Wildlife authorities in Uganda are warning of an impending disaster in the country's most visited national park. Sixteen months ago cattlemen moved into Queen Elizabeth National Park and began poisoning lions, leopards, and hyenas to protect their herds. As VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu reports from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi, an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the park is adding pressure on the Ugandan government to find a solution to the problem.
Uganda's wildlife officials say the number of large predators in the country's famed Queen Elizabeth National Park is shrinking fast and could soon disappear.
Uganda's chief wildlife warden, Tom Okello, says at least 40 hyenas and 13 lions have died in the past year, mostly likely from eating meat laced with poison.
More than 80 percent of the hyenas in the park are now gone and less than 40 lions remain from a population of nearly 100 a decade ago. It is not known how many leopards were in the reserve, but none have been spotted for months.
Okello says some of the poisoned animals have been found. But park rangers have not been able to locate many others.
"There is one pride of lions, a pride of nine, which was radio-collared," he said. "And that one disappeared completely. We have failed to get even the radio equipment, which was on the collar. So, that pride, we presume, are all dead."
In March 2006, an estimated 10,000 nomadic herders called the Basongora crossed into Uganda, after being chased out of Virunga National Park in neighboring Congo Kinshasa.
Unable to relocate the Basongora quickly to another area, the Ugandan government allowed them to settle temporarily at the edge of the 5,100-square-kilometer Queen Elizabeth Park, which borders Virunga.
But the Basongora soon began moving into the protected reserve, prompting hundreds of herdsmen from other parts of the country to do the same. About 40,000 cattle are now believed to grazing in a 300-square-kilometer area of the park.
Veterinarians say wild buffalos in the park are showing signs of foot-and-mouth, a highly contagious, and sometimes fatal, viral disease of domesticated cattle and pigs.
Queen Elizabeth National Park is Uganda's most popular safari destination, drawing as many as 45,000 visitors every year.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who has formed an inter-ministerial committee to deal with the crisis, is also under pressure to find a solution before November, when Britain's Queen Elizabeth is expected to visit the park named after her.
But a spokeswoman for Uganda's Wildlife Authority, Lilian Nsubuga, says the committee has made little progress so far.
"They have not come up with a concrete solution, only bits and pieces," she said. "They have not come out officially to say where they can relocate these people."
Nsubuga says she worries that a solution may come too late to save many of the park's wild animals. Experts estimate that the damage done in the past 16 months could take more than 20 years to reverse.