Fears for Uganda’s zoo animals as cash dwindles in coronavirus lockdown

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Nyakato, an orphaned baby elephant at a conservation centre in Uganda, wants to play. She flaps her small ears while poking her trunk through the fence towards her keeper.

For now, her biggest problem is loneliness. But soon it may be food – cash at the 68-year-old centre where she lives is running out after the global travel freeze and lockdowns caused by the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

“We are closed to the public,” the centre’s Executive Director, James Musinguzi, told Reuters.

“No more money is coming in.”

Zoos and conservation projects around the world are grappling with dwindling funds after tourists disappeared.

Kenyan conservationists are reining in programmes, and in Germany a zoo warned they might have to feed animals to each other if funding dried up.

In Uganda, the publicly-owned Uganda Wildlife Education Centre (UWEC) sits on 74 hectares of woods near the town of Entebbe, on a picturesque peninsula on Lake Victoria.

The colonial-era centre runs entirely on cash from visitors.

Last year, it welcomed 385,000 people, but visitor numbers began dropping in January and the centre shut on March 27. Three days later, the east African country imposed one of the continent’s strictest lockdowns to slow the spread of the virus.

The lockdown, initially for 14 days, was extended for an extra three weeks on April 14.

So far, it seems to be working: Uganda has only recorded 58 infections of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. There have been no reported deaths.

But people – and animals – are suffering. Musinguzi estimates the centre can only keep going for another two months.

Nyakato alone drinks 12 litres of baby formula a day, drinking greedily when caretaker Onesmus Mutuza, 25, thrusts a feeding bottle into her mouth and squeezes. That costs 7.2 million shillings ($1,900) per month.

There are other animals to worry about. The centre is home to 280 animals including birds, primates, reptiles, and large mammals like rhinos.

Even if the lockdown ends soon, global travel and tourism are likely to take time to recover. So the centre has introduced “virtual tours” via Facebook, hoping to attract supporters.

Not everyone is gloomy, though. Some animals have been enjoying their privacy. Earlier this year, Kabira, a 23-year-old female white southern rhino finally mated with Sherino after a frustrating wait of more than two decades.

Now caretaker Steven Busulwa is eagerly awaiting a pregnancy test due in June.

“In one year and a half maybe we might have some babies,” he said, hopefully.