ENTEBBE, UGANDA – Yasin Kazibwe was a 13-year-old orphan living on the streets of Kampala when a man approached him with an exciting proposition. Would he be willing to join the snake trafficking business?
“I liked snakes, so I agreed,” he says.
The man gave Kazibwe the task 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 he got older, Kazibwe began to see how hypocritical it was to say he loved snakes while engaging in activities that could contribute to their extinction. He left the illegal trade at the age of 16. In 2004, he founded the Uganda Reptile Village, a community sanctuary in Abaita Ababiri, a neighborhood in Entebbe, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Kampala.
But economic hardship from international travel restrictions from the coronavirus pandemic is hampering conservation efforts at Uganda’s first private reptile and amphibian sanctuary, which has rescued more than 10,000 animals.
Amphibians and reptiles are among the most vulnerable animals in the world. New developments to keep pace with human urban population growth have led to the destruction of their natural habitats. Reptiles are also among the most trafficked animals. Globally, around 20% of them are listed as threatened with extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
International tourists, the main source of the sanctuary’s estimated $15,000 annual budget, stopped coming when the world went into lockdown in March 2020, as did students, whose school trips brought in significant income.
“No one thought of us when the world went dark,” says Kazibwe.
Patricia Lindrio, YPG Uganda
The Reptile Village rescues animals such as snakes, crocodiles, turtles, 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. The Ugandans call him the snake man. But over the past two years, as funds have dried up, his dedication to reptiles has been tested.
He sent letters to the government asking for help but received no response. Bashir Hangi, the Uganda Wildlife Authority’s communications director, says the agency does not have the power to award grants that are not in its budget.
James Watuwa, co-founder and chief executive 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 of us when the world went dark.”Uganda Reptile Village Founder
“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 relatively 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 of NICE Planet, a Ugandan organization that studies animals. . By 2016, however, Ugandan scientists had identified 211 new native species of reptiles and 107 of amphibians. One of their most important findings was that the Mount Elgon Stream Frog had become critically endangered. They still haven’t found the species.
Behangana says reptiles and amphibians need strong laws like those protecting iconic mammals such as elephants and rhinos, which attract more international tourists. The government should do more to fund local environmentalists like Kazibwe, he says. “People who want to do this don’t have the money.
For locals near the park, wildlife encounters are no safari
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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 floods forced Kazibwe to take another job as a tour guide to pay for repairs and part of his employees’ salaries.
“It’s been a struggle to get by on a daily basis,” he says.
One of Kazibwe’s dedicated employees is Lawrence Lutaaya. As soon as he arrives at work, he hastily 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 up the giant snakes. They hiss and whirl, but he remains calm.
His expertise belies the reality that he once feared snakes. “I used to run and swear at the sight of one,” he says.
Then Lutaaya started volunteering at the village to learn more about the snakes. Eight years later, he is deputy director of the center. “Each snake house used to have at least 15 snakes, but now we have four to nine,” he says. “And unfortunately we had to let some animals, even those that weren’t fully rehabilitated, back into the wild.”
Patricia Lindrio, YPG Uganda
The shrine remains open to serve as a community educational resource for local tourists like Hafswa Jagwe who flock there. 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 shrine would help her overcome her fear.
“Lutaaya’s approach to helping people overcome fear is brilliant,” she says. Jagwe says learning that 85% of snakes are non-venomous gave her and her family the courage to touch and play with the pythons.
“I didn’t think that at the end of my visit I would be cuddling a python,” she says. “My feelings about reptiles have changed, and if I ever see one in danger, I’ll call ‘the Reptile Village.
But Kazibwe does not know how long this will be possible. “I’m really worried about the future of this place,” he says.