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Ecotourism ended the traditional lives of Uganda's Batwa Pygmies

Tony Schwartz | Uganda

Organization: Tony Schwartz Photography

Mother Love, Mubare Group, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, December 7, 2017

In Africa, efforts to protect endangered animals often negatively impact indigenous people. In 1992, the Batwa Pygmies were evicted from the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, where they had lived for thousands of years, when it was designated as a World Heritage Site and national park. This was done to protect endangered mountain gorillas, and the increasingly popular and income-generating gorilla ecotourism industry. Many of the Batwa now live in Buhoma, the village in which a park entrance is located. The Ugandan government has provided them with no reparation, jobs, housing assistance, or income associated with ecotourism.

It is not our intention to imply that ecotourism, is not appropriate or necessary. It provides rangers to help prevent poaching, some veterinary support and a system that helps protect the gorillas. Indeed, it is critical to the gorillas’ survival. Ecotourism also brings tourist-derived money to Buhoma, the village at the entrance to the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. This is a complicated and difficult story because of these facts.

In Africa, efforts to protect endangered animals frequently have negatively impacted people living traditional lifestyles. Batwa Pygmies resided for millennia in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest of southwestern Uganda. In1992, the government evicted them, to protect “Critically Endangered” mountain gorillas, and gorilla ecotourism; the forest had been designated a World Heritage Site and national park.

I met the Batwa in 2006. They were said to be happy with their lives, but this was belied by their demeanor and living circumstances. I returned, in December 2017, to interview and photograph them. They told ancient stories, described and demonstrated their former forest life, and discussed their current status.

Since eviction, the number of mountain gorillas has increased, so their current designation is“Endangered.” However, the Ugandan government provided the Batwa no reparation, jobs, housing assistance, or income from ecotourism. By 8 years after eviction, 38% of Batwa children died before age 5, translating to a life expectancy of 28 years. Their annual mean income was $25. Although their situation has improved somewhat since 1992, they still are “ultra-poor,” living on less than $0.80 per day.


Musinguzi Amos, BS (Nursing), Buhoma, Uganda

Canon Scott Kellermann, MD, MPH&TM, Buhoma, Uganda


Eric L. Schwartz, Los Angeles, California, USA

Musinguzi Denis, Buhoma, Uganda

The images I acquire are diverse in subject matter and place acquired. Exotic locations stimulate my creative photographic juices and, being a veterinarian, I have a natural proclivity for photographing wildlife and nature. The human face also fascinates me, and I very much enjoy making on-site portraits. Thus, travel and a love of photographing people have led me to focus on portraying differences and similarities among ways of life, and individuals from diverse cultures and environments.

Faces express the soul and are captivating, especially those of aged people and children. I strive to record images in which, when possible, the personality of the subject, be it a non-human or human animal, and their story, come through. In work with models, it became clear to me that one of my major interests is to acquire portraits that resonate with personal stories told by the subjects.

The current work is my first formal entry into photojournalism. I have attempted to utilize my approach to fine art photographic portraiture, while associating personal stories with the images, as I dealt with a common conflict in Africa: between protecting endangered animal species and the impact this has had on people, often leading traditional lives, who reside in the same area as the animals.

I had seen this issue up close during a trip to Tanzania in 2009, where I interacted with members of the Maasai tribe. But not until the current project, involving the impact on diminutive people of the forest of protecting critically endangered mountain gorillas, have my photographic, veterinary and storytelling interests come together.

In 2006, my wife Claudia and I travelled to southwest Uganda, to trek to see mountain gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (a World Heritage Site). While in the nearby village of Buhoma, we met co-author Musinguzi Amos, then 16 years old. We also met some Batwa Pygmies. The forest also had been the home of the hunter-gatherer Batwa for millennia, until the Ugandan government forcibly evicted them in 1992, to protect the gorillas and ecotourism. At that time, our tour leader stated that the Batwa were happy to now be living outside the forest, but this was belied by their demeanor and living circumstances.

We visited Uganda again in December 2017. There, we attended the graduation of Amos, with a BS in Nursing from the International Health Sciences University, in Kampala. From there we traveled to Buhoma, where I had arranged to interview and photograph the Batwa. I believe that presenting individual stories, rather than a summary of them, creates a fabric that most poignantly narrates the story of a people.

The elder Batwa speak no English, so the conversations I had with them required translation by one of the co-authors, Musinguzi Amos, and our guide Busingye Levi. Some of the interviews were recorded via video, and notes were taken during all of them. While in Buhoma I met co-author Canon Dr. Scott Kellermann, who has resided in Buhoma since 2001. Realizing the potential for loss of knowledge of the Batwa's former way of life, several years ago he purchased a site in the forest adjacent to the national park, for the Batwa to teach their children how they had lived, and to gain some income from visiting tourists. At this site, via a demonstration of their previous ways of life called "The Batwa Experience," they demonstrated the types of huts in which they had lived, how they had hunted, and their relationship with their god, “Nyabingi.”

Despite nearly a 100% illiteracy rate among the adults, the Batwa have a rich oral tradition, so many of their stories and legends have been passed down for countless generations. During my interviews, the Batwa told both ancient and more recent stories from their culture and spoke of their former independent and happy lives in the forest. Further, they were open in their discussion of their current, difficult existence, as they continue to integrate into the larger, “Bakiga,” community in Buhoma. Many of the portraits in this this article were made as the Batwa told their stories.

Since the eviction, the Ugandan government has not provided the Batwa with reparation, jobs, housing assistance, or income derived from ecotourism. Initial studies in 2000 by Scott Kellerman found that 8 years after their eviction, 38% of the Batwa children died before their fifth birthday, translating to a life expectancy of 28 years, and that they had an annual mean income of $25. At present, though there has been some improvement in their lot, the Batwa still are identified as “ultra-poor,” with an average income of $.80 per day.

It is not our intention to imply that ecotourism is not appropriate or necessary. Indeed, it is critical to the gorillas’ survival, because the influx of money associated with it provides rangers who help prevent poaching, the above-mentioned veterinary support and, in general, a system that helps protect the gorillas and their habitat. Ecotourism also brings tourist-derived money to the government of Uganda, as well as to the larger community, made up of the Bakiga/Bafumbira ethnic group, the Bantu majority of the community in Buhoma. Without providing such support for the nearby community, such programs usually are not successful; the cooperation of the local population is critical.

Until very recently, mountain gorillas were listed as “Critically Endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Because of efforts at conservation, associated with income from ecotourism, the number rose from under 300 in the 1980's, to 680 in 2008, and by September 2016, to 880. In November 2018, the IUCN estimated that there were over 1,000 gorillas in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, so they changed the classification of mountain gorillas from Critically Endangered to Endangered. The other subspecies of the eastern gorilla, Grauer’s gorilla, is still listed as Critically Endangered, as are both subspecies of western gorilla (cross river and western lowland gorillas).

Given human behavior, I cannot suggest a template for preventing such abuse of the powerless. But I refer the reader to a 1997 book by David Western “In the Dust of Kilimanjaro,” which deals with the Amboseli National Park in Kenya. Western realized that without an integrated approach to conservation that involves both animals and nearby people, the animals would be lost forever. He concluded that continued coexistence, rather than segregation, offers the best hope for the world’s wildlife (Western,1997).

The approach should not be solely pragmatic, however. Quite simply, morally and ethically, the people to be affected by wildlife conservation efforts must be considered and protected at least as well as are the involved non-human animals.

Hallet, J.-P., & Pelle, A. (1973). Pygmy Kitabu. New York: Random House.

Hickey, J.R., Basabose, A., Gilardi, K.V., Greer, D., Nampindo, S., Robbins, M.M. & Stoinski, T.S. 2018. Gorilla beringei ssp. beringei. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: www.iucnredlist.org/species/39999/17989719

Lewis, J. (2000). The Batwa Pygmies of the Great Lakes Region. London, United Kingdom: Minority Rights Group International. www.minorityrights.org/wp-content/uploads/old-site-downloads/download-150-Batwa-Pygmies-of-the-Great-Lakes-Region.pdf

Schwartz, T., Musinguzi, A., and Kellermann, S. (2019). Stories of the Batwa Pygmies of Buhoma, Uganda.Mountain Gorilla Protection and Ecotourism Ended the Traditional Lives of AncientForest-Dwelling Hunter/Gatherers. BookBaby, In Press (Contact Tony Schwartz).

UNPO.org. (2016). Batwa: The History and Culture of a Marginalized People in Central Africa. The Hague, The Netherlands: Unrepresented Nations & Peoples Organization - www.unpo.org/article/19031

Werikhe, L. M. (1998), et al. CAN THE MOUNTAIN GORILLA SURVIVE? Population and Habitat Viability Assessment for Gorilla gorilla beringei. Apple Valley, MN, USA: IUCN/SSC Conservation Breeding Specialist Group:  portals.iucn.org/library/node/7668

Western, D. (1997). In the Dust of Kilimanjaro. Washington, DC: Island Press/Shearwater Books.

Dr. Kellerman: The Kellerman Foundation:


Email: tony@tonyschwartzphoto.com ; tonyvet@comcast.net


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