Our very own Charles Tumwesigye, the Chief Conservation Area Manager (CCAM) at UWA is the latest winner of the National Geographic Society Buffet award for leadership in conservation. He talked to us about the joy of scooping the coveted award, his protracted struggle for conservation causes and the trickle down impact of his efforts.
Q: Congratulations Charles upon winning the prestigious NGS Buffet award .How do you feel about the award?
A: Thank you. The national Geographic/Buffett Award is one of the great things that have happened in my life. I am very excited and I feel great about it.
Q:How did it feel on the awards night in Washington?
A: It was a very humbling experience for me and it is not easy to explain how it felt. When the NGS Program Officer for Research and Exploration read out the citation leading to my award, there was thunderous applause from the 200 plus audience that had filled the National Geographic Society Auditorium to capacity. After my acceptance speech, I received a standing ovation and the clapping lasted almost one minute, which was very humbling and a unique experience for me. I was lucky to have this big audience because immediately after the Buffett Awards, James Cameron the re-known film producer and actor was coming on the same stage to talk about the Deep Sea Challenger that he used to conquer the bottom of the sea resulting in him being awarded the best explorer of the year by NGS and many people had also come to see and meet James Cameron the Explorer of the Year. Just to remind you that James Cameron also produced the famous and award winning film "The Titanic".
Q: Tell us about the history of this award and what it takes to win one?
A: The annual National Geographic/Buffett Awards for Leadership in Conservation were established by the National Geographic Society and the Howard G Buffett Foundation in 2002 to recognize and reward unsung heroes working in the field of conservation. There are two awards presented each year to one person coming from the Africa region and the other coming from Latin America. The awardees are chosen from nominations submitted to the NGS Committee for Research and Exploration which screens them through a peer-review process. Therefore for one to win the award, he/she must be nominated. The call for nominations is usually posted on the National Geographic Society website around November with deadline in either January or February of each year. There is a nomination form that specifies the requirements and what should be provided. Anyone can nominate any person who must be working in the conservation field and the rest is done by the Research and Exploration Committee of the NGS. Since the awards started in 2002, the competition gets stiffer each year. I am told there were more than 100 nominations for this year and to be among the best two is something I am proud of.
Q: What message did you give to your benefactors in your acceptance messages?
A: First of all I was only asked to use not more than 90 seconds for my acceptance speech so I had to calculate what to say and what to leave out. In addition to a vote of thanks, I briefly talked about the challenges of conservation in developing countries and indicated that there are many people doing a good job in conservation but they are rarely noticed beyond their immediate supervisors, so for me to rise to this level of recognition was something to be proud of and it gives hope to many other people that will hear about it. I also invited everybody to visit Uganda after realizing that many have a dream of seeing mountain gorillas in the wild and assured them that Uganda hosts more than half the world population of mountain gorillas.
Q: How do the judges learn about your conservation efforts and your profile?
A: As I mentioned earlier, you have to be nominated and there are guidelines posted on the NGS website spelling out what should be included in the nomination. Of course one must have a very good profile that should convince the Research and Exploration Committee of ten prominent Scientists mainly from America and Europe. I am told the write ups are given to Committee Members to read and score just like it is done in exams. The best score of course wins. It is always very competitive and I can tell you that this was not the first time I was nominated. I had been nominated before but could not win it because of the competition.
Q: What does the award mean to you as an individual and to UWA in general?
A: The award is the best thing that has happened to me in my professional career. It adds on my CV and has increased my recognition in the scientific and conservation circles worldwide. I now qualify to become an Ambassador for any conservation campaign anywhere which makes me known and respected as a professional. For UWA, this is the second award of the kind and it shows how professional the institution is respected especially on the global scale. The award also helps to promote Uganda as a country practicing good conservation principles and we can use it to attract more tourists as it shows we doing the right things and are being recognized and applauded by the whole world. This is good for UWA and good for Uganda.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your conservation history and why you think you deserved the award?
A: My conservation history requires more space than you can provide here. It starts way back in Secondary School where I was the pioneer Chairman of a Wildlife Club at St. Kagwa Bushenyi High School. I started a project of planting trees and the trees we planted in 1989 have since become a forest that still exists at the school to date. When I started working with UWA as a pioneer Warden for Research & Monitoring, I helped resolve park boundary conflicts in QENP by surveying and marking all external boundaries of QENP. You will realize that the PAMSU project that helped to survey and mark most protected area boundaries did not do much in QENP because we had already done it. While I was a Chief Warden for Kibale Conservation Area, a researcher visited my office and asked me what he could help with to improve community-park relations, I told him that most of people living near the park are very poor and most times they rely on the park for almost everything including taking them to hospital when they fall sick. We then hatched a plan of starting a clinic that would provide free or cheap medical services to the communities and we use it to create awareness about conservation. This clinic that we started at Kanyawara in KNP has grown to become a recognized health centre in Kabarole District. It receives visiting Doctors and Interns from USA and Canada and we are now expanding the Program to create mobile clinics around Kibale through the efforts of this researcher and McGill University in Canada.
We have fundraised in Canada and US and a van to act as a mobile clinic that will be moving from village to village around KNP on scheduled days providing free medical care to communities has been donated. We shall use the same van for conservation education around Kibale. This project will be starting in August this year and if successful will be rolled over.
I have also been involved with Batwa projects around BMCA to ensure that the indigenous forest people do not lose their culture but use it to earn a living and improve their livelihoods. I have participated in trans-boundary conservation initiatives aimed at improving conservation effort across borders for trans-boundary resources. I have also been involved in conservation politics at the international level by advocating for stronger measures to protect our elephants from the illegal ivory trade during CITES meetings. All these and many others have contributed to my recognition resulting in this award.
Q: How regularly is the award given and is it defendable? Is possible to win it back to back?
A: The NG/Buffett Award for leadership in Conservation is annual. One can only win it once so it is not defendable. Since it is awarded based on one's achievements over time, one cannot win it back to back as there wouldn't be anything new and special that one has done in one year to justify the nomination for the second time. It is also important for as many people as possible to showcase their work and should therefore not be a monopoly of one person.
Q: How many other Africans before you or within your organization have won the global?
A: Every year since 2002, one African and since 2005 one person from Latin America win the NGS/Buffett Award. Last year Zacharie Tchoundjeu from Cameroon won the African slot. In 2011, Paula Kahumbu a conservationists from Kenya won the award while in 2010, our very own John Makombo from Uganda won the award.
Q:Who does the award target and who is it meant to inspire? Can anyone from any other profession other than Wildlife and Natural Sciences be eligible for the award?
A: The award targets strictly people working in the conservation field. But as you know, conservation is very broad. Even a journalist who writes conservation stories consistently qualifies for the award. It is meant to inspire people who work hard, contribute immensely to conservation sometimes putting their lives at risk but their passion and love for conservation does not recline even in the most difficult situation they may find themselves in.
Q:What message do you have for those aspiring to win a similar award?
A: There is hope at the end of the tunnel that hard work will always be recognized no matter what. However, I advise all my colleagues to ensure that they always write about their work so that it is known. Many people have impressive CVs but they are only used during interviews and nobody else knows about their work. Besides, one needs to interact with tourists, researchers, politicians, academicians and all people who matter. There must be someone to nominate you for you to win the award. You cannot nominate yourself. I encourage those aspiring for the award to make friends in all fields and share their work experiences. It worked for me.
Q:What challenges have you encountered in your conservation life and how have you surmounted
A: This requires more space. However, the biggest challenge I have faced in my conservation history is managing conflicts. Conflicts with communities, fellow staff, politicians name it. One needs to be sober to manage conflicts by acknowledging that there is a problem and the key to solving the problem lies with many stakeholders including the causers of the problem. This is how I have managed to get out of most conflict situations as a friend of everybody. The other key attribute I may share with you is that I am never proud and always humble. This has helped me make friends with everybody from the cleaner to the highest boss. The other challenges are job related but these in most cases have to do with inadequate resources and I wouldn't wish to dwell in them here.
Q: How do you see the future of conservation and where would you wish to see Uganda headed for in conservation values?
A: As the human population continues to grow as land area remains static, we should expect more pressures and this is not good for conservation. Uganda has very good policies and laws to support conservation but we all need to appreciate that conservation is for our benefit and for our future children and grand children. As long as this message is acknowledged by everybody including politicians, the future of conservation in Uganda can be guaranteed. We also need to strike a balance between development and conservation and not emphasize one over the other. Issues of equity are equally important. We need to provide incentives and benefits to people to support conservation. All talk without tangible benefits will not take conservation effort far.
Q:Is there any other message you would want to share with your partners, colleagues and stake holders in conservation ?
A: I want to thank colleagues, partners and stakeholders for helping me in my work since I joined the conservation world. I owe this award to you all and my organization (UWA) in particular. This is not for me but for UWA and for Uganda. Finally, I thank so much my family for being there for me and accepting to sometimes miss me for many days whenever I am away in the field. We should always conserve for the present and future generations. Thank you very much.
Thank you and congratulations once again.