The Uganda Wildlife Conservation Education Centre, popularly known as the Entebbe Zoo, is buzzing with activity.
Pupils from Kabojja Junior School are milling around the enclosure, holding five-year old Charles Hamukungu, the popular young male elephant who is enjoying his breakfast of elephant grass, watermelon, pawpaw, pineapple, eggplants and carrots. Charles eats 40 kilogrammes of grass, fruits, solid tubers, dried hay and vegetables daily.
Charles is the only elephant in the zoo and has proved to be a major attraction of the Behind the Scenes tour organised by the centre to bring parties of students to see and interact with the animals.
At 10:30am at the Budongo Chimpanzee Island Exhibit, the chimps are having their second meal of the day, made up of an assortment of fruits, tubers and vegetables.
They feed four times a day. Visitors are allowed to feed them during meal times and the chimps are clearly enjoying the attention as they clap and hold out their hands to be given food. The children and a few accompanying adults are enjoying the interaction.
Interaction with animals is one of the major objectives of the centre.
The zoo, located 32 kilometres south of Kampala, and a five-kilometre drive from the Entebbe International Airport, was started in 1952 as an animal orphanage and a rescue centre for injured young animals or those separated from their parents. Later, in 1960, it was changed into a zoo. It sits on 70.5 hectares of land.
The political instability of the 1980s was bad for the zoo as many animals died from neglect. However, in 1994, the government stepped in and renamed it the Uganda Wildlife Conservation Education Centre (UWEC) to teach the public, especially young people, about wildlife and the need for its conservation for the benefit of the community and for tourism. Today, the centre employs 54 full time staff and has over 50 casual workers and volunteers working round the clock.
The zoo today holds chimpanzees, white rhinos, lions, zebras, donkeys, giraffes, elands, duikers, buffalos, Uganda kobs, monkeys, serval cats, leopards, a camel, warthogs, and two cheetahs rescued in Karamoja by the Uganda Wildlife Authority, among others.
As we walk around the fence of the chimpanzee exhibit, zoo keeper Nicholas Muyindo says, “When we have them on this Budongo Chimpanzee Island, they feel at home just like they would in the forest.” The chimpanzee exhibit is dotted with car tyres hanging on ropes and half buried in the ground. The chimps climb the trees and swing on the tyres to fight boredom, shed excess weight and energy, and to keep remain active.
There are 14 chimps at the zoo, including 54-year-old Zakayo, who was rescued in 1972. He fathered Shaka, the only chimp born at the centre.
The centre’s executive director, James Musinguzi, says that product differentiation is what makes the zoo unique.
“We offer experiential tourism and educational products that have created repeat visits by our clients. We have the Behind the Scenes tour that gives visitors a glimpse into the daily lives of the animals such as the chimpanzee feeding; Keeper for a Day and Veterinarian for a Day, where visitors join the staff in tending to the animals; Giraffe Feeding, Elephant Walks, Shoebill Greeting, Rhino Touch and Cheetah Runs. All these programmes involve close interaction with the animals under supervision of the zoo staff. The centre also offers cottage accommodation and camping facilities.”
Musinguzi further noted: “What makes this zoo special is that it has been rebranded as a widow on Uganda. We have recreated Uganda’s ecosystems here. We also have naturalistic exhibits where we keep our animals close to the wild environment. We don’t have cages and the animals roam freely, one of the basic wild animal welfare practices. We also have special conservation education programmes that target different age groups.”