JIMMY MUHEEBWA SCOOPS A SPECIES RECOVERY AWARD

Earnest Muheebwa Kwesiga and Arnold Muheebwa Nakunda (18 and 17 years old)

On 3 March 2020, Uganda joined the rest of the world in celebrating World Wildlife Day. As part of the activities to commemorate World Wildlife Day 2020, the government of Uganda, through the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities, recognised people and institutions that have made unique and significant contributions to the sustainable conservation and development of wildlife resources in Uganda. This was through the National Conservation Awards Scheme set up in the ministry. Seven individuals and institutions were recognised during the event. Jimmy Muheebwa scooped the award for his outstanding efforts to save the Grey Crowned Crane – the National Bird of Uganda, and an Endangered species. A beaming Jimmy attributed this award to his 20 years of dedicated work on securing the future of Grey Crowned Cranes, and also to the support he has received from donors, fellow conservationists, and his family, who endure long absences from home as he manages the conservation project. He further contends that there is a need for Ugandans to practice sustainable relationships with Mother Nature, saying “Nature sustains our lives; we too, should sustain it.”

This is the second accolade Jimmy has won thanks to his amazing passion for conserving Grey Crowned Cranes, with the first being a prestigious Whitley Award in 2010. Jimmy is currently the Uganda Projects Coordinator for the African Crane Conservation Programme, being implemented under the International Crane Foundation/Endangered Wildlife Trust/NatureUganda Partnership, and has been involved in crane conservation in Uganda for the last 20 years.

It all began in 1998, when Jimmy enrolled for his MSc course at Makerere University in Uganda and his research topic was “Assessing the biology of the Grey Crowned Crane in Uganda,” which brought him to the International Crane Foundation in the USA. Jimmy traversed the whole country in 2000, looking for crane sites, crane nests and crane roost sites. By then the bird was listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN, and he wanted to make a difference in its life. The Grey Crowned Crane population estimate, which by his research stood at 10,000 birds, had declined from over 100,000 in the 1970s ­– an indication of a 40% decline in about 30 years, which was proof that the cranes were at risk of extinction if no conservation measures were taken, and sooner rather than later. According to his findings, the breeding success for the cranes then stood at 0.8. Breeding or fledging success is a comparison or ratio of number of chicks to the breeding pairs. Therefore 0.8 would mean that on average each breeding pair (with one nest) had less than one chick. For example, if you were monitoring 100 breeding pairs and they have 80 chicks in total, the ratio of chicks to the breeding pairs is 80:100 = 0.8. The causes of the low ratio could be breeding failure, egg collection, chick death or removal, among others.

Key wetlands for crane breeding and survival of other forms of biodiversity had suffered extensive degradation and affected not only the cranes, but also the humans and other biodiversity. Jimmy then embarked on an awareness programme in the communities, to facilitate the development of respect for cranes and their breeding habitats – the wetlands. The Nyamuriro Wetland Management Plan, that should have guided the sustainable use of the wetland, had been abandoned by the policy implementers for fear of direct confrontation with the communities who were using the wetlands for crop production. Jimmy had to take the bull by the horns. Through sensitisation meetings, he was able to draw the attention of the local communities and their local leadership towards crane tolerance on farmlands and more importantly to accept conducting wetland restoration demonstrations in the degraded sections of the wetland. The success stories at Nyamuriro wetland set a positive precedent and were replicated at Mugandu in Rubaya subcounty and at Kaku/ Kiyanja wetland in Lwengo district. Cranes took advantage of the restoring habitats to breed and feed there.

In 2010, Jimmy was honoured with a Whitley Award, in the UK, for his outstanding work on engaging communities to conserve cranes and wetlands. The award, which came with GBP 30,000, was a turning point for Jimmy, as he re-invested the funds into conservation activities to brighten the plight of the cranes. In 2013, the IUCN acted on concerns raised by Jimmy, and other conservationists, based on monitoring data and reviewed the status of Grey Crowned Cranes, uplisting them from Vulnerable to Endangered on the global Red List. Not short of innovations, along the way, Jimmy introduced the crane custodianship initiative where community members volunteer to enhance the breeding success by securing the breeding sites. To-date, there are over 50 volunteer custodians spread across the range districts of Masaka, Bushenyi and Kabale greater. They monitor cranes and submit monthly reports on a regular basis. They also conduct awareness campaigns in the communities on the importance of cranes. On several occasions, the custodians have intercepted crane captors and saved crane chicks that would have ended in sale or domestication.

In 2016, the National Species Action Plan for the Grey Crowned Crane, that Jimmy had been leading on, was approved by the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities. It is now a working document that guides the conservation activities of the Grey Crowned Cranes in Uganda. Quite often, Jimmy has organised successful festivals to celebrate the cranes, the most recent being one that preceded World Wildlife Day 2020. At the same function, the National Species Action Plan was launched by the Hon Minister of State for Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities.

The breeding success, consequently, has steadily improved over the years from 0.8 in the early 2000s to 1.56 in the 2019 breeding season. Similarly, cranes nesting in the restored areas have increased in numbers and so do those on public land. By February this year, eight breeding pairs have been recorded at restored Nyamuriro wetland, nine at the restored Mugandu, and five at Kiyanja.