Homo Extinctus


On a hillside clearing overlooking a particularly dense forest on Uganda’s south-west border, villagers of short stature display crude carvings of mountain gorillas for sale.

The carvings sit alongside long necklaces of dried berries, and wooden bowls and dolls made with straw and grasses on a U-shape of rickety log tables. There are even mobile phones, similarly carved from wood and with numbers drawn on with ink marker.

They sell masks and T-shirts too; brightly coloured with gorilla pictures and footprints on the front and ‘Mzungus in the mist’ printed on the back. ‘Mzungus’ means foreigners in Kiswahili.

This is how the Batwa pygmies have eked out an existence since being displaced from the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in 1991, when the area was gazetted as a National Park in an effort to preserve the world’s remaining 620 mountain gorillas.

For the gorilla-trekking tourists who buy these knickknacks and handicrafts, the irony is surely lost that for the Batwa pygmies, the same animals which spelt the end of their existence inside the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest should now be one of the only things sustaining their existence outside of it.

Deprived of their traditional subsistence lifestyle and with limited skills in tilling land and farming, the pygmies rely on tourists for income. Where once they had no need for money, they now have few ways to earn it.

Gorilla trekking is the number one tourist attraction in Uganda. Image by Sam Davies.

Indeed, the estimated 2000 displaced pygmies who now languish in seven settlements around Bwindi are teetering dangerously close to extinction. A medical survey conducted by Dr Scott Kellermann in 2000 showed an under-five mortality rate of 38 per cent, contrasting with a national average of 18. In Australia it is 0.6.  

In response, the doctor returned and established a 25-bed clinic in 2001, which made significant inroads in improving health: within three years the under-five mortality rate was down to the national average, though the death rate for pygmies who are landless remains at nearly six in 10.

Kellermann routinely visits the numerous tourist camps in Bwindi, rattling a tin and raising awareness of his clinic and of the pygmies’ situation. ‘Come down for a visit,’ he offers. ‘There’s plenty of diseases, all of them contagious.’

Kellermann says the clinic is unusual in Uganda for having both drugs and health workers. When he first arrived he treated patients under a big tree in the yard, but with the backing of faith groups, business organisations and private donors, he has been able to build a substantial complex, and expand the medical services on offer to include a dental assistant nicknamed ‘Extraction Jackson,’ an X-ray machine operating from a shipping container, and a nearly complete surgery, partially funded by an American donor who decided to donate to the clinic rather than buy a new car. On an outer wall of the building a ‘suggestion box’ contains several boxes of condoms.

One hundred and fifty outpatients pass through the clinic every week. The staff includes numerous interns and, importantly, the clinic has a good relationship with the local traditional healer whose opinion still holds sway with much of the community even if his diagnoses attribute most afflictions to ‘evil spirits’ and ‘illness of the brain.’

Malaria accounts for up to 600 patients each month, and alcohol-related illnesses are also common, which is typical of poverty-stricken communities such as Bwindi. A village tour shows where and how locals ferment and distil bananas to make a range of wines and spirits. The gin is more than 40 per cent alcohol and a 500ml bottle sells for about $4.00.

But Kellermann is not only worried about saving lives: the pygmies’ culture also looks in terminal decline, with little documentation of their oral history. ‘The Batwa lifespan is 42 years. If they were kicked out of the forest 15 years ago, there’s not much time to save that culture,’ he said. Breeding outside the community is also diminishing their gene pool.

Various efforts have been made to document pygmy songs and traditional stories, and Kellerman is trying to raise enthusiasm for a pygmy cultural centre. A plot of land has been earmarked for the project, but he simply lacks the time to organise it himself.

Locals still seek advice from the traditional healer for health concerns. Image by Sam Davies.

Tourists can also take a community village walk to visit a pygmy settlement and community school, a banana alcohol distillery and the traditional healer. The pygmies perform songs and dance, which, as far-fetched as it may seem, the guide says express sentiments of their joy and appreciation of living in settlements, and of the need to preserve conservation and the current Government.

‘They are very happy to live in our community and to eat our food,’ the guide adds.

They also demonstrate making fire using two sticks which a man subsequently uses to light his cigarette, and then they show tourists their handicraft stalls.

For its part, the Government has done little to support the pygmies directly, and other local communities treat them with a degree of derision: ‘They are lazy and have small brains,’ says Richard, a Ugandan barman at an exclusive tourist lodge in Bwindi.

Even though 20 per cent of entrance fees to Ugandan parks (single day entrance to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is AU$25) are distributed to neighbouring communities, the governing body, the Ugandan Wildlife Authority (UWA), notes in its 2005 annual report that:

While revenue sharing funds are meant to benefit the communities neighbouring protected areas, the law requires that the funds be remitted through the local Governments. Therefore there were numerous complaints from the communities who felt that they were not benefiting from the Revenue Sharing Programme because of the bureaucratic tendering process for services.

The subsequent plights of the pygmies and gorillas since the park was established could not be more marked: in the 16 years since, the population of mountain gorillas has grown to more than 700 across Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the three countries collaborate on managing gorilla conservation.

Improved management of the mountain gorillas has led to a tourism renaissance in Uganda, which has been tarnished in recent decades by civil war and the brutality of Idi Amin’s regime. Gorilla trekking is now the country’s number one tourist attraction, numbers visiting Uganda’s two gorilla parks rising from 2923 in 1994 to 9001 tourists in 2005.

Bwindi has about 350 mountain gorillas, with four gorilla families that can be tracked. A fifth group lives in the Mgahinga National Park, which borders Rwanda and D.R. Congo the only other countries where you can see mountain gorillas (their lowlands relatives number in their thousands and are the ones you see in zoos).

The cost of a gorilla trekking permit for tourists, which affords groups of up to eight an hour per day with a gorilla family, will rise in Uganda and Rwanda on 1 July to US$500 (AU$607). Uganda is also habituating two further gorilla families.

The UWA cites ‘recent regional events’ behind the fee increase which comes just four months after another fee increase from US$360 to US$375. Just what these ‘recent regional events’ are is not specified, though Congo is currently struggling with severe c
ivil conflict which has had obvious adverse effects on its gorilla tourism potential.

UWA executive director Moses Mapesa said the uniform pricing for gorilla tourism ‘will help to strengthen the already existing collaborative management arrangements between the three countries, especially in the areas of research, monitoring, eco-tourism, and community-based conservation.’

So while Government support and international tourism have virtually ensured the future of world’s last 700 mountain gorillas, it’s another irony that their survival should so jeopardise that of the Batwa pygmies.

And even though their health is improving courtesy of Dr Kellermann and co, with almost everyone else apparently more interested in preserving a species which shares 99 per cent of human DNA, the pygmies are left to ponder the difference that one per cent can make.

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