Fascinated by nature: How snakes left permanent impression on future conservationist

Although a proud owner of a Masters of Science in Conservation and Tourism from the University of Kent, in England, Davidson Mugisha is what you would call a self-made man.
Davidson Mugisha at his office in Kimironko.
Davidson Mugisha at his office in Kimironko.

Although a proud owner of a Masters of Science in Conservation and Tourism from the University of Kent, in England, Davidson Mugisha is what you would call a self-made man. 

Mugisha started out in his passion as a part-time tour guide while still in his A-Levels, in Uganda. It was a move that was inspired by both passion and necessity in almost equal measure:

On the one hand, he was deeply fascinated by wildlife, yet still, there was also the need to survive –to put food on the table and also pay for his school.

Today, he is the founder and owner of Wildlife Tours Rwanda, one of the eminent local Tour and Travel companies based in Kigali, and he looks back at the early days with pride. He launched the company in November 2007.

Mugisha’s earliest association with animals in the wild dates back to his early childhood, when he would visit his grandparents in the Gahunge Refugee Settlement in Toro, mid-Western Uganda.

“Whenever I went there for holidays, I used to go to the bushes with my cousin, and we saw a lot of wildlife,” Mugisha says: “I remember seeing a lot of antelopes and snakes. There were also reported cases of leopards at night, although I never got to see them.”

Snakes left a lasting impression on him.

“My grandfather never used to get scared of or kill snakes, and this made me curious. I wanted to find out for myself if snakes were really as dangerous as we thought.”

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Mugisha introduces tourists to residents in Mbyo Reconciliation Village, in Bugesera.

One of his grandfather’s hunting dogs, Simba also got him curious always:

“We had three hunting dogs, one of which was called Simba. Simba always amazed me whenever we took him out hunting. He could catch wild rabbits or antelopes, but could not kill them until it had been ordered to do so.

That is something that fascinated me a lot about wild animals.”

As his interest in wildlife grew stronger, the young man embarked on watching as many wildlife videos and documentaries as he could lay his hands on.

“In fact”, he says proudly, “that is how I ended up as a backup guide with one of the Tour and Travel companies in Uganda before becoming a full driver guide”.

Started as a part-time job

Mugisha started guiding in 1995, on part-time basis while in his A-Level vacation. When he joined Makerere University Business School (MUBS) to study Business Administration, he continued in his guiding work, as a way of generating income for his studies. If anything, it was more appealing than the course he was pursuing at university:

“I had wanted to do business statistics at university, but I did not attain the required points, so I settled for business administration.

At school, every student feared statistics, which for me was a reason to do it because I like challenging things. I also knew that it offered more job opportunities since few people studied it.”

So much as he was studying Business Administration, his main practical work was guiding. “I studied 50 per cent of the time, and the other 50 per cent I devoted to looking for money for my education.”

When the money from the guiding work started to trickle in, the young man developed ideas:

“I used part of the proceeds from my guiding work to set up three barber shops –one in Ntinda, another in Wandegeya, and the third one in Mengo, all in Kampala.”

Whenever he didn’t have guiding trips he would monitor his salons, occasionally stepping in himself to do the salon work. He had to survive.

“I learnt salon work from friends, and up to today, I do not go to salons. I prefer to do my own hair.”

The salon business came in handy to supplement his income from guiding, because he needed every penny he could get. His father had died in 1993, while he was in his O-Level, and as the oldest child, he had been forced to step in as a father figure, his mother being just a housewife with no income. When she too passed away in 2013, he assumed the role of father and mother to his siblings.

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Mugisha (R) looks up a rare bird during a birding expedition in Bugesera.

Some of the first tourist attractions that he visited are; Queen Elizabeth, Lake Mburo, and Mgahinga national parks, all in Uganda.

“During school time I would help in organising logistics, and things like city tours on weekends, but come holidays, I was always fully booked,” he says, adding that:

“I was learning pretty much everything on the job, but because I was passionate, I think I did it better than those who did it for pay. I believe that by doing what you are passionate about, and delivering a good service, the money will automatically follow you. I am obsessed with research and observation. I am a very curious person who likes to find out about things. That helped me become a quick learner, and my bosses always threw me challenges which I gladly took up.”

Coming to Rwanda

Mugisha journeyed into the local tourism industry in 2000, when he was appointed assistant chief warden in charge of tourism and administration at the Volcanoes National Park.

“This was my first job with the government of Rwanda in conservation and tourism. I got the job after doing an interview with the former ORTPN,” he explains.

Part of his brief was to monitor standards of tourism products and ensure their appropriate maintenance on a regular basis, deploy and manage field guides so that they effectively guide tourists through the park, ensure efficient reception and reservation services to visitors, effective dissemination of information to visitors, and monitoring the quality of services provided by tourism stake holders in and around the park, among others.

“I had just finished university, but with rich guiding experience.”

In 2004 he was transferred to the Akagera National Park, where he held the same position, with same tasks and responsibilities. However in addition he was supervising anti-poaching patrols to eliminate threats to wildlife resources and people. He instilled and ensured discipline of patrol rangers through proper supervision.

“I also liaised with informers on information related to poaching, and any other illegal activities, and developed an anti-poaching database.”

Mugisha has had the opportunity to work on many tourism and conservation projects. He is the president of the Rwanda Birding Association, and has been a Vice President of the Rwanda Tours and Travel Association (RTTA), for which he is currently in charge of advocacy.

He was involved in the creation of the East African Tourism Platform, on the Rwandan side.

In 2009, he was nominated among the top 20 young achievers in the country by the Imbuto Foundation, “because of my tourism work which helps in community development and improving livelihoods.”

“We attain this by using the approach of pro-poor tourism, where people with no education and capital benefit from tourism by just showcasing their local lifestyles, traditional knowledge and skills, in what we refer to as community-based tourism. Our slogan actually is: “One person’s lifestyle is another one’s adventure”.

By this, Mugisha is talking of alternative, community-based tour packages like the ethno-botany tours in Musanze, the pastoralists’ village in Gatsibo, religious tours, imigingo, banana and sorghum beer production experience, coffee and tea tours, volunteer tourism, and snake-hunting expeditions.

“We try to use these products to revive and maintain our lost culture for educational purposes.”

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