Lake Victoria is under threat, and the very people this natural resource is supposed to serve are the ones threatening its existence. Until World Environment Day on June 5, in a campaign, Save Lake Victoria, The New Vision media platforms will run investigative stories and commentaries highlighting the irresponsible human activities threatening the world’s second largest fresh water lake. Today, we bring you the story of Musambwa Islands, one of the largest bird breeding places in Africa.
Things are falling apart on Musambwa Islands. Fish catches have dwindled. The fishermen are selling and eating eggs, threatening a tourism industry which rakes in over $800m in revenue. At least the snakes on the islands are still happy and men only dream of women. But the mother birds are in misery, while the young fish live in constant fear of ending up in a saucepan.
Until recently, Musambwa Islands was perhaps the only place on earth where man and nature co-existed harmoniously, minus women. However today, scarcity of fish has brought an ugly twist.
Found on Lake Victoria in Rakai district, this tiny rocky island is a recognized Ramsar site, an important bird area. Often visited by tourists taking safaris to Uganda, the island supports large populations of congregatory breeding birds like the grey headed gull, greater cormorant, little egret and the long-tailed cormorant, among others. It is known to be the largest breeding site for African birds.
Over the years, fishermen have been settling on Musambwa and using it as a spring board to reach the deep waters of Lake Victoria. Today, Musambwa hosts about 150 fishermen, yet most of them are too poor to afford motorised boats to fish in far off waters. Consequently, overfishing close to the shores has depleted fish stocks in waters surrounding the islands. The fishermen use illegal fishing gear and sweep immature fish out of the lake.
With fish stocks no-longer enough to growing populations, fishermen have done away with taboos of the Islands that prohibited the eating of bird eggs and started preying on the eggs.
Myths about the island
In the old days, fishermen lived in harmony with snakes and birds. They earned a living out of fishing while conserving nature by fear of superstitions, taboos and customs.
One of the first people to settle on the island is Mzee Emmanuel Kaberenge. He came to the island in 1964, found many taboos and passed them on to subsequent fishermen. By then, he says, only four people lived on the islands. Women and sex are prohibited. That initially kept the population small and minimised thefts.
The second myth prevents people from killing snakes as they are believed to be gods. Consequently, Musambwa is the only location on earth where people live with cobras of all sizes, with mutual respect for one another.
The third commandment, which has now collapsed, prohibited fishermen from eating or selling eggs of the thousands of birds that live and breed on the Island.
However, to compensate for loss of income and food from fish, the fishermen have turned to birds for survival. They eat and sell eggs of the thousands of birds which have lived and bred on the islands for centuries.
What authorities say
According to the executive director of Nature Uganda, Achilles Byaruhanga, the population of grey-headed gulls on Musambwa dropped to 30,000 birds, from 120,000 in one year, between 2004 and 2005, due to commercialisation of their eggs. The eggs were increasingly attracting higher commercial value on the mainland, replacing fishing as the major income-generating activity at the island.
However, with Nature Uganda intervention, the bird population has since increased Byaruhanga says. Nature Uganda, working with other development partners has been sensitising the fishermen and promoting Musambwa as birding tourist destination.
In Uganda, the tourism sector is the second largest foreign exchange earner. It generated $805m ( sh2b) in foreign exchange in 2011/2012. The sector’s total contribution to GDP is estimated at $1.4b, representing 7.6% of GDP; in 2011 trailing only remittances from abroad.
Uganda a bird paradise
Over half of all bird species in Africa can be found in Uganda, making it the richest African birding destination. Uganda was recently declared a preferred bird-watching destination 2013/2014, a development expected to uphold the country as the continent’s best birding destination.
Birding in Uganda is a high end tourism package, where tourists stay longer and spend more on tourism. Birding generates about $6.3m (about sh16m) annually doubling revenue from gorilla tracking and is still growing. Uganda has over 1,000 bird species; accounting for about 50% of birds in Africa and 11% of the global population.
Internationally, Musambwa Islands are known to be the largest breeding site for the African race of the grey-headed gulls in Africa, whose eggs the fishermen eat and sell.
Byaruhanga estimates the price of three eggs at sh1,000 though the fishermen do not want to talk about it.
Despite the importance of birds to the economy, in Musambwa, they have been attacked, with fishermen cutting trees where they nest to construct shelters and for fish smoking.
What spiritualists say
Although Nature Uganda has intervened and is trying to reverse the trends, Joseph Bagorogoza, 67, and has lived on the island for 44 years, says respecting the gods is more effective. Currently, Bagorogoza is the diviner entrusted with appeasing the gods of the islands. The gods are believed to reside in the numerous cobras on the island. He is the caretaker of a shrine under a fig tree. The ‘holy place’ consists of two spears and a calabash.
People with spiritual needs drop money under the spears as they pray to the gods. Bagorogoza also keeps white cocks for the gods and only eats them when they grow old. His other work is to tell people not to kill snakes, birds and not to eat birds’ eggs. Bagorogoza blames newcomers and overfishing for the breakdown of Musambwa Islands cultural norms which initially bonded men and nature together.