Fighting poaching and the illegal trafficking of Pangolins in Uganda

Fighting poaching and the illegal trafficking of Pangolins in Uganda

There were 44 cases involving seizures of pangolin products in a 3-year period, with an increase in pangolin scales trafficking

By Benjamin Jumbe

Uganda is a country greatly endowed with wildlife, flora, and fauna, however, its diversity in wildlife is threatened by both poaching and wildlife trade.

Key among the most targeted species are the pangolins because of their scales.

Pangolins are insect-eating mammals covered in overlapping scales. Their name comes from ‘penggulung,’ the Malay word for roller.

According to Traffic, a wildlife trade monitoring NGO, pangolins have been heavily targeted for poaching and trafficking in Uganda. 

The organization’s data indicates that between 2012 and 2016, over 1,400 pangolins were seized. 

Rebecca Sandoval, a conservationist and the cofounder of the nonprofit organization the Biodiversity Alliance, says indeed pangolins are the most trafficked mammals in the world and are listed on the IUCN’s red list of threatened species.

“Sadly it is true; pangolins are still the most trafficked mammals in the world. Lately there have been wildlife seizures in the world and when you compare, there seems to be a shift with more pangolin scales and other pangolin parts than ivory,”

Rebecca Sandoval, cofounder Biodiversity Alliance
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Rebecca Sandoval, the cofounder of Biodiversity Alliance 

In 2019, the Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) conducted a law enforcement operation targeting a Vietnamese wildlife trafficking network and seized 3.2 tonnes of elephant ivory and 423 kilograms of pangolin scales with an estimated value of USD $2.3 million and $1.2 million, respectively. Customs officials at the Elegu Uganda – South Sudan border crossing discovered and impounded the consignment in three containers concealed in logs of wood and wax in transit from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Asia.

Prosecuted cases involving seizures of pangolin scales increased from 7 cases in FY 2018-2019 to 8 cases in 2019-2020 to 10 cases in 2020-2021, according to Uganda Wildlife Authority prosecution reports tracked on the #WildEye map.

Several reasons have been advanced for the increased interest in trafficking this special unique mammal and its products, including its profitability by the time it gets to the Asian market and the belief that the scales have medicinal powers to heal several diseases.

“If you have lactation problems if you are a woman, it is believed that it helps you. Those dealing in the trafficking of the pangolins believe it has medicinal powers for other types of diseases, and other parts of the pangolin are used for jewelry,” Sandoval said.

According to the #WildEye East Africa data map by InfoNile and Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism, two male adults in the names of Bosco Mukasa (34) and Simon Kyakwahuwre were arrested in Kibaale, western Uganda on 6th July 2020 with one live pangolin after a tip-off from local residents that they deal in pangolins.

The duo was charged with unlawful possession of protected species contrary to Section 36 (1) and 71 (1) (b) of the Uganda Wildlife Act, 2019. 

In another case on the 28th of May 2021, the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) arrested four people on allegations of wildlife trafficking and poaching with three live pangolins around Kachumbala Sub County in Bukedea district in the east.

Fred Kiiza, the Chief Warden of Mt. Elgon National Park, said the suspects had been arrested around the market in Kachumbala in Bukedea as they took the pangolins to a businessman who was by then yet to be arrested. 

“So far we have arrested four suspects, and three pangolins rescued,” Kiiza said.

“I call on local communities especially in the Teso sub-region to desist from this sale of the pangolins,” he added.

In one of the latest cases in March 2022, police in Amuru District, northern Uganda rescued two pangolins and arrested a dealer who was found in a place called Pabo.

One of the pangolins, however, was injured from being ensnared, and was delivered to the national wildlife hospital and quarantined at Uganda Wildlife Conservation Education Centre (UWEC), Entebbe, where it has been receiving treatment.

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Dr. Victor Musiime (C), the Zoo veterinary Officer at UWEC, and other staff attending to the injured Pangolin at the wildlife Hospital.

“Upon examination, we found snare wounds on the right hind limb and the snare wounds have been treated,” said Dr. Victor Musiime, the zoo veterinary officer at UWEC. “We can now see a very good prognosis of the case, and very soon after treatment and rehabilitation, we shall consider releasing the pangolin back to the wild,” Dr. Musiime said.

Dr. Mbabazi Racheal, manager of the Animal and Horticulture Department at UWEC, said pangolins are part of the country’s wildlife, and as such must be conserved and protected.

“Every wildlife plays a role in the ecosystem; they are not just there. Pangolins help us eat some insects, control the population, and of course, people come from all over the world to see these animals which fetch money for the country, and so we should preserve wildlife,” Dr. Mbabazi said.

International crime networks threatening the endangered species

Vincent Opyene, the CEO of Natural Resources Conservation Agency, an NGO partnering with the Uganda Wildlife Authority to combat wildlife crime, said the problem of trade in pangolins is increasing worldwide, including in Uganda.

“The problem of illegal trade in pangolins and pangolin scales is increasing every day and if not controlled and managed, can easily lead to the extinction of the specific species that are traded in,” Opyene cautioned.

There are eight species of pangolins in the world, with four found in Asia and four in Africa.

Uganda has three out of the four pangolin species found in Africa, namely Ground Pangolin, Giant Pangolin, and the White Bellied Pangolin, which is also known as the Tree Climbing Pangolin.

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CEO Natural Resources Conservation Network(NRCN), Vincent Opyene

Opyene says all these three species have been targeted in Uganda, with dealers and local poachers involved in the business with the hope of making money.

“They are killing this species and taking away the scale in the hope that they are going to get market and will definitely trade and sell it,” Opyene said.

“Every time we arrest poachers who are involved in this they keep telling us it will go for about $150 per kilo, and yet I haven’t come across anyone willing to buy pangolin scales at that amount; it is just a myth they keep believing that that market is there,” he added.

Currently across the world, there is no legal market for internationally traded pangolin scales and meat because of an existing ban on any commercial trade in the same.

Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa for the seventeenth Conference of the Parties (CoP17) in 2016 voted to ban the international commercial trade of all eight species of pangolin.

This saw all eight species of pangolin listed under CITES Appendix I, which represents the highest level of protection available under international law. 

In December 2021, the NRCN together with UWA conducted an operation in which 900 kilograms of pangolin scales, 200 kilograms of ivory, and other species items were recovered in a facility in Nakirama Village in Nsangi, Wakiso district.

Two suspects were arrested and taken to the Central Police Station including Gasama Sikhou,, a 59 -year-old Senegalese national, and his accomplice, Suleiman Katende, a guard.

“The state attorney has given us directives on what to do for the file to be sanctioned, so we are filling in the gaps to take back the file for sanctioning,” Opyene added.

Since 2013, the Natural Resources Conservation Network has assisted in prosecuting more than 5,000 criminals, and their investigations have led to the arrest of more than 8,000 criminals.

The findings and conclusions from the Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC)’s Intelligence Development Unit point to organised crime networks operating on an industrial scale that are putting an entire species at risk.

According to the commission, between 2016 and 2019, an estimated 206.4 tonnes of pangolin scales were intercepted and confiscated globally from 52 seizures. 

The WJC believes this is only a fraction of the total being trafficked, as it is likely that a significant proportion of smuggling is not detected.

The organisation’s analysis of the seizure data over the four-year period further shows an increase in trafficking at unprecedented levels with nearly two-thirds of the tonnage seized – 132.1 tonnes – detected between 2018 and 2019. 

It further noted that in 2019, the average weight of a single pangolin scale shipment was 6.2 tonnes, compared with 2.2 tonnes three years earlier.

Poaching of pangolins is mostly taking place in areas around protected areas like Murchison Falls National Park.

Former poachers provide caution

In Nwoya district, which borders Murchison Falls National Park, the Daily Monitor and InfoNile engaged two former poachers to establish what prompted them into the business.

Tales of a Former Poacher; Fighting the illegal trafficking of Pangolins in Uganda

One who preferred anonymity for his personal protection said he started poaching in 2009 because he was looking for school fees.

“During all those years I have been in poaching, I was arrested about 5 times where I was taken to even Masindi; I was convicted for three months in Isima prison, others in Gulu, Logore prison,” he said.

He said by the time he went back home in 2019 after serving his last sentence, he decided to stop poaching, looking at all the money he had lost in securing his freedom.

“I stopped poaching in 2019 because I had lost a lot of land because whenever I was arrested, they would sell a piece of land to get me out, and secondly, some people were even killed,”

Former poacher

He also said they never got to meet the people who come from abroad to buy the pangolin but would always deal with their collaborators on the ground who would instruct them on what to get.

He says he trapped around five pangolins but did not gain from them as he expected. Instead, he almost lost his life due to the risks, and that is why he decided to eventually quit the trade and now is calling on his colleagues still in the business to drop it for their own safety and the good of the wildlife.

Another ex-poacher, 57-year-old Charles Oryem, a resident of Olwiyo trading centre in Patira east village, Parungo sub-county, who started poaching in 2012, said he also had to abandon the practice in 2016 after several arrests and loss of money.

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Charles Oryem, a former poacher in Nwoya district

Oryem’s turning point was when he was shot by UWA rangers when he was found in the park in 2016 and was severely injured.

He said he was only helped by an NGO that was supporting Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) war victims after he registered as one of them.

“They spent 25 million shillings on my treatment,” he said.

Oryem calls on the Uganda Wildlife Authority to target groups in communities around the park and reformed poachers to get a better way of survival.

“This will help save many animals from dying,” he said.

Like it is said that one has to set a thief to catch a thief, he says Uganda Wildlife Authority needs to engage the ex-poachers to help in ending the vice by reaching out to their former colleagues still in the business.

“Uganda Wildlife Authority should come on the ground and talk to us former poachers and we give them advice on what to do to stop poaching,”

Charles Oryem, a former poacher in Nwoya district

“Even if UWA comes to a community and talks to us the hunters, we cannot listen; however a hunter talking to another will be in a better position to convince others to stop hunting,” he said.

Oryem says it is critical that UWA gets the message from the hunters themselves because when some leaders attempt to talk to them, they have no moral authority and integrity because some of them are involved in eating game meat.

“For example when I was arrested, the meat they got us with; it was the LC3 who took it. Now if the leaders are also involved in getting the game meat, then later come to talk to us to stop poaching, we don’t now consider them as trustworthy people, but will believe our own colleagues that they are telling the truth; that is the way we will stop poaching,” he advised.

Legal interventions increasing, though corruption still a challenge

Rebecca Sandoval, the pangolin conservation project lead, said there is still a need to sensitize the public about the new wildlife law in place, arguing that many do not seem to appreciate the importance of conserving wildlife and the heavy penalties in the law. The highest penalty in the new wildlife act 2019 is a maximum fine of Shs20 billion or life imprisonment, or both for an offense related to a wildlife species classified as extinct in the wild, critically endangered.

“I think we need more education; more awareness of how these animals benefit communities, tourism, conservation, and I think we need more awareness on the wildlife law. People need to understand that there is a wildlife law and huge consequences if you are caught,” Sandoval said.

She added that illegal wildlife trade being transnational, there is a need to do more to disrupt the trafficking network.

“We need a network to fight the criminal network. More collaboration and sharing information with the public is needed on the importance of pangolins and the need to protect them,” she said.

However, the penalties in the prosecution cases involving pangolins by the Uganda Wildlife Authority from the fiscal year 2018/2019 to 2020/2021 are generally much more lenient. 

Penalties in the 44 cases involving pangolins generally ranged from fines between 200,000 UGX to 3,000,000 UGX (USD $56-$838), and between 3 to 24 months in jail. There were just two cases involving jail time longer than one year, one of these mandating imprisonment only if the convicted could not pay the fine.

For example, in a case involving one pangolin carcass in FY 2019/2020 was sentenced to a fine of just 300,000 UGX (USD $84). Another case involving one live pangolin in FY 2020/2021 was sentenced to a fine of 1,000,000 UGX (USD $279). A case in the same year involving 3.62 kilograms of pangolin scales was fined 2,000,000 UGX ($559). Another case involving one live pangolin was sentenced to just 3 months in prison.

This data has been tracked and published on the #WildEye East Africa map by InfoNile and Oxpeckers.

Asked about this state of affairs, the Uganda Wildlife Authority’s director of Conservation, John Makombo said the Judiciary is an independent institution that can “make decisions based on what they think but also guided by the law.”

He however says as one of the strategies to improve this, the authority is doing a lot of sensitization of the Judiciary.

“In fact, that is one of the strategies we are using to ensure that criminals get the right sentence for crimes they commit,” Makombo said.

The illegal trade in wildlife and trafficking of animals is often made possible by the failure of some individuals within law enforcement circles to operate professionally. One of these key challenges is corruption.

Meanwhile, Opyene from the Natural Resources Conservation Network (NRCN) said corruption can manifest at any stage, in the investigations, police, judiciary, or at the directorate of public prosecution, and as such it has to be investigated, detected, and stopped before it happens.

“One thing we have noticed is that the issue why investigations have failed is because of corruption. When people who are supposed to be supporting turn around and start working for the traffickers, the wrong guys, then investigations cannot succeed,” he said.

Opyene from the Natural Resources Conservation Network (NRCN) .

He adds that they have informants who help them to identify corruption and failings within enforcement agencies and ensure that these are reported and justice is carried out. 

To improve prosecution, Opyene said they have engaged the prosecutors and discussed how best to improve. “The only way to do it effectively is to have a prosecution-led investigation whereby the prosecution is brought on board from the start of the investigations so that when concluded, the suspect is produced before a court,” he said. 

This is to prevent the issue of suspects getting off the hook due to lack of evidence, as the prosecution asks for more time to investigate the case. 

George Owoyesigire, the acting director for wildlife conservation in the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife, and Antiquities, said the ministry is concerned about poaching in general and specifically the illegal harvesting of pangolin.

“We saw some considerable poaching around 2015 when we confiscated about 2,000 kilograms of pangolin scales. But because of concerted efforts put in place to address the issue, poaching has since been scaled down,” Owoyesigire said.

He says some of the cases of seizures and confiscations today reflect the level of effort the government of Uganda has put in place to fight the vice and not an increase in poaching per se.

“We have deployed different mechanisms and interventions to capture and arrest these criminals, so you will see an increase in confiscations of ivory, pangolin scales, and hippo teeth, but this is as a result of intense surveillance, law enforcement, and intelligence as well,” he added.

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Mr. George Owoyesigire, Ag Commissioner of Wildlife Conservation in the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife, and Antiquities

Owoyesigire said that while initially there were challenges in handling the wildlife cases, the establishment of the Utilities, Standard, and Wildlife Court in May 2017 has helped bring to the fore the profile of wildlife crimes, which has also seen increased prosecution and successful handling of these cases.

Owoyesigire says at continental, regional, and national levels there are strategies for combating illegal wildlife trade, expressing optimism that with increased collaboration among partner states, this practice will be effectively eliminated.

“Provisions under this treaty compel us as member states to work together to conserve natural resources and also fight illegal wildlife and cross border trade. So, we have several mechanisms to make sure we curtail this growing threat,” Owoyesigire added.

Under Article 116 of the Treaty for the establishment of the East African Community in 1999, the Partner States undertook to develop a collective and coordinated policy for the conservation and sustainable utilisation of wildlife and other tourist sites.

It states that in particular, the Partner States ;

(a) harmonise their policies for the conservation of wildlife, within and outside protected areas;
(b) exchange information and adopt common policies on wildlife management and development;
(c) co-ordinate efforts in controlling and monitoring encroachment and
poaching activities;
d) encourage the joint use of training and research facilities and develop
common management plans for trans-border protected areas; and
(e) take measures to ratify or accede to, and, implement relevant international conventions

In March, state prosecutors from 11 countries in eastern Africa formally pledged to coordinate efforts to combat cross-border wildlife trafficking and money laundering. 

To further strengthen efforts to combat illegal wildlife crime, the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) has kickstarted the development of a curriculum for wildlife crime, intelligence, investigations and law enforcement.  

The curriculum will help UWA have its own standard to train its force right from the initial stages of entry into the organisation. The other training component being considered is the professional angle, which will look at how an ordinary ranger becomes an intelligence and investigations staff/officer.

UWA Executive Director Sam Mwandha expressed optimism that in years to come, the Authority will have the best workforce in wildlife protection and fighting wildlife crime in the region. 

“This process will result in us having a highly skilled workforce in the East African region, which will help the country fight wildlife crime. Once we have a highly skilled force, criminals will hate their trade and wildlife numbers will increase,” said Mr. Mwandha.

According to the Investigations Manager – UWA Major Joshua Karamagi, this is the start of a long journey of ensuring that adequate capacity is built for the intelligence, investigations and law enforcement cadres in the institution. 

“We are moving towards ensuring that we have a professional force capable of handling wildlife crime intelligence gathering to persecution; this will enhance our fight against wildlife crime,” he said.

This was during a training exercise in March that drew participants from Uganda Wildlife Authority, Uganda People’s Defense Force, and Uganda Police. Others were local and international facilitators from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Support for development and production of this story came from InfoNile, in partnership with Oxpeckers, with funding from the Earth Journalism Network. Additional reporting and editing by Ruth Mwizeere and Annika McGinnis at InfoNile. Data visualizations by Ruth Mwizeere.

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