Uganda’s park opens gates for tourists amid COVID-19 pandemic

File photo shows Uganda's oldest chimpanzee Zakayo enjoys a banana at the Uganda Wildlife Education Center, 40 km south of the capital Kampala, Uganda, on Aug. 15, 2008. (Xinhua/Ronald Ssekandi)
File photo shows Uganda’s oldest chimpanzee Zakayo enjoys a banana at the Uganda Wildlife Education Center, 40 km south of the capital Kampala, Uganda, on Aug. 15, 2008. (Xinhua/Ronald Ssekandi)

Chimpanzees are some of Uganda’s prized tourist attractions. In the western Ugandan district of Kamwenge, the East African country has opened its gates of Kibale National Park, a destination conservationists describe as the world’s “primate capital” because of the concentration of 13 primate species in one place.

The park, a medium-altitude tropical rain forest, measuring some 795 square-kilometers, is home to 13 species of primates, 372 bird species, 350 tree species, 71 mammal species, according to Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), a state-owned conservation agency.

Chimpanzees totaling 1,400 in number are a major highlight in this park. Before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, over 90 tourists used to visit the park daily.

When the first case was registered in the country in March, the park, like many tourist destinations in the country, was closed.

Lydia Nakami, a warden at Kibale National Park, told Xinhua in a recent interview that the park was closed because of fear that humans may pass on the coronavirus to the chimpanzees.

Six months later, the government has reopened the tourism sector. The country earns some 1.6 billion U.S. dollars from the sector annually.

Tourists can now visit the chimpanzees after following the standard operating procedures given by the government to stop the spread of COVID-19.

As the gates are open, all tourists are obligated to sanitize hand and have body temperature taken before they are allowed in.

“The new procedures include hand sanitizing, the temperature guns; at the gate there is a staff who takes your measurements, if you are over 37 degrees Celsius, you don’t enter,” said Nakami.

Social distancing is emphasized. Instead of using the briefing room, tourists are briefed from outside the building.

While in the forest, tourists are not allowed to get close to the primates. They stand not less than 10 meters away from the chimpanzees. Before COVID-19, tourists used to stand eight meters away.

During the lockdown, UWA deployed a team of rangers to continue monitoring the primates.

“As guides, we continued following the chimpanzees as we do the monitoring and habituation. With chimpanzees that have been habituated, if you stop visiting them on a daily basis, then it is possible that they get back into the wild,” said Bosco Bwambale, a game ranger.

“During the five months, we have been following the chimpanzees, without tourists. We have been using masks, we are sure that these chimpanzees are not going to react due to the masks,” he added.

Abiaz Rwamwiri, director of Africa Wild Explorations, a tour agency, told Xinhua in a recent interview that as the country moves to open up the country’s Entebbe International Airport, agencies hope to record an increase in tourist numbers.

The country is currently running a one-month live-streamed virtual safari. According to UWA, the virtual safari aims to incentivize tourists when the borders open.

The first virtual safari was streaming from Kibale National Park showcasing the Chimpanzees.

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