Post Lockdown Poaching: A Threat to Conservation in Endowed Pearl of Africa

Post Lockdown Poaching: A Threat to Conservation in Endowed Pearl of Africa

By Cliff Abenaitwe

Stanley Turyakira resident of Kanungu district in South Western Uganda faces a jail term of two to five years or a fine of millions of Uganda shillings or both because of poaching. Turyakira is among hundreds of suspects who are being tried by the Standards, Utilities & Wildlife Court (SUW). He was arrested in 2021 in possession of four lion canines, two pieces of lion skins, Porcupine spikes, Elephant hairs, Lion’s oil, and elephant dung.

He is suspected to have committed these crimes in Queen Elizabeth National Park – Uganda’s second-largest conservation area, located in western Uganda along the Uganda-Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) border.

national parks in Uganda
Map of Uganda showing National Parks and Conservation Areas

The 2018 Uganda Wildlife Trafficking Assessment report produced by TRAFFIC identified Uganda as one of the common transit points for the trafficking of wildlife and wildlife products in the Central and East Africa region with criminal organizations mainly associated with the smuggling of ivory, but in recent years have also been heavily linked to pangolin trafficking.

With the recent increase in wildlife crime, more than half of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas, 50% of Africa’s bird species, almost 40% of Africa’s mammal species, and 19% of Africa’s amphibian species – that are in Uganda – are at risk.

According to Hangi Bashir, the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) publicist, “wildlife crime, especially poaching and trafficking, remains a significant obstacle to conservation in Uganda.” UWA is a Ugandan government agency with jurisdiction over all National Parks and game reserves (gazette conservation areas in Uganda).

Uganda Wildlife Authority Publicist Bashir Hangi
Uganda Wildlife Authority Publicist, Bashir Hangi

During the Covid-19 triggered lockdown (the financial year 2020/21), UWA registered an increase in poaching. The worst scenario happened when six lions were killed in Queen Elizabeth National Park in 2020.

Statistics from UWA indicate that in the 2020/2021 financial year, 2,310 wildlife crime suspects were arrested with 22,449 different types of poaching implements including 10 guns. This is over a 16 percent increase from the 2019/2020 Financial Year when 1,987 suspects were arrested, with 13,645 poaching equipment including 23 guns.

Hangi explains that this trend was due to the hard economic situation many people experienced at the time.

The lucrative wild meat market, as well as the booming international market for items like ivory, animal skins, elephant penises, and pangolin scales, is fueling poaching.

Hangi also attributes the number of arrests and censures to the country’s increased efforts to combat wildlife crime.

According to Hangi, conservation and security authorities have also increased inter-agency collaboration and the country now has a Joint Wildlife Coordination Taskforce. This task force comprises agencies like UWA, customs officials, Uganda police, the Uganda Peoples Defense Forces (UPDF), and the Financial Intelligence Authority among other organs. It aims at strengthening coordination among different agencies to combat wildlife crime.

“We know that wildlife crimes occur in a syndicated manner, and when items are got, they have to be transported internally and across the borders,” Hangi said, adding that “through working together, the taskforce has achieved more but it is also looking forward to achieve much more in the fight against wildlife crimes especially wildlife trafficking.”

Mbarara News was able to observe teams in different agency uniforms at the Mpondwe border crossing point on the border of Uganda and DRC in Kasese district. Also security teams comprising of police, national army (UPDF), and UWA rangers are commonly seen especially along key routes in conservation areas like at Katwe and Kikorongo junctions in Queen Elizabeth National Park.

All these efforts are geared towards protecting Uganda’s wildlife which is a cornerstone of the tourism sector – the largest foreign exchange earner for the country.

When the going gets tough?

Conservation authorities in Uganda seem to have grasped the meaning of the old adage: ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get going,’ now that poachers seem to be becoming more adept in their operations.

“It’s true the poachers are becoming cleverer and sometimes sophisticated in operation, but as UWA, we are always ahead and smarter,” Hangi said.

UWA has increased the capacity and the number of rangers in national parks, and intensified patrols in all conservation areas to safeguard wildlife and deter crimes like poaching.

Hangi Bashir, Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) publicist.

“We now have a fully-fledged intelligence, investigation, evidence gathering and prosecution units to deal with wildlife crimes. Our target is to reduce wildlife crimes especially poaching but also stop our country from being a conducive transit route for wildlife traffickers,” the conservationist explains.

Elephants in Ugandas National Parks are a major target for poachers because of ivory
Elephants in Uganda’s National Parks are a major target for poachers because of ivory

Community-Based Approaches to Poaching

UWA has adopted community-based approaches to promote conservation. These approaches are aimed at raising awareness of the importance of conservation among people living in areas neighboring national parks, according to Hangi.

He explains that communities are being supported to carry out income-generating, conservation-friendly projects like apiary along the boundaries of conservation areas. Some of these projects are in areas like Muhoma (Bwindi Impenetrable forest), Kanyaryeru (near Lake Mburo National park), Bweyare and Karuma (along Murchison Falls national park).

Apart from the income-generating projects, communities neighboring national parks also benefit from revenue sharing. Established by the government in 1995, the revenue sharing program aims to balance the disadvantages people encounter living next to protected areas while fostering improved conservation behaviors.

Under this arrangement, UWA shares 20 percent of the protected area entrance fees with local governments to benefit communities adjacent to national parks. For communities neighboring Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, this revenue is supplemented by 5 USD from every gorilla tracking permit.

“We have managed to construct water dams for communities in Biharwe division which neighbors the Lake Mburo National park using revenue sharing resources. This has eased water scarcity and farmers no longer frequent the national park for water,” says Robert Kakyebezi, the Mayor of Mbarara City, South Western Uganda.

Apollo Mwesigye, the community development officer for Katunguru sub-county in Rubirizi District (one of the districts adjacent to Queen Elizabeth National Park) says that continuous community sensitization and utilization of funds received under the revenue sharing scheme has had people appreciate the value of wildlife and promoted conservation.

“We now look at wildlife as a treasure we must all protect because of the tangible benefits we are enjoying,” observes Tweteise Mwinemugisha, the chairman of Kyambura village in Rubirizi District.

Tough Approaches to Wildlife Crime

According to Hangi, the UWA is also training game rangers in cyber-crime detection and management, introducing more technology-related techniques. He also says that they have trap cameras installed in Queen Elizabeth National Park. These are able to give real time images regarding any activity in the conservation area.

“We are also piloting the use of drones from time to time for wildlife crime detection,” he elaborates, adding that all this is geared towards making sure that Uganda does not become a safe haven for wildlife trafficking globally.

A heard of buffaloes in Queen Elizabeth National Park. These are commonly poached for meat.
A herd of buffalloes in Queen Elizabeth National Park. These are normally poached for meat.

Over the years, Uganda has boosted its canine unit at key international transit routes, mainly at Entebbe International Airport to intercept illegal wildlife trade. These units have been expanded to other areas as well, with one at Karuma, located in the North Western part of the country, on the Kampala – South Sudan highway, in the wider Murchison Falls National Park.

In 2020, the UWA Deputy Director of Field Operations Charles Tumwesigye was quoted by Africa Wildlife Fund saying; “the northwestern region harbors trafficking routes for wildlife contraband smuggled across the DRC border and increasingly from South Sudan with the converging point being Karuma.” However, authorities at UWA believe that this canine unit is effective at detecting such illegal activity in this trafficking zone.

Handling Wildlife Cases: The Utilities Court in Uganda

In 2017, Uganda established the Standards, Utilities and Wildlife (SUW) Court. At its launch, the then Chief Justice, Bart Katureebe, noted that “the subject of standards, utilities and wildlife is very critical to the country’s economic development. As such access to justice in this area has the capacity to promote investment in critical areas of the economy, protection of the environment, public health and ethical trade practices.”

With the establishment of the SUW court, handling of wildlife crimes in Uganda has improved.

Between July 2020 and June 2021, the court handled 468 wildlife crime cases. According to information from the legal and corporate affairs department at UWA, 230 cases were concluded with 207 convictions, 20 dismissals, one acquittal, and two released on police bond. However, 238 remained pending, with 179 due for further hearing.

For example, in the same period, this court sentenced Anguyo Yusuf to 17 months of imprisonment for possession of 13 pieces of elephant ivory. The same court sentenced Aribo Jennifer to three years imprisonment or to pay a fine of three million shillings for possession of 83 pieces of hippopotamus teeth.

The court handled a high-profile case between July 2020 to June 2021 involving You Jing Dao and six others. They were arrested with ten pieces of elephant penises, one kilogram of pangolin scales and six live tortoises. They were fined over 15 million shillings including an order to pay UWA a fine of USD 1500.

Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism, a non-government company that uses geo-data analysis to track and expose the criminal syndicates involving corrupt officials and corporations looting Africa’s natural resources, lists more than 100 cases of wildlife crime convictions, censures, court cases and arrests in Uganda.

The geo-data map produced by Oxpeckers in partnership with InfoNile indicates that 48 wildlife crime cases were recorded from the western part of Uganda, five in the south western part, 12 cases in central Uganda, nine in northern Uganda and six in the north and eastern Uganda regions in recent years.

This data is still being updated, but it provides an overview of the extent of wildlife crime in Uganda.

For example, #WildEye data indicate that Benon Bob Bwanika, was arrested from Waseko – one of the landing sites on Lake Albert. He was arrested in July 2019 with 60.54 Kilograms of ivory. He was tried by the SUW court and fined five million shillings (USD 14,000).

According to the same data, 34-year-old Kawunde Gyavira was also in 2019 arrested in Kampala with 61.4 kilograms of ivory. He was found guilty and sentenced to nine years imprisonment or a fine.

Progress, But We Must Sustain the Fight – Experts Weigh-in

“We must conserve for today and the future,” says Grahams Tumwekwase, a conservation scholar. “Poaching is threatening millions of precious wildlife. Some species like pangolins risk extinction if the current poaching levels are unabated. I would like to see more coordination from regional countries especially in the fight against wildlife trafficking which seem to get more organised every day,” he observes.

Dr. James Musinguzi, a tourism and conservation expert from the Uganda Wildlife Education and Conservation Centre is rooting for more community sensitization.

“The conservation areas neighbour communities. These are the people who directly benefit from these resources, but also they are usually the local points of contact in the poaching and trafficking racket,” he observes.

According to Musingizi, there is need to continue sensitizing people to realise and appreciate the importance of conservation, but also to provide wildlife law enforcement teams with tips on the middlemen who come to their areas to facilitate poaching.

“We have made progress, but we must sustain the fight,” he emphasizes.

Dr. James Musinguzi a conservation specialist 1 2 scaled
Dr. James Musinguzi, Tourism and Conservation Expert, UWA

Yayeri Kabugho, a tour and travel operator based in Kasese district – Western Uganda – is worried that poaching will affect the tourism sector in the years to come, if the trend continues. According to Kabugho, Uganda is endowed with unique wildlife from climbing lions, mountain gorillas, among others, all which must be protected.

“Without these unique species, we will have nothing unique to offer to tourists. This means a decline in people’s and the country’s incomes. We must be tough on wildlife crimes through harsh punishments and fines, increase the number of security operatives to stop illegal national parks entry, and increase intelligence to detect the criminal plans before the planners’ strike,” Kabugho notes.

Mbarara News Comment

Successfully managing wildlife conservation is not only fundamental to achieving sustainable development goals but is a collective responsibility of the current generation to future generations.

It is the duty of every Ugandan, every leader, every national, district, sub county and village administrative unit to protect wildlife, provide information on poaching groups and contribute to wildlife conservation. It is much easier and more affordable to protect the animals we have, than replacing them when they are gone.

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

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