The Shoebills of Mabamba SwampApril 16, 2020
With their distinctly shaped bills, gangly legs and piercing eyes, shoebills have even non-birders intrigued. Here we meet them in Mabamba Swamp, an ecologically diverse and crucial birding site just outside Uganda’s capital city, Kampala. We also learn how a tragic story of wildlife-community conflict has turned into a peaceful, mutually beneficial co-existence.
On the northern shore of Lake Victoria lies the marsh-filled channels and papyrus-lined trails of Mabamba Bay Swamp. This is prime birding territory in Uganda and considered the country’s best location to spot the notoriously elusive shoebill (Balaeniceps rex) due to its easy accessibility.
It is home to approximately 300 bird varieties, including globally threatened species like the pallid harrier (Circus macrourus), papyrus gonolek (Laniarius mufumbiri) and blue swallow (Hirundo atrocaerulea). Mabamba Swamp also serves as an annual stopover point for palearctic migrants visiting from October to March to breed and rear their young in the warm climate.
Mabamba is not just any swamp. In 2006, it was recognised as a Wetland of International Importance by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands and BirdLife International has also distinguished it as an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area. This means that the animal, bird and plant life of Mabamba Swamp that are threatened to varying degrees – as per their different statuses on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species – live in a safe haven that is actively protected by local organisations.
This is indeed true for the shoebill, which is listed by the IUCN as vulnerable and has become the centre of conservation projects spearheaded by neighbouring communities. Local fisherfolk take safari-goers through the swamp on wooden boats, educating them about its ecological significance as well as sharing fascinating facts and stories about the shoebill.
The funds from these safaris are directed into protecting the local shoebill population and supporting bordering communities. The Mabamba Wetland Eco-tourism Association is made up of fishermen, bird guides and huntsmen that are supported by NatureUganda and empowered to conserve the biodiversity of the swamp that they depend on almost completely for their survival.
The relationship between these two neighbours was not always so amicable, however. Mabamba means lungfish (Protopterus aethiopicus) in the Luganda dialect, and both shoebills and the people living around the swamp live off this large fish.
As lungfish are the staple diet of shoebills, the birds were seen as bad omens for superstitious fisherfolk going out to catch the lungfish. Seeing a shoebill during a fishing expedition signalled a greater chance of a poor catch on that day. Sadly, some community members resorted to killing shoebills and destroying their nests in an attempt to secure their own livelihood.
Fortunately now the successful partnership as ended this conflict, created greater awareness of the importance of nature conservation and led to socio-economic benefit to the local community that surround Mabamba Swamp.
Why not find out how to greet a shoebill should you ever meet one in the wild.
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