As we approached the wildlife canine unit, it was as silent as a limbo, despite visible movements of officers who I presume were off-duty. The moment she flung the gates open, there was a sudden symphony of warning barks to alert the section about my arrival.
“Our friends have detected a stranger and that is a welcome remark. We don’t need a security guard to detect an intruder. You are safe besides me,” said one of the dog handlers.
Cathy (not real name), donning her camouflage uniform has a good relationship with Mia. Once she opens the kennel, the Malinois (Belgian Shepherd) trained as a retriever dog, runs to her eagerly and licks her cheek. Mia is a ‘queen’ of search-the white dog with brown patches covers huge areas in the shortest time possible.
Operation ‘Sniff and search’
Since the launch of the unit in November 2016, UWA canine unit has completed more than 150 busts of poached items including ivory, rhino horns, pangolin scales, with 80 per cent successful.
The dogs detect the scent of a wild animal in luggage or cargo. They then alert their handlers. Cathy recollects an operation in 2017, when the dogs intercepted 23 kilogrammes of rhino horn at Entebbe International Airport.
“ Twenty three may seem small, but when you look at the five pieces of rhino horn, you imagine that perhaps two or three rhinos were killed to get horns for sale. Although people had doubted the efficiency of the canine unit, she says the intelligence was quicker. There were many bags, but our dogs zeroed on two bags only. We arrested the Vietnamese trafficker who was in the lobby and he was prosecuted. Upon arrest, he seemed less bothered and exuded confidence. He had a feeling that he would be released and also demanded an interpreter as a tactic to intimidate and delay his prosecution process. But at the end of it all, he was charged in court and deported,” she says.
The gang of eight
Uganda was known as a conduit previously; many traffickers used it as a route to trade illegal wildlife material. It was among the top three in Africa. This was partly attributed to lack of capacity, weak wildlife legislation and corrupt officials.
Over the years, Uganda was listed among ‘Gang of eight’ in reference to countries that were doing little or nothing to curb illegal trade in ivory. These include the supply countries of Uganda, alongside Kenya and Tanzania, in addition to consumer states of China and Thailand, and also- Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia, which are popular in the transit of ivory.
During the Convention on International Trade in Endagered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) conference in 2013 held in Bangkok, Thailand, it was reported that six out of eight countries including Uganda had come up with action plans. John E. Scalon, the former secretary general of CITES, had warned that failure to take action, the standing committee would consider compliance measures and the ultimate sanction under the convention would amount to a trade suspension.
Fight against illegal practice
Following the arrest of two Vietnamese: Dhan Yon Chiew and Nguyen Son Dong who were found in possession of wildlife species recently, the UWA executive director, Sam Mwandha, warned that Uganda would not tolerate illegal wildlife and wildlife product trafficking.
“We have been internationally labelled a conduit for illegal trafficking of wildlife and wildlife products, ruining our reputation on the world market. We shall use this case to stamp out illegal trade. While Uganda Revenue Authority handles the case in regard to possession of prohibited products, we will handle it from a different angle,” he cautions.
As the UWA canine unit continues to redeem Uganda’s reputation in these operations, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Cameroon, Zambia and Rwanda (unit not specific to wildlife) continue to share success stories too. Meanwhile, the unit has not been established in DRC, and South Sudan yet!
“The wildlife canine unit is done in phases. It comes with a lot of sponsorship and willingness of those countries to fight against the practice,” Cathy explains. She adds that the canine unit under UWA is supported by law enforcement office.
UWA has six sniffer dogs donated by the Africa Wildlife Foundation (AWF) and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).They are Henrico, Nora, Elsa, Mia, Bobo, and Piper.
They belong to special imported breeds of shepherds, malinois, English springer spaniel. They are nurtured from infancy to detect illegal wildlife products specifically.
Cathy says wildlife officers met the dogs in May 2016 and stayed with them for three months during training, behaviour, operations and bonding, before they qualified to stay in Uganda.
“The dog is supposed to rest and reserve energy for the next shift. On a daily, I wake up, do the general cleaning of the kennels, groom Mia, check her health, fill in the daily rota and ensure she has enough water. She is trained to poop at specified times. In the afternoon, she feeds and rests. We both have mandatory eight-hour work days”.
The officers conduct weekly trainings to remind themselves about what they are supposed to look out for and at times introduce to them new smells because of their high olfactory ability and capacity which enables them smell a thousand stuff.
Dogs’ sense of smell is 10,000 times better than that of man;They are able to detect minute odour discriminations .
Dogs need to be motivated
On whether it is a job for the faint-hearted or not, Cathy says it is fun, but hectic. “This is not a job you can do when you are moody. It is like a customer care job.
A dog must be motivated to work. It needs to wake up to that enticing language from Monday to Sunday. They are clever creatures that can detect that the handler is not in the mood”.
Illegal wildlife items
The initial target of the unit is to track ivory, pangolin scales and rhino horns because the animals are endagered and the items are popular on big illegal wildlife markets.
Cathy reveals that the canines are deployed to detect other items mandated to be in the wild such as leopard skins, lion teeth, okapi skins imported from DRC, lizards, among others.
The stern looking officer warns local drum makers encroaching on wetlands to pick wood, kill monitor lizards and use their skins to make long drums locally known as Engalabi.
“Cultural troupes innocently buy this instrument, but they need to know that they aid poaching by committing an end crime of providing market. Monitor lizards are in
Appendix II of CITES which includes species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but in which trade must be controlled in order to avoid utilisation incompatible with their survival.
The more they are killed, the more destruction to ecosystem. She is worried that drum makers have shifted from skins of cows, pythons to monitor lizard which are reportedly more effective in creating clear sound, whether wet or dry.
Cathy, however, advises cultural troupes to buy drums from licensed traders who are awarded wildlife rights by UWA. The Authority motivates communities to sustainably manage wildlife on both communal and private land.
What the future holds
The last four years of AWF and WCS support in Uganda has registered a proven record of management and successful operations of the UWA canine unit, but more efforts are needed to stem the rising threats.
More 10 handlers have completed their training along with an unspecified number of dogs and are set to detect wildlife crime at borders and the airport.
“We commend AWF for their support in funding our trainings and the welfare of the sniffers and the officers. WCS, USAID, IFAW, are among other great supporters. Apart from dog training, our personnel receive capacity building in legal and trans-border matters.”
Traffickers’ days numbered
Cathy notes that a section of the public appreciates their work. “Time and again, we are called to collect abandoned wildlife items such as pangolins. Some of the culprits have turned into ambassadors to sensitise the public.”
She also hails the support from sister agencies such as UWEC, but is quick to caution the public not to fall victim of the new Wildlife Act 2019. “We are fighting our very own people now. I wouldn’t want to arrest my brother or sister. Watch what you buy whether a necklace, ring or ear ring because if made of wildlife material, it may land you in trouble.” The highest penalty is a maximum fine of Shs 20 billion or life imprisonment, or both! Ignorance of law excuses no one.”
IF I WAS TO SEE REPTILES...
...I would definitely go to...
Uganda Reptile Village
Situated in Abayita Ababiri in Entebbe, Uganda Reptile Village is an interesting place to visit. The resources from tourists are used to save more reptiles, which also benefit the communities where they may be found by accident. It has snakes, including mambas, cobras, puff adders and vipers, as well as chameleons, and crocodiles. (Immaculate.N, Kampala)
Buwama Crocodile Farm
The site located 32 kilometres on Kampala-Masaka highway and eight kilometres off the highway is a recreational facility where crocodiles are bred for commercial and conservation purposes. Crocodiles are among the world’s endangered species. (Jonathan Ahabyoona, Kampala)
Uganda Wildlife Education Centre
Located in Entebbe, UWEC has crocodiles, Marsh Terrapins, Gabon Vipers, Egyptian cobras and African Rock Pythons, among others. These reptiles enhance the conservation and education programmes. (Princess Kamaliza, Kampala)