Interview: Michael Keigwin

 

British-born Michael Keigwin’s family’s association with East Africa dates back to the early part of the 20th century, when his mother’s family farmed in Kenya. The family left Kenya in the 1960s, but one brother remained and like other farmers and ex-Kenya Regiment soldiers became a Game Warden: in his case, in Murchison Falls National Park. Around 40 years later, Keigwin, torn between continuing with the Royal Marines or joining the family regiment, the Irish Guards, decided a spell in a fresh country would crystallize his decision. He joined a voluntary programme in Uganda and like others who come to Uganda, decided to stay!

He became intrigued by the challenges facing the newly formed Uganda Wildlife Authority. So, with the support of experts such as Dr Eve Abe, Uganda’s leading elephant expert, Keigwin created the Elephants, Crops and People project in Ishasha, Queen Elizabeth (QE) National Park. This project worked closely with UWA and local communities and resulted in reducing Africa’s most intensive elephant crop-raiding by 90%, leading to a large reduction in poaching pressures. Part of Keigwin’s role was to understand the status of elephants in southern QECA and their movements across the DRC border into Virunga National Park.

He concluded the elephants were recovering well in the comparative safety of southern QE, and two large aggregations of elephants that used both QE and Virunga, were spending most of their time in Uganda, avoiding the then aggressive rebel activity and poaching in Virunga. However, the paucity of funding and support reaching critical areas in Uganda concerned Keigwin; so, with the support of family and friends he started another project: the Uganda Conservation Foundation, a registered charity in the UK, and Not for Profit in Uganda.

He says, “Often people have wonderful ideas, but no idea how to attract and manage funds, resulting in much needed projects never happening and the opportunity and impact never being realised.”According to Keigwin, “Uganda was not a popular place to fund, and for good reason. It took a long time to unblock that and build the necessary confidence and networks.” In recognition of Keigwin’s efforts he was awarded a Fellowship of the Royal Geographical Society. Today, UCF continues to be an umbrella platform for projects, attracting support and providing services, enabling critical and interesting projects to happen.

Returning to the UK in 2006 he studied for an MBA at Durham University; he joined Deloitte as a strategy consultant, which included working on the London Olympics.Whilst with Deloitte, Keigwin spent evenings and weekends trying to fundraise for UCF and UWA, at a time when the global recession coincided with rapidly increasing poaching pressures across Africa, including Murchison Falls.In 2012, at the request of two close UWA friends, Tom Okello and Charles Tumwesigye, Keigwin resigned from Deloitte and returned to Uganda to help UWA re-gain control of Murchison Falls from poachers, and then recover it for the long term.

Keigwin says, “Murchison Falls was Africa’s most visited park in the 1960s, with the most elephants per square kilometer in Africa. It needed protecting – and today, partly through the services of UCF, UWA has been able to build 11 new ranger posts, develop a Vet Lab and Response Unit, a Marine Ranger Unit and UWA employed and trained a new generation of rangers – and the park is recovering really well.’ Since the start of UCF, important and interesting projects have happened including Keigwin supporting the DNA analysis of ivory in the region, researching the hybridization of forest and savanna elephants, and recently helping Dr Andrew Lemieux to evolve a pilot project in Uganda which has become the internationally recognised wildlife law enforcement and prosecution programme it is today.
Apart from Keigwin’s activities concerning wildlife conservation and his businesses, he has contributed to Ugandan Rugby.

“I played a lot of rugby, and loved it. After coming to Uganda, I played for the Impis and Heathens, and coached the National 15s and 7s teams. Rugby provides wonderful rivalries on the pitch, and fantastic friends off the pitch. Watching the juniors at Kyadondo Rugby Club become national heroes is fabulous. I can’t wait to watch Uganda’s 15s take on Namibia, Zimbabwe and Kenya in June, and in November, the 7s team defend their Africa Nations Cup title in Uganda!” he says.

Keigwin is married to Dr Veronica Wabukawo, an accomplished sports lady herself, who captained Uganda’s team at the Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Games. They are expecting their first child in June. Keigwin concludes that the most annoying word in Uganda is ‘potential’. “With good leadership and resources so much is possible. I love seeing things develop and strive to leave a legacy for the future generations.” In 2017, the Queen recognised Keigwin in the New Year’s Honours List, awarding him an MBE, Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.