Ramsar sites in Uganda

Ramsar sites in Uganda – Wetland conservation

There are 12 Ramsar sites in Uganda, which are mainly wetland systems including Nabajjuzi, Lutembe bay, Mabamba, Makanaga, lake Opeta, lake Bisina, lake Nakuwa, lake Nabugabo, lake Albert, Nile delta, and lake Mburo Nakivale. They’re classified as Important Bird Areas (IBAs)

A Ramsar site is a wetland site that is designated by the Ramsar Convention to be of international importance. Ramsar Convention, also known as “The Convention on Wetlands”, is an intergovernmental environmental treaty established in Ramsar, Iran on Feb 2, 1971 by UNESCO and came into force on Dec 21, 1975. The treaty provides for national action and international cooperation regarding the conservation of wetlands and wise sustainable use of their resources.

Ramsar sites and wildlife in Uganda

Wetlands in Uganda serve multi purpose functions including offering some of the best bird watching destinations in the country. One of the rare African bird species, the shoebill stork can be seen at all the 12 sites. The shoebill dwells in permanent and primary freshwater shallow papyrus wetland habitats rich in biodiversity.

Those coming to see the shoebill also get the opportunity to spot other species with over 1,061 bird species in Uganda, which is almost 11% of the bird population in Africa. The endangered gray-crowned crane is the national bird of Uganda. The Ramsar wetlands are mostly found around the great lakes of Victoria, Nyanza, Albert, Edward, Kyoga, and along the Nile River.

Small motor boats and wooden canoes are used to navigate the wetland channels in search of birds. There are professional bird guides who will take care as you sit and enjoy the trip. Birding experience in the wetlands reminds you how much local people depend on nature, for instance through fishing. The freshwater lakes are home to a variety of fish species including the lungfish that the shoebill mainly feeds on.

The Baganda people in Buganda kingdom call this fish Mamba and is a totem of the Mamba clan. People from this clan don’t eat it but prefer other species such as tilapia, catfish, and bichir, which are also part of the shoebill diet. This means that people compete with birds over fish and other natural resources. For instance, wetlands are a source of medicinal herbs, water, and reeds to make handicrafts.

There’s also a need for land to grow food, create livestock farms, and mining sand and clay for construction, which degrades the wetlands. Besides the socio-economic roles, these natural areas also provide ecological services such as regulation of pollution, floods, soil erosion, climate change, and providing shelter to wildlife. 

The International Wetlands Treaty

The need to protect and sustainably utilize wetland resources began in 1971 when the Ramsar convention was signed in Iran. A wetland is considered a Ramsar site due to the rich biodiversity and the social economical value it has both nationally and internationally. Uganda became a member in 1988 with 11% of the total area covered by wetlands. The national wetlands policy was passed in 1995 and since then, over 40 have been designated as IBAs of which 12 are Ramsar sites.

However, wetlands continued to decline by 30% between 1994 to 2008 due to rising population, settlements, and agriculture. Therefore, the purpose of the policy was to put measures in place to stop degradation and create economic opportunities for communities that depend on wetlands for survival. Uganda is committed to conservation of wetlands especially through tourism activities such as bird watching, water sports, arts and culture. You can help support conservation of wetlands by visiting these Ramsar sites or giving any support to both private and governmental organizations involved in conserving the natural world. Birding to trips are available for booking through a tour operator or guide.

Ramsar sites in Uganda

Shoebill stork in Uganda has been recorded at 12 Ramsar sites including Mabamba bay and Makanaga, Lutembe bay, the Nabujuzi wetland, and Lake Nabugabo in the west shores of Lake Victoria, the Nile delta in Murchison Falls, Nakivale in Lake Mburo, lake Bisina, Opeta, and Nakuwa in the east of Lake Kyoga basin), and the Lake Edward in Queen Elizabeth national park. According to the Uganda Bird Guides Association, sightings are most successful at 5 of the 12 sites including Murchison falls, lake Mburo, and Queen Elizabeth national parks, Mabamba and Makanaga wetlands. Shoebill birding tours are available for booking through a tour operator or guide.

Mabamba and Makanaga swamp

Mabamba bay wetland is 47 km west of Entebbe town via Kawuku-Nakawuka rd and 12 km via Kasange rd. A birding day trip to Mabamba can also be done from Kampala capital city. The swamp stretches for 16,500 hectares including the adjacent Makanaga wetland. Both are home to the shoebill, the main attraction with higher chances to see the bird, however. Makanaga is located 60 km west of Entebbe and is reached through Kamengo off the Masaka-Kampala highway.

In particular, Mabamba swamp is home to over 260 bird species including lake Victoria basin endemics such as papyrus gonolek and white winged swamp warbler. Mabamba also attracts migratory species such as blue swallow and white winged black, gull-billed, and whiskered terns. Those intending to stay close to Mabamba can get a room at Nkima Forest Lodge, with a view of the marsh. Birding is done in both wetlands by use of wooden canoe, in which guests sit with a guide and pilot. The canoe does not emit sound like motorized canoes, it is easier to navigate the swamp canals with lookout points to spot birds. 

The Kyoga basin satellite lakes 

Kyoga is Uganda’s most shallow lake, located north of Murchison Falls and south of lake Albert. The eastern part of the lake consists of 3 lakes including Bisina, Opeta, and Nakuwa. Both are classified Ramsar sites and IBAs and home to the shoebill stork. The sites were gazetted, however, tourism is not fully developed.

There’s still a need for more projects that not only provide accessibility but also support the communities living around. Opeta, which covers 68,912 hectares, is largely a papyrus wetland but also contains thatching (hyparrhenia) and hippo (vossia cuspidata) grasses to the north, where it borders the Pian Upe wildlife reserve.

Besides the shoebill, the site is famous for harboring Uganda’s only endemic bird, the fox’s weaver (ploceus spekeoides). The bird is classified as a Near Threatened species, however, there’s insufficient data about its status and range. In a study done by Nature Uganda in 2010 “Survey of the Fox’s Weaver, the only Ugandan Endemic bird species’ ‘ confirmed that Opeta and the adjacent lake Bisina wetland system are significant breeding grounds of the fox’s weaver.

Lake Bisina wetland 54,229 hectares, in particular, is also a Ramsar site important for shoebill conservation. Unlike Bisina and Opeta, the lake Nakuwa wetland system is unique and consists of suds (floating vegetation that forms obstructive masses that characterized much of the white Nile). In addition to being important sites for shoebill conservation, the Kyoga satellite lakes are rich in biodiversity including haplochromines cichlid fish species, which are endemic to East African Great Lakes.

These species have become extinct in Lake Victoria due to the introduction of the Nile perch that preys on them. The Kyoga satellite lakes remain as the last habitat for the haplochromine cichlid fish species given that the suds prevent the Nile perch from accessing these wetlands. The Bisina and Opeta wetlands are home to over 12 different weaver species including Compact, northern Brown-throated, Yellow-backed, Lesser Masked, Grosbeak, Slender-billed, Jackson’s Golden-backed, Black-necked, Heuglins Masked, and Spectacled weavers. 

Nile Albert delta wetland

Located within Murchison falls national park, the Nile Albert delta offers the best chances to spot the shoebill stork. There’s a significant number of shoebills being a protected area and the sightings are almost guaranteed. The swamp covers 17,293 ha in the area around the confluence of the Victoria Nile and lake Albert within the protected area.

Murchison falls is home to over 460 species of birds of which most water bird species can be seen at the delta including the great snipe, which is near threatened. The delta is accessed whilst in the north sector of the park by motorized canoes. Wooden canoes can’t be used due to the presence of crocodiles.

In addition to being a great place to go bird watching, Murchison offers fantastic opportunities to see wildlife, including lions, elephants, leopards, buffaloes, Uganda kob, jackson’s hartebeest, oribi, waterbucks, and warthogs. The most important activities to do there are game drives, a boat cruise along the Victoria Nile, and a visit to the top of the falls. The southern part of the park contains Budongo Central Forest Reserve, which offers opportunities for chimpanzee tracking. 

Nakivale wetland system 

The Ramar site forms part of Lake Mburo national park and consists of 13 lakes of 5 are within the protected area. The rest of the park is made up of savanna woodlands, acacia and euphoria trees with metamorphic rocks protruding above the relief. The diverse habitats support rich biodiversity including 370 bird species and 69 mammal species. The shoebill is tracked on foot along the Kyempitsi trail on shores of lake Mburo. Other water bird species include the African finfoot, papyrus gonolek, African water rail, water thick-knee, and hammerkops.  

Lutembe bay wetland

Lutembe Ramsar site is 13 km from Kajjansi town off Kampala-Entebbe rd and can also be reached by boat from the Entebbe Zoo. Lutembe bay is easy to visit on a day trip from Kampala or Entebbe. Nature Uganda identified the presence of over 70 species including the palearctic migrants such as the Malagasy pond herons and white-winged terns in huge flocks. The shoebill isn’t regularly seen, however. Keen birders can identify over 50 indigenous species such as the green backed heron, knob billed duck, green shank, lesser black backed gull, and Klaas’s cuckoo. 

Lake Nabugabo wetland system

Situated 18 km from Masaka municipality, lake Nabugabo wetland system covers 22,000 hectares. There’s Sand Beach Resort which offers accommodation, conference facilities, food, and a wide range of water sports and adventure activities alike such as zip lining. Unlike other Ramsar sites, Nabugabo wetland system is unique.

There are 3 smaller lakes detached from Lake Victoria by a 2 km wide barrier of sand where water seeps through. The area contains papyrus vegetation as well as tropical forests with over 100 plant species including carnivorous species called insectivorous such as Droseraceae.

Nabugabo wetland system was designated a Ramsar site in 2004 to protect endangered bird species including the shoebill stork and papyrus gonolek, one of the lake victoria basin endemics. The site also attracts migratory species and is famous for harboring 15% of the world’s Blue swallow population. Over 5 globally threatened species of birds have been recorded at Nabugabo including the pallid harrier and the great snipe. 

Nabujjuzi wetland system

Designated in 2006, the Ramsar site covers 1,753 hectares extending from Masaka, Mpigi to Sembabule districts in Budu county Buganda kingdom. Some parts of Nabajjuzi wetland systems are in the river Katonga basin which flows from Lake Victoria to Wamala and empties into lake Edward in Queen Elizabeth national park.

The vegetation in the wetland includes the dominant Papyrus sedge, silver grass (miscanthus violaceus) and some water lillies such as blue lotus (nymphaea nouchali va). Some of the bird species recorded at Nabajjuzi are considered endemic such as the papyrus yellow warbler (chloropeta gracilirostris) and papyrus gonolek (laniarius mufumbiri) as well as the shoebill stork, and gray crowned crane.

In addition, the Sitatunga, swamp dwelling antelope is also regularly seen. Also, a variety of fish species including lung and mud fish support the livelihoods of many people who live around the wetland. Among the main threats to Nabajjuzi wetland include water pollution resulting from chemicals at Novelty Tannery factory, car washing and the use of pesticides in the agricultural areas of the wetland, brick making.

The communities depend on it and there are conservation and livelihood programs to enhance sustainable utilization of resources. The site is under the Lake Victoria Conservation Environmental Education Programme sponsored by wetlands Department in partnership with Nature Uganda and African Wildlife Foundation. 

Posted in blog.