By Curtis Abraham

Kampala, June 16 – The global lockdown to stem the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic appears to have indirectly led to the killing of a member of one of East Africa’s rare wildlife species.

Rafiki (Kiswahili for a friend), one of Uganda’s best-known silverback mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, was killed by suspected poachers. He was reported missing from his group on June 1. The next day, his body was found in Hakato area inside Bwindi Impenetrable Forest by a team of rangers from the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA).

A statement released by UWA, a government agency, said that “postmortem results revealed that Rafiki sustained an injury by a sharp device/object that penetrated his left upper part of the abdomen up to the internal organs.”

The charismatic, much-loved silverback was about 25 years old and was the leader of the Nkuringo group of 17 mountain gorillas in the southern sector of Bwindi Park.

The animal was habituated, meaning that it was used to having humans in the midst. This familiarity made it much easier for the poachers to get within spearing distance of Rafiki.

“It is a huge shock considering what gorilla tourism has done to lift the Bwindi local community out of poverty,” said Gladys Kalema Zikusoka, Founder and CEO of Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH). “But [it] also goes to show that people are hungry and the absence of tourism due to the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to this tragedy.”

Conservation Through Public Health is a Ugandan NGO that works with local communities around Bwindi Park on public health and gorilla conservation issues as well as poverty alleviation initiatives linked to mountain gorilla eco-tourism.

Uganda is maintaining restrictions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and no foreigners entering the country with tourism suspended.

The tragic killing of Rafiki has left the Nkuringo group without a leader. Experts are monitoring the situation to see which of the three young adult male blackbacks will emerge as the new leader of the group.

“The death of Rafiki leaves the group unstable and there is the possibility that it could disintegrate,” said Bashir Hangi, a UWA official told the BBC. “It has no leadership at this time and it could be taken over by a wild silverback.” If that happened, the group would not want to come into contact with humans, which ultimately could affect tourism. Uganda, along with Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, relies heavily on gorilla trekking tourism for revenue.

It has been nine years since a mountain gorilla in Uganda was killed by poachers (Mizano, a playful blackback from the Habinyanja gorilla group in Bwindi was the previous victim).

Mountain gorilla conservation has been one of the rare and great success stories of African wildlife. In 2008, there were around 600 mountain gorillas left in the wild. Today, their numbers have risen to over 1,000 after intensive conservation efforts the Virunga Volcanoes in central Africa’s the Great Lakes region. These include anti-poaching patrols and vets trained to give care to gorillas in the wild.

UWA officials arrested a resident of Murole village in Kisoro District who was found in possession of bushmeat and hunting equipment, including a spear, rope snares, wire snares and a dog hunting bell that were recovered from his home on June 4, according to the UWA statement.

The suspected poacher, who was arrested along with three other poachers said to have shared the bushmeat with him, claimed that he killed the gorilla in self-defence after he was attacked while setting snares for capturing duiker, a type of antelope, and bush pigs.

“This poaching incident has shown us the urgent need to intensify our conservation and community health programs,” a CTPH statement said. “We plan to also support these local communities with fast-growing food crops to meet their immediate nutritional needs during this time of the COVID-19 crisis, as well as continuing to engage them in longer-term alternative livelihoods, including ‘gorilla conservation coffee’ to reduce their dependence on fluctuation-prone tourism revenue to feed their families.”