Ninsiima: Lawyer in love with wildlife conservation

What you need to know:

Ninsiima has handled more than 182 wildlife cases. From convictions, more than 240 poachers and wildlife traffickers have been put behind bars. She has rescued some of these animals alive and set them free back in the wild.

After toiling for years in law schools building a legal career, most lawyers dream about an opportunity to argue a case before judges in the courtroom. An opportunity to advocate for people and prosecute criminals.

It is the beginning of a journey of mediating disputes and providing legal counsel to clients about their legal rights, undertake research and gather data and drawing up legal documents related to divorces, wills, contracts and real estate transactions, and prosecuting or defending in court.

Rarely do lawyers ever imagine undertaking undercover investigations in the bush. Instead of sticking inside the comfortable walls of the courtroom, Moureen Ninsiima broke the odds to embrace a versatile working environment when she chose to fight for the rights of wildlife.

“I did not have it in mind that I would ever protect wild animals but when I returned to Uganda in 2016, I got an opportunity to join Opyene and co. Advocates. This firm’s chief executive officer directed Natural Resource Conservation Network (NRCN) to undertake wildlife assignments,” the advocate explains.

 “I had never encountered such work. They took us through drills on how to prosecute wildlife traffickers and after that training, I decided to embark on the new trajectory,” Ninsiima recollects. 

With a grin, she reaffirms her decision to take on wildlife traffickers. “I saw this as an opportunity to learn something new. That is how I started. With time, I gained interest. I turned a month into five years at the place of work,” she says.

Training

She holds a Bachelor of Laws from Uganda Christian University attained in 2013 and a Diploma in Legal Practice from Kenya School of Law attained in 2016. She boasts of five years’ experience in wildlife crime prosecution.

Ninsiima has undertaken training in financial investigation within the illegal wildlife trade by Basel Institute of Governance and Environmental Investigation Agency UK.

She has attended various workshops that have sharpened her prosecutorial skills in the fight against illegal wildlife trade such as global programme for combating wildlife and forest crime organised by United Nations Office on Drug and Crime, enhancing prosecution of persons arrested by use of detection dogs (canine evidence) organised by the African Wildlife Foundation and annual trainings on criminal procedure by the Directorate of Public Prosecution alongside Uganda Wildlife Authority.

Above: Moureen Ninsiima at Queen Elizabeth Park. Below:  Ninsiima, (4th from L-R) and a group of magistrates and lawyers pose for a picture after attending a judicial training in prosecutorial skills.   PHOTOs/courtesy

Her work

According to Ninsiima, most cases entail selling trophies got from killed animals such as ivory tusks, hippo teeth, lion, monkeys and serval cat skins.

She says pangolin scales are a much sought item but rarely do poachers get them alive. “Pangolin meat is presumed to be tasty. The same applies to hippos; the meat is a delicacy and known to help women and men deal with their fertility issues,” she adds.

Ninsiima has handled more than 182 wildlife cases; 63 cases involving ivory and secured 38 convictions, 52 cases involving pangolins and secured 31 convictions, 41 cases involving wildlife skins (leopard, okapi, serval cat, cheetah, python and crocodile) and secured 29 convictions and 26 cases involving hippo teeth and secured 19 convictions.

“In 117 convictions, more than 240 poachers and wildlife traffickers have been put behind bars. I have managed to rescue some of these animals alive and set them free back in the wild, mainly the pangolins, where a total of 24 from the above-mentioned cases have been successfully rescued,” she says.

Having grown and related with dogs at a tender age, Ninsiima, as an adult, found it easy to transfer that love to wildlife by advocating for their rights.

Matters of safety

At NRCN, under the prosecution and investigative department, Ninsiima worked hand-in-hand with Uganda Police Force. She says informers were also recruited in different communities who from time to time tipped NRCN on operations. Informers worked together with the traffickers to understand the whole trade.

Ninsiima says protection was guaranteed to the informers and secrecy was key in order to yield more successful operations.  “Nobody knows that they were working for us. During arrests, they would arrest them too with the contrabandists. There is a lot of action; once you are in it, you do not want to leave it. It is interesting and gives an adrenaline rush just like action movies,” she giggles as she recalls the memories.

On particular days, Ninsiima is in court and other days she is on a bus heading to a given district for an operation. Conservation work for a lawyer entails preparing reports and legal briefs in the office, arguing cases in court and fieldwork such as reviewing case files and operations.

 “Watching an ongoing operation is intense. Sometimes, one of us has to act as if they were massacred in order to capture whoever is selling illegal stuff. It is an assignment an ordinary lawyer who dons suits, sits in chambers and waits in court would not manage,” she says. 

Challenges

Bribery and corruption is what surrounds anyone working in wildlife conservation. Ninsiima says there is money that is ready to be exchanged from bigwigs and relatives of the accused persons. “This explains why elephants are still killed,” she says.

The Buganda Road Court was designated for Wildlife and Antiques Court in 2018. “Prior to that, we had to traverse the whole country, going to each court per region to present the case. For instance, if someone has been arrested in Kotido, you would sort it out in Kotido court,” she adds.

Transport was also a challenge. Ninsiima says during the initial years, she used public means. “In some areas, the roads were rugged and some colleagues had to use trailer trucks to get to their destinations,” she adds.  

On a dark day from a court in Kitgum District, Ninsiima was travelling back to Kampala and a bridge caved in. She says she had to spend a night there and await works to commence the following day.

“The next day, it was the same story. We had no option but to cross the river with the help of Chinese contractors. We left the bus behind. I removed my shoes and we walked until we found the bus somewhere,” she narrates her fieldwork ordeals.

The risks involved

In executing her work, she says, you can never know who is following you. “The people we arrest have connections in different offices. One day, I got a call from a one Major who told me I was delaying the process. I feared for my life but I engaged my boss and he advised on the next course of action,” says Ninsiima.

 At the start, Ninsiima acknowledges, there was insufficient security as she recalls a colleague she lost in a shady accident.

She says her conservation work involves a lot of risks and requires one to be vigilant. She got training on self-defence offered by former soldires, on how to protect herself. She was also advised to use different routes to get to her premises daily.

The market for wildlife

Ninsiima says elephants and pangolins are killed more. But she is quick to admit that in recognition of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), -a global agreement among governments to regulate or ban international trade in species under threat, some species have been spared.

Wildlife trafficking is a lucrative business and the poachers are still heavily armed with guns and pangas. In 2019, the Uganda wildlife Act was enacted, the traffickers are sentenced to a maximum of life imprisonment or fined Shs200 million.

That was the major transformation that changed from the old law. Ninsiima says she usually advocates for custodian sentences; which means more jail terms as opposed to the fine.

No regrets

She has no regrets doing this kind of work. “Activities outside court excite me most. Going for investigations, taking cover in those bushes is my kind of grind,” she grins.

Once a suspect is arrested, and taken to a police station, her role as a legal officer starts from there.  Prior to events, she guides officers on how to carry out an operation. “You cannot arrest someone without presenting or holding an exhibit.”

“My work is to ensure laws are not broken; the victim is not tortured and has no defence when they get to court. At the police station, I guide the officers on which sections to charge. I also take part in the interrogation; find out the details of the trophies,” Ninsima explains.

The passionate advocate also ensures the file is ready; the statements are clear and with no loopholes when presented to the State Attorney to sanction it. And sometimes she testifies in court, after taking part in the operations.

Ninsiima notifies her mother everytime she travels and goes on operations. She also finds time to recite her rosary. Ninsiima is enthusiastic about her work even when it is does not offer better pay. 

 “I am not driven by money. Otherwise, I would have taken on other juicy offers. Many times, people present me with better jobs. Some ask me what type of house I want. I do not want anything to tarnish my name, because anything you do in the dark, will come out at some point. Integrity is a key virtue. I want to build my career diligently and wait upon on the Lord,” Ninsiima says.

With such a demanding job, she cut down on some things and divided her time between personal, social life and family. She says people around her understood she was not available.

Key lessons

Ninsiima says it is reputable to have a good name. Otherwise a career can be cut short due to corruption.  Networking is another important element. “Everyone you meet, be it the cleaner can be of value to your life. I have been to police stations, prisons, and courts. If you don’t know someone, you may not get what you want. We have to respect people regardless of the positions they hold,” she asserts. 

She further explains that it is through connections that opportunities are presented or availed. With five years of experience, Ninsiima decided to start something of her own that will clearly spell out what wildlife conservation entails, loopholes and what needs to be done. Besides the experiential training on different aspects of wildlife, establishing her organisation would be another soaring achievement.

Her dreams

She plans to specialise in publications and sensitising masses to protect and conserve wildlife. Through this initiative, she wants to collaborate with different stakeholders.

“During the course of my work, I realised many Ugandans are very green when it comes to wildlife laws. I intend to enlighten people on wildlife conservation, most people don’t know opportunities present in wildlife conservation,” she says.

Ninsiima believes there are a lot of things to be unwrapped in wildlife in the legal sector, especially among the young generation. “Through university education, there is nowhere that I encountered anything to do with wildlife. The nearest I landed on was environmental law that did not touch on any aspect of wildlife or tourism,” she adds.

As an advocate, she appeals to government to incorporate wildlife studies of conservation and tourism into law. She says it is a virgin field with lots of opportunities and will interest people in majoring in wildlife conservation. She believes this could change lives.

Conservationist securing convictions

Ninsiima wants to be known as an animal advocate, impacting wildlife and conservation sector. Her greatest achievement as a conservationist is securing convictions of a significant number of traffickers and poachers in the courts of law.

Having the ability to interpret and keep up to date with environmental legislation and guidelines, willingness to work outside office and the traditional office hours, flexibility to travel are some of the skills one needs to make it in the wildlife conservation sector.

Intensifying community-based conservation, lobbying for environmental education from early stages of learning and improving on marketing are some of the ways to boost tourism.

What she does

Once a suspect is arrested, and taken to a police station, Ninsiima’s role as a legal officer starts from there.  Prior to events, she guides officers on how to carry out an operation. Her work is to ensure laws are not broken; the victim is not tortured and has no defence when they get to court. At the police station. She guides officers on which sections to charge. She also take part in the interrogation; finding out the details of the cases. Ninsiima believes there are a lot of things to be unwrapped in wildlife in the legal sector, especially among the young generation. “Through university education, there is nowhere that I encountered anything to do with wildlife. The nearest I landed on was environmental law that did not touch on any aspect of wildlife or tourism,” she adds. As an advocate, she appeals to government to incorporate wildlife studies of conservation and tourism into law. She says it is a virgin field with lots of opportunities.She wants to be known as an animal advocate. Her greatest achievement as a conservationist is securing convictions of traffickers and poachers in the courts of law.

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