As I set my head down on terra firma my eyelids are heavy with the physical weight of a long day’s work and my mind is clouded with the emotional weight of being back in a place that I so love and because I love it so much (for that very reason) I have been separated from it for over 5 months. I have spent these past 5 months pursuing my graduate degree in the RECaP Laboratory at Michigan State University (MSU). In this way I have left my home so that I can ultimately stay at home. I am working to gain the necessary academic credentials to ensure that I can have a long and productive career studying wildlife conservation in East Africa. Despite these relative weights upon my eyes and mind, sleep does not immediately come. I am unsettled. In the last 5 months, snaring in MFNP has been steadily climbing. I am concerned about this pattern. I am concerned about the negative effects on the wildlife in this park if snaring continues to rise. To put it plainly, I am concerned that my ‘Snares to Wares’ initiative may have suffered during my 5-month absence abroad.
Earlier today I traced the youth group involved in the Snares to Wares initiative. Today I was looking for the ‘Craft Boys’. These are boys and young men that were once part of the illegal snaring of wildlife in the park. They did not participate in poaching because they were keen to kill wildlife. They were recruited into this activity at highly impressionable ages, when their access to other opportunities was minimal. Via the Snares to Wares initiative I have helped, in my own way, to convert Lost Boys into ‘Craft Boys’, making toys and goods which they can sell for a profit in the market from the wire snares which defined their previous occupations.
In tracking down the Craft Boys I wanted to know if the Snares to Wares initiative is still functional and to talk about how these young men now experiencing their lives having left poaching behind. My first interaction with the Craft Boys was facilitated by a traditional East African music group that taught me how to play the African harp. This traditional music group plays regularly at the MFNP northern bank ferry landing to entertain visitors as they wait the hourly ferry crossing. Tips and other handouts from visitors are used to fund band member’s joint development projects offering a risk-free legal mechanism to cater for the livelihoods of their relatives who reside in the villages around the park. This is but one mechanism to promote community-based conservation. The Snare to Wares initiative is another such effort. One band member is a close relative of the group leader of the Craft Boys.
Thus, to find the Craft Boys, I first had to find the band. And that, as you might expect, was relatively easy. Follow the beautiful sound of traditional East African music floating across the air. While following this melody, my 4x4 was temporarily detained by some determined-looking baboons. What became rather obvious was that the alpha male was far too preoccupied with a sexually-receptive female to get off the road and let us pass. The alpha male gave us an incredulous glare demonstrating that his mind was on another matter entirely. After a couple of minutes we were on our way.
I quickly and eagerly dialed the number and was disappointed to find it unavailable. The team reassured me that the group leader can be found in Pakwach town, 25 kilometers from the ferry landing, and that if the phone is unavailable, it is simply because the phone ran out of charge. With renewed spirits, I thanked the team and headed further north to Pakwach town.
Pakwach is a small town right on the boundary of MFNP at the exact spot the river Nile threads its way into the park. The town has a human population that could comfortably fit into Spartan Stadium on an autumn Saturday. Pakwach is linked to the rest of Uganda via a large road that skirts the northern rim of MFNP and forms a boundary between the park and community. Within sighting distance of the iconic bridge over the Nile leading into Pakwach, I came across a huge African elephant whose presence by the road had stopped the return of village women from a firewood trip inside the park. Elephants rarely cross the bridge into Pakwach town but are a common sight in this part of the park where they hang in the swampy marshes during hot days. The village women kept their distance and I pressed on gently, gliding past this impressive animal.
After that meeting, I drove back to my tent site inside the park with mixed feelings. I take joy out of knowing that the Craft Boys are making headway as crafts-makers and earning a living via a diverse business. But I can’t help but be saddened by the fact that we have not yet made the progress that we need to via the Snares to Wares initiative. Without such innovative solutions more wildlife will die in MFNP. I strongly believe these crafts could readily be sold to tourists in MFNP or even in stores throughout the United States and Europe. My resolve now is to link the Craft Boys to all of the local hotel owners and other tourist centers in MFNP. I must find a market for the snare crafts to complete the circle – From Snare to Wares – simultaneously conserving wildlife and preserving human interests. This is the mission statement of the RECaP Laboratory and I accept that banner of responsibility. Tomorrow is a new day and I will keep you posted as to my progress in tracking down the long lost three-legged lion. But for now I will let my eye lids drop.