Uganda Wildlife Conservation Education Center (UWEC), a 68-year-old animal sanctuary located 40 km south of capital Kampala, welcomed some new friends from the cat family — two Bengal tigers — on Wednesday.
“It is a new normal where we need to think outside the box. How do we remain afloat is a growing concern,” said James Musinguzi, executive director of the UWEC, noting that introducing the tigers into the sanctuary has been one of the innovations to widen the product range and drive up tourism revenue after the grave effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Uganda has so far registered 18,890 COVID-19 cases and 191 deaths, the country’s health ministry said Wednesday.
Following the shutdown of inbound and cross-border travels amid the pandemic, which broke out in the East African country on March 21, the sanctuary had to resort to handouts for quite some time in order to feed the animals and run the facility, Musinguzi said.
“COVID-19 affected us in every aspect of our daily operations. Having to operate yet not getting income is attributed to the generosity of individuals and companies,” he said.
According to Musinguzi, the sanctuary has received not only funding from the government, but also a total of 137 million shillings (37,534 U.S. dollars) from various individuals and companies, whose money has been used to feed over 253 animals, including cats, birds and reptiles.
Still, the sanctuary has lost 2.5 billion shillings (684,931 dollars) from March to June with lockdown restrictions in place, and another 2 billion shillings (547,945 dollars) starting from June, even as the country has since eased such restrictions.
Although the African country is now open for tourism, new restrictive measures introduced in Uganda’s tourist source countries, especially those in Europe, have further complicated an already hard situation, Musinguzi said, adding that is why the sanctuary had to come up with such innovative ideas as introducing Bengal tigers, among others, to raise revenue.
“If visitors are not coming from outside, let’s take advantage of the resources inside Uganda and promote domestic tourism together,” he said.
Bengal tigers, native to the Indian subcontinent, can resonate with the Indian community, Musinguzi noted, adding he is optimistic that many tourists from Asia, especially India, will visit the sanctuary to see the tigers.
The UWEC has also resumed its behind-the-scenes program to attract more tourists to interact with and feed the animals.
“We are going to be selling specific behind-the-scenes packages, for example, giraffe feeding, chimpanzee feeding, rhino walk,” Musinguzi said, adding that human interaction with the chimpanzees is still on hold because of the high risk of transmitting COVID-19 to the primates.
Besides, the sanctuary has put in place a strict COVID-19 protocol, making social distancing, wearing face masks, hand sanitizing and taking temperature a mandatory requirement.
“We have robust standard operating procedures in place. This will boost the confidence of tourists that they will be safe,” Musinguzi said.