Birding, Ecotourism, and Human Rights

Crested Crane

Crested Crane (Balearica regulorum gibbericeps) — Uganda’s national bird, which appears in the national flag. [Source: Wikimedia Commons]

Like it or not, birding is political. I’m not talking about the politics of your local birding clubs or the ABA or the AOU, but big-picture, global politics. As soon as we board a plane to go watch birds outside of our local haunts, we become part of a bigger community and a larger economy, and most of us take that pretty seriously.  When choosing local guide companies or accommodations, for example, most of us try and spend our money with the “good guys” — those who support local communities, local economies and local conservation efforts that ultimately serve our own interests in protecting native cultures and natural areas.

Recently, human rights issues related to the criminalization of homosexuality in Uganda and rise in violence against gays in Uganda, and related comments by a Ugandan birding tour company, have prompted me to do some thinking about these issues. In particular, surrounding the question:  Would I turn away opportunities to go birding in Uganda and other countries based on local human rights or environmental issues?  In short, my answer is largely yes. If you’re curious as to why, and perhaps what you can do to improve the situation in Uganda, keep reading…

As birders, we strive to visit places for the birds, but we often do it ways that lend support the communities we visit, and the natural areas they help protect.

So would you go birding somewhere where your visit had the opposite, negative effect?  Would you support efforts against your interests, just to see new birds and their habitats? How about taking it a step further: would you boycott a place to protest of actions that were negatively affecting local habitats or communities?

Like many of you, my answer to these questions is largely YES. I do think about who I’m indirectly supporting or not supporting when planning my birding trips and spending money on those trips. Sure, there are exceptions, like visiting areas to show certain locals that those areas have value. Or even visiting places I might otherwise protest if I new I could leverage my experiences to rally support for improving those situations. But while visiting the tropics, for example, I’d much prefer to avoid international resorts run by companies with deplorable environmental and human rights records and instead try and make sure my money stays in the local economy and doesn’t fuel activities that negatively impact local communities or natural areas. Likewise, there are certain parts of the world you would have to pay me a whole lot of money to visit, purely because I would have a hard time knowing that my visit would in some way support the  poor treatment of locals, some foreign visitors, or the unethical exploitation or destruction of local natural resources.

Sadly, Uganda is moving its way up on that list of places I might not want to visit.

I’ve met a number of people from Uganda, despite having never visited the region, and I can tell you that the Ugandan people are delightful. What tarnishes the countries reputation is a series of activity in recent years, partly fueled by anti-gay efforts from very conservative Christian American organizations in Uganda, that have culminated in the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2014 that became law in February of 2014, which criminalizes homosexuality making it punishable up to life in prison (the death sentence was taken off the table at the very last minute, thankfully).

The new (horrible) law in Uganda also includes penalties for individuals, companies and organizations that support LBGTQ rights.  This REALLY complicates things! Why? Because the new law makes it almost impossible for Ugandans to speak out against anti-gay legislation and misinformation. Businesses, including birding guides, aren’t exactly going to have rainbow flags up in front of their office buildings and on their websites, which means tourists likely won’t have the luxury of choosing where to spend their time and money.

Consider, for example, the following story.  A few weeks ago, a U.S. birder sent a message to Ugandan birding tour companies warning them that the new law will likely turn many birders away from visiting the country.  Heck, foreign governments are pulling their support from the country over the new law, why wouldn’t foreign individuals do the same?  Instead of those ecotourism business expressing concern about the law and it’s effects, which they might rightfully be weary of expressing, the only response for a while was silence.  Then, finally, the first response came back (from the Uganda Bird Guides Club), and it read:

“I guess there are more straight birders than GAY ones! We shall go with those.”

Anti-gay sentiments in the country are high, and as you might expect, widespread beliefs and sentiments about gays are based on a whole lot of fictitious bullshit and misinformation regarding gender and sexuality. In case your thinking it’s just the state that’s silencing pro-gay voices, members and supporters of the LGBTQ community face an even higher risk of physical and other attacks … 


“Members of Uganda’s gay community attend the funeral of David Kato, the gay rights activist murdered in 2011.” [Source]

This isn’t just about gay rights, it’s about protecting people from mob violence and insane abuses like “corrective rape” for lesbians.  Birding guides who don’t share the above sentiment aren’t exactly going to be advertising their pro-gay opinions to like-minded tourists! Those individuals live with very real fears about their words being construed by their compatriots as being (criminally) supportive of homosexuality… and for that they have more than just the legal system to worry about.

So should we birders visit Uganda to tour their beautiful country, despite it’s hateful laws? That’s a tough question, and the answer likely depends a lot on individual situations. Should the birding community boycott them entirely? Another tough call, since it isn’t clear how the negative effects of isolation compare to the economic impact of such a boycott.  As birders and ecotourists, we’re left with the implication that “the right thing to do” is not so clear cut.

But as people — who believe in the basic human right to love whomever you love, and that governments shouldn’t dictate sex lives — perhaps “the right thing to do” is much more clear. Whether or not you’re ever fortunate enough to visit Uganda’s huge diversity of habitats and wildlife, I hope you’ll still do what you can to make Uganda the kind of friendly and egalitarian country that also values and respects the huge diversity of people who live there and elsewhere in the world.

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