish the foundations for a better future in ‘the pearl of Africa’.