Uganda hopes hippos will draw tourists back to vacant game parks

Uganda dreams that its rhinos, elephants, and hippos will lure camera-toting tourists back to its game parks - once known as the best in East Africa. The former game-lovers' paradise saw few tourists in the years of Idi Amin's rule. And the animal population was ravaged, both by Amin soldiers slaughtering game for food and by poachers hunting elephants for their ivory tusks, often with machine guns.

With the help of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the European Community, President Milton Obote has set out to rebuild the huge parks , including the famed Ruwenzori (formerly Queen Elizabeth), Kidepo, and Kabalega (Murchison's Falls).

Several hundred rangers and wardens have been put to work, many on anti-poacher patrols. The game lodges for tourists will be repaired.

There is gloom about the rhino population, which is on the verge of destruction, and the elephant population dropped from 20,000 in 1971 to about 1, 550 today, according to a UNDP survey. But recovery of the parks almost to 1971 conditions is ''possible,'' states a recent UNDP report.

Ugandans know that reviving tourism is one of the best ways to increase their country's intake of foreign exchange. They are aware that tourism is Kenya's biggest industry after coffee and tea.

In the days of the East African Community, which linked Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya, tourists could combine safaris in all three countries: visiting Tanzania's fabulous Serengeti, the parks of Uganda, and the famous Kenya game parks, with a pleasant finish at the Kenyan coast. Kenyans are hoping they can move back into this sort of safari trade.

Poaching is still a severe problem, however. Ivory fetches more than $30 a half kilo on the black market, and hippo meat is a popular entry on the Uganda menu.

Other obstacles on the road to restoring the parks are severe gasoline shortages and scarcity of spare parts for ranger vehicles.

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