Uganda faces increasing dilemma in fight against wildlife trafficking

Young men and elders on a  hunt in Wianaka village, Purongo Sub-county, Nwoya District.  PHOTO/ TOBBIAS J. OWINY. 
 

What you need to know:

Factors including corruption, weak law enforcement, limited criminal justice capacity and historically weak legislation make Uganda a transit hub of choice for wildlife trafficking. Uganda continues to be implicated in illegal trade. Pangolin meat and scales are reported to be sourced domestically.

Nicholas Opiyo, a ranger’s walkie-talkie bursts into a cacophony of voices. He identifies the voices as those of his colleagues.  They are screaming for reinforcement in their chase against six poachers from the neighbouring Pujwang village, northeast of Pakwach Bridge, along River Nile.

Opiyo has to make a quick decision whether to change routes and join his colleagues in the chase or continue with his routine to monitor the cubs of a leopard that were recently born inside the ruins of Pakuba Safari Lodge in Murchison Falls National Park.

Armed with axes, spears, sharpened sticks, bows and arrows, poachers had raided the park and killed an elephant. Rangers fired several bullets in the air and holed up only four of the six, an hour later, ending a two-hour engagement.

Pujwang village is one of the spots in the park identified as a leading hippopotamus habitat, where schools of hippos bask in the marshes of the river’s shoreline. The area is also a mating corridor for elephants.

For the past two years, the cases of poaching in the area have significantly risen.Experts say government’s failure to fight the vice has inadvertently enabled it.

“People kill animals for food (meat), skins and other products for the domestic market. The poached wildlife here is mainly for local consumption,” Justine Adinga, a boda boda rider in Pakwach Town says.

Endangered species

Except for pangolins and lions, poaching typically targets lower-value ‘bush meat’ species, such as African buffalo and antelopes. Snares and traps set up by the poachers are largely indiscriminate, often resulting in the killing of higher-value or more endangered species, such as giraffes and elephants.

According to Adinga, some animals such as elephants are poached for their ivory, pangolins for their scales and hippopotami for their prized teeth. Products are often exported for lucrative returns, which affects tourism conservation efforts.

The Albertine Rift Valley, the northernmost section which runs almost the full length of Uganda’s western boundary,  contains more threatened vertebrate species.But the threat is complex; it not only targets domestic wildlife but also Uganda acts as a transit hub for wildlife sourced from elsewhere. 

The 2019 International Institute for Environment and Development’s research with poachers in Uganda, indicates that up to 40 percent of elephants killed by study participants were bycatch- caught in traps set for other animals. In January 2020, an agreement was reached by government agencies to establish an operational Joint Financial Investigations Team (JFIT).

Financial investigations

The unit would be staffed by Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), Uganda Revenue Authority (UWA), the Uganda Police Force and Financial Intelligence Authority (FIA), to run parallel financial investigations on significant illegal wildlife trade cases.

However, the JFIT is said to have been challenged by a lack of capacity and technical expertise in attempting to launch parallel financial investigations.

While the value of financial tools is appreciated, the complexity of financial investigations can challenge officers who deal in the possession of physical commodities.

Mid 2021, UWA reported that cases of wildlife crime had nearly doubled. Maj. Joshua Karamagi, the manager of investigations at UWA, during training of investigation and intelligence officers from UWA and the Uganda Police Force, said it was becoming complex to fight wildlife crimes since the perpetrators had switched to using digital technologies.

“We have done some commendable work in fighting wildlife crime. In the financial year 2018/2019, we handled 475 cases with 525 suspects. And out of these suspects, 395 were convicted and sentenced in courts of law,” Maj. Karamagi said.

“In 2020, we reached a conviction rate of 22.6 percent and prosecution rate of 55 per cent. Since 2018, we have handled 2,236 cases with 3,455 suspects,” he adds.

UWA officials say 90 percent of their budget is from tourism activities in the parks and game reserves. It was also stressed that the progress in operationalising the JFIT has also been limited by the pandemic.

Rise in wildlife crimes

Due to socio-economic pressures meted by the lengthy countrywide lockdown and reduced law enforcement capacity to patrol all conservation areas, there was a significant rise in wildlife crimes in and around protected areas.

Handling wildlife criminal suspects during the pandemic was complex due to the need to minimise the risks of spreading the virus. Suspects were released on bail which presented a risk of re-offending in poaching.

 With a revamped Uganda Wildlife Act 2019, Uganda hopes to curtail the vice. The new act brings in changes to both offences and new penalties applicable to wildlife crime. 

The office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (ODPP) recently established a specialised Wildlife and Environmental Crime Prosecution Division to complement the earlier establishment of a specialised wildlife crime court.

Wildlife, forestry and fisheries

This division has a mandate to prosecute wildlife crimes, forestry crimes, fisheries crimes and environmental management crimes.

 Justice Jane Frances Abodo, the Director of Public Prosecutions, was recently quoted by the UK-based news agency, The Independent saying that wildlife crimes increased by at least 20 percent between March and May 2020.

“The prosecution division in my office will assist a small team of experienced prosecutors at the wildlife agency who for years have bravely shouldered the national responsibility of dealing with wildlife crimes,” she said.

Against the background of an expanding human population in the country, increased cultivation and habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict is increasing.

Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) reports from 2009 to 17 points to more than 13,000 instances of human-wildlife conflict, involving livestock predation by lions and leopards, and elephant crop damage, among others

Since 2009, human-wildlife conflict rates have reportedly risen by 22 percent. The situation has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, as income losses have led to a surge in people migrating from cities to rural areas to engage in subsistence farming.

Interventions

Wilson Kagoro, the manager in charge of community conservation at Murchison Falls National Park, says there were difficulties in the deployment of manpower and security personnel to monitor wildlife due to curfew.

Although he says the scale of poaching at the park is generally not too high, Kagoro notes that people continue to sneak into the protected area toharvest wildlife illegally.

“We have come up with several interventions including sensitising communities against illegal activities. We conduct meetings with communities surrounding the park, besides engaging them on radios and barazas,” he adds.

Many of these poachers have been apprehended and arraigned in court, where some are serving prison sentences, while others have been heavily fined.

Illegal trade corridor

Several wildlife species in the country are deliberately destined for international markets. An example of such illegal harvesting is pangolins, as high-value species facing high levels of global demand. Ever expanding consumer markets in East Asia have driven a significant rise in transnational illegal trading in pangolin.

With pangolins attaining the status of most trafficked mammal in the world and classified as threatened with extinction on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list, there is urgency around their protection.

Uganda continues to be implicated in illegal trade. While it acts as a key transit country for pangolin meat and scales, these products are also sourced domestically.

However, limited data exists on the status of populations, poaching hotspots or the profiles of those involved in illegal harvesting. Beyond geography, other factors including corruption, weak law enforcement, limited criminal justice capacity and historically weak legislation make Uganda a transit hub of choice, despite a general improvement in the response to illegal wildlife trade.

Way forward

The Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies in their research published in October 2021, found out that the country has become a corridor to trade for wildlife products sourced from within and those from elsewhere.

“The Uganda of today is a nexus country; a ‘one-stop shop’ for those looking to buy and sell illegal wildlife, launder the proceeds and tie this in with other illicit activity, from trafficking in timber to drugs,” part of the report states. The research titled Illegal Wildlife Trade in Uganda Tracking Progress on ‘Following the Money details how Uganda has turned into more than a transit country. 

“Uganda has come to form a central hub in the regional criminal marketplace ; a consolidation point for criminal actors exhibiting a high degree of fluidity in their operations,” it reads in part.

Facilitated by corruption and political influence, the result is a highly business-friendly environment for criminal actors, it adds.

While much wildlife transiting Uganda is freshly sourced, researchers say in the report that some are derived from stockpiles, “this involves the theft of seized exhibits from government storerooms, which has been reported across East and Central Africa.”

Role of inter-agency structures

This situation could now change following the passage of the Uganda Wildlife Act 2019. While numerous inter-agency structures have been developed with external support, the report says, these have often suffered due to overlap, lack of donor coordination and lack of clarity on the objectives.

While wildlife products continue to be seized and significant progress has been registered in convicting illegal wildlife trade offenders, Uganda has not seen convictions for associated money laundering.

To address this gap, the researchers recommend that the government should prioritise preventive measures alongside financial approaches. 

It further recommends that government needs to clarify the role of inter-agency structures since a variety of inter-agency structures have been established in Uganda, with confusion persisting without purpose of each grouping and how they link together.

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