Achilles Byaruhanga, 52, is the Executive Director of NatureUganda. Cathy Watson interviewed the renowned environmentalist in his office in Kampala.

What is Nature Uganda?

We used to be the East African Natural History Society but rebranded to focus on three things. Research – so decision-makers can design nature-informed policies and because we still do not know enough. Education – because the environment is degraded, and we want the public to appreciate it. Conservation – because Uganda is very beautiful but has many challenges, especially overexploitation of natural resources.

Great! I see Kampala still has parrots!

Yes, African Greys parrots (Psittacus erithacus) are globally threatened. But we have 500-600 in greater Kampala. We see flocks flying every morning from east to west. They like fruits with fine seeds like Mvule, Ficus (Figs) and Guava. It is interesting to see such forest birds still hanging around.

 “We can make our gardens greener and our city more biodiversity-friendly.”

And how are the crested cranes?

African Grey Crested Crane

What people call crested cranes are grey crowned cranes. They numbered 100,000 in the early 1970s but fell dramatically, stabilizing at about 10,000 in 2014. Sadly, they are not coming up. We lose 293 km2 a year of wetlands. Cranes breed exclusively in permanent swamps. The decline in cranes is proportional to wetland loss.

Cranes are the national bird, right?

Yes. When I was young, we knew not to touch our national symbol. We were told – when you kill a crane, they take you to prison. Cranes can raid maize, groundnut and pea gardens. Some people persecute them for this. But they rarely kill them. Uganda has a strong wildlife law that when implemented protects such critical species.

I saw a big flock in Lukaya but also saw a rice factory.

There is no justification for this investment. Under the 1995 Constitution, you cannot have a title in a wetland. Lukaya is a buffer for everything that comes from the River Katonga catchment into Lake Victoria, and the bay is an important spawning ground for fish. We should not have a rice scheme in such an indispensable site.”

“The bay is an important spawning ground for fish.”

Are the implications very grave?

Yes. When you cut down papyrus, birds like the papyrus yellow warbler and gonolek cannot survive. You get more invasives and generalists like rats. We lose the filter for pollutants and flood control. Eventually, we will kill the lake ecosystem with pesticides. We must tame our appetite for opening up new places and move towards efficient, sustainable and climate-smart agriculture.

Same story with the shoebill storks?

Yes, they are not doing great. We have about 300. But when you look at the immense pressure for conversion of marshes to agriculture… The big population is thought to be in the Sud in South Sudan. Unfortunately, no one has checked if they are there. We need these big birds to be a rallying point for wetlands.

Tell me about those wily survivors, Kampala’s Marabou storks!

Their numbers are going up! In the late 1990s, city council authorities decided to eliminate them, saying they were dirty and messing up the city. I met the town clerk three times. The third meeting was not good. He said they were supposed not to be in town. He said “Take your birds away. I manage human beings, not birds!”

“Marabou storks have a critical role in cleaning up refuse”

How did you answer?

African Grey Parrot

I said “They are helping you. They are your counterparts, very big volunteers, clearing dead dogs and cats.” I said Kampala has 10,000 Marabou storks, and each eats at least 1 kg of food a day. So, they remove ten tons daily. Marabou have a critical role in cleaning up refuse and preventing disease. The decision was not implemented.

Well done! How can we help these useful birds?

We need big strong trees. Marabous nest in colonies, and a marabou nest with three chicks can weigh up to 50kg. So, if you have 20 nests, you need a tree that can hold a ton! Many such trees have been cleared, but Marabou storks are still utilizing the few big trees remaining.

“We applaud city authorities when they preserve such important trees.”

 What other successes have you had?

When we started promoting birding in the early 1990s, I was questioned by the police. I was carrying binoculars, telescopes and cameras. It was unusual. Since then, we have come a long way. NatureUganda has identified 34 Important Bird Areas, some of which are now global birding destinations. Birds are a big tourism product.  Other successes have been drumming up communities for nature and supporting Mabira and forests in the Albertine Rift and the government designating 10 wetlands of international importance.

You have an undergrad degree in Zoology and a master’s in Environment and Natural Resources Management from Makerere, a Diploma in Law, and a master’s in Conservation Leadership from Cambridge, what is your last word?

Unless we restore degraded wetlands, forests and other landscapes, sustainability is unattainable. We have a beautiful country. We must bequest the same to future generations.

You can contact NatureUganda at Plot 1, Katalima Crescent, Lower Naguru, PO BOX 27034, Kampala. Join NatureUganda’s public talks on the first Thursday of every month, monthly nature walks and other membership events.

Cathy Watson is Chief of Partnerships for CIFOR-ICRAF