Without women and sex there has been no population growth on Musambwa Island since the 1960s. Instead, birds and snakes have grown in big numbers.
Found in Lake Victoria in Uganda, Musambwa is a tiny rocky island whose reputation for conservation is rooted in deep superstation, mythology and taboos. Sex and women are prohibited. And woe betide anybody who kills any creature.
The reward for this is that Musambwa Island is now recognized Ramzar site and as an Important Bird Area. ( IBA). More that, it is also known to be the largest breeding site for African birds- all because of superstition.
Musambwa Island supports large populations of congregatory breeding birds like the Grey- headed Gulls, Greater cormorant, Little Egret and the Long-tailed cormorant, among others.
The well-fed and lazy cobras on the island are happy and friendly to both man and birds. The birds make their nests on the rocks instead of in trees lay their eggs there thus making them easy pickings for the snakes that live in great harmony with fishermen.
Musambwa Island was first colonised by fishermen in the early 1960s when they started using it using it as a spring board to reach the deep waters of Lake Victoria. One of the first settlers is Emmanuel Kaberenge who came to live on the island as a young fisherman in 1964 and inherited strict rules and taboos from the four men he found there. He passed those rules on to subsequent fishermen. The first rule is prohibits women and sex on the Island. That kept the population small and minimised thefts.
The second rule prevents people from killing snakes as they are believed to be gods. Consequently, Musambwa is the only location on earth where people live with cobras of all sizes with mutual respect for one another. The snakes can be found in their shops. Sometimes the cobras share beds with fishermen. Even the birds, on whose eggs the serpents thrive do not fear them. It is not uncommon to see a bird picking parasites from a sun- bathing snake.
The third commandment, which has now collapsed due to dwindling fish stocks prohibited fishermen from eating or selling eggs of the thousands of birds that live and breed on the Island. Today, they have been sensitised by Nature Uganda to pick only one egg from each nest. Before Nature Uganda stepped in the situation was becoming grave.
According to the executive director of Nature Uganda, Achilles Byaruhanga, the population of Grey-headed Gulls on Musambwa dropped to 30,000 birds, from 120,000 in one year, between 2004 and 2005, due to commercialisation of their eggs. The eggs were increasingly attracting higher commercial value on the mainland, replacing fishing as the major income-generating activity at the island. But elderly Joseph Bagorogoza, a witch doctor of sorts thinks the taboos have been more effective in discouraging people from destroying nature than anything else. Bagorogoza is the diviner entrusted with appeasing the gods of the island believed to reside in the numerous cobras around. He is in charge of a shrine under a fig tree. The ‘holy place’ consists of two spears and a calabash. People with spiritual needs drop money under the spears as they pray to the gods. Bagorogoza also keeps white cocks for the gods and only eats them when they grow old. His other work is to tell people not to kill snakes, birds and not to eat the birds’ eggs. He blames newcomers and overfishing for the breakdown of Musambwa Islands cultural norms which initially bonded men and nature together. However, with Nature Uganda intervention, the bird population has since increased. What has not improve though is the sanitation.
Overall, half of all bird species in Africa can be found in Uganda, making it the richest African birding destination. Uganda was recently listed among the 52 countries to visit in 2020 by the New York Times and was dubbed ” Birder’s Paradise.” The country has over 1,000 bird species; accounting for about 50% of birds in Africa and 11% of the global population. Internationally, Musambwa Islands is known to be largest breeding site for the African race of the Grey-headed Gulls in Africa.