How UWA officials siphoned billions from gorilla permits

Tourists watch a gorilla at the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. UWA is investigating fraud that has bedevilled the authority for years. Photos | Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

What you need to know:

  • Our inside sources say the gorilla permit scandal came to the fore when some staff deployed at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest raised the red flag about dubious transactions that were not backed by official records.

A corruption scandal that has seen heads roll at Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), has once again hit the wildlife conservation body, with billions of shillings siphoned by top officials.

At the core of it are officials from the Authority’s Information Technology department and those from the Finance department.

At least four officials, whose names we have withheld for legal reasons, have since been arrested, while several others have been suspended.

Inside sources say at least 16 senior officers, including a senior accountant, IT and reservation clerks are already suspended, while many may soon follow in what insiders say could be because of swindled cash worth more than Shs60b.

UWA is one of the very few government entities allowed to spend their revenue at source, a loophole that the staff at the Authority have exploited most.

Our inside sources say the gorilla permit scandal came to the fore when some staff deployed at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest raised the red flag about dubious transactions that were not backed by official records.

The source said the staff at the IT department allegedly connived with those from Reservation and Finance and would print gorilla permits whose funds were then not remitted to the Authority’s account.

“These officers have been diverting money for tracking gorillas to their personal accounts. They created a system where they would divert the money using the system to their own accounts,” one source said.

Perfecting corruption

Multiple sources we spoke to at the Authority said the team at the head office would print tickets and permits.

They would then sell them to tourists without remitting the money to the accounts.

Our sources further say the team had accomplices at both Bwindi and Mgahinga national parks where the gorillas are situated.

Ordinarily, when one books a gorilla permit, the person would be asked to pay the money at the bank and then bring the pay slip to the accounts department to be verified. Once it is confirmed, the person is then issued a receipt and directed to the reservations where they obtain the gorilla permit.

On reaching the park, the person presents the permit and the accountants at the park cross-check in the system to confirm if the permit matches the identity of the person and records in the system.

However, our sources say, the team has people at the parks whom they share the loot with and it is the group on the ground that manipulates and bypasses the system and takes tourists to track the gorillas.

“These people do not work in isolation. They have a racket right from the head office up to the parks and the art of corruption is so perfected that it thrives across,” the source said.

Available records, which this publication has seen, indicate that in March 2022 alone, a total of 154 visitors accessed the parks with dubious permits whose payments were not remitted to the Authority’s accounts.

Relatedly, between March and April this year, 59 permits were printed out with a number of them bearing no name of the persons who printed them, while some others were printed by known staff, but no activities for which the permits were printed.

According to the documents that this publication has seen, some of the fraudulent permits were allegedly printed by Mr Shafik Twebaze, Ms Josephine K, Mr Gad Ekochu, and Ms Susan Ayupa.

A number of tour operators and individuals that benefited from the dubious permits, whose identities we have left out for now, have also been implicated in the scandal and are under investigation.

In many of these cases, the reservation officers would print permits without signatures or names and this makes it difficult to follow.


Some of the staff at Bwindi reportedly raised the issues with the management, but received no response.

For example, a staff at Bwindi reportedly alerted the Executive Director of UWA, Mr Sam Mawanda, and the director Finance and Administration about a situation where some permits were printed out to clients with only unidentified signatures and without names of the staff on the permits.

“These permits don’t have booking IDs and some without payment. So it becomes a challenge for us to verify and be sure whether payments have been made and revenue realised by UWA. This issue remains unanswered since there are no details of the issuing staff to consult thus no one to own the transaction,” a memo sent to Mr Mawanda in part reads.

UWA first introduced an online booking system in 2014 to prevent fraud and robberies by armed gangs on the way.

At the time of the introduction, the Authority said it had lost hundreds of millions of shillings to fraud and robbery. A number of staff were also killed in the process.

However, to reduce this, the Authority introduced a cashless system which initially faced resistance, but eventually all those opposed had to comply.

Alongside this, the company also procured payment systems which would be used to track the money. When Mr Mawanda took over the management of the Authority, he reportedly suspended the old system and instead procured a system at Shs280m from a company called MFI and for six months, the Authority struggled with the system that failed to work.

The management then procured another system from the Kenya Ports Authority at Shs2 billion to manage the access to the parks, a system which Mr Bashir Hangi, the manager of communication and public relations at UWA, said is still being installed.

“That system has not even started working yet and work is still ongoing and once it is rolled out, we shall have a seamless system to manage park operations,” he said.

Mr Hangi also said the former system had been procured from Mauritius and had reached its end life, a reason why it was abandoned.

“We have what we call the end of life and that old system could not work anymore. We could not upgrade and therefore the authority had to procure a new system to match with the changing trends,” he said.

We were unable to get through to Mr Mawanda both physically and through the known phone number. Our repeated phone calls to his known telephone number went unanswered for the larger part of last evening and he never returned the same by press time.

Mother gorilla cuddleas a little one at Bwindi National Park. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park 

Fraud mission

It is further alleged that the new system developed by the IT team was compromised by the same team that created loopholes which they exploited to defraud the Authority.

Our sources claimed that the IT team in cahoots with the Reservation and Accounts department would formally create one invoice and use it to print 100 or more permits.

“So the company would only benefit from one ticket, but the 99 would be cashed to these insider IT guys and their accomplices.

The authority would get only $600 (Shs2.2m) or $700 (Shs2.6m), while these guys would pocket $69,300 (Shs260m). These 99 tickets would be taken to Bwindi and Mgahinga to watch gorillas while the authority loses out,” the source said.

Our sources said when it became apparent that money had been swindled, the audit department of the organisation swung into action, but again did a shoddy job.

They said when the audit team visited the parks, they only cross-checked what had been reported and yet the fraud was bigger than what had been reported.

Mr Hangi at the weekend said the Authority has so far discovered a loss of $143,000 (about Shs535m).

However, our sources said this is not true, because in March 2022 alone, close to Shs500m had been swindled in the fraud.

“This has been going on for some time. What I know is that the fraud could be as high as Shs60b. We have informed everyone about this, but the racket seems to be powerful and the senior managers are swallowed into it,” our sources said at the weekend.

The sources further said while visitor numbers to Bwindi and Mgahinga have remained very high, the revenue that came to UWA remained very low.

For example, an internal audit report that examined bookings in August this year indicated that the parks made overbooking which compromised the standards at the park.

While the gorilla tracking guidelines provide that only eight paying visitors are allowed to visit the gorillas every day, the audit report said at some occasions there were overbooking.

The audit report seen by this publication also shows that while the daily expected number of tourists to each particular gorilla family is eight, many times their visitor number shoots up without clear explanation.


The audit report also said some groups are splintered from the main group and their records did not exist in the database and yet bookings to such groups were made.

“UWA is compromising quality tourism to mass tourism which is exerting pressure on the field teams to manage the big tourism numbers for example 109 visitors on 21st July 2023. There is a risk that some gorilla groups are being tracked more than once and this may be replicated by staff to promote illegal tracking of gorillas to their own benefit,” the report said.

The report says the overbooking in some instances was by more than 100 visitors in a single day, raising queries on credibility of the tracking and also where the extra money went.

Both Mgahinga and Bwindi national parks have a combined 23 habituated gorilla groups and while each group is supposed to receive eight tourists per day, all of them are being overbooked.

Sale of complimentary permits

Our sources also said people within the system fraudulently sold out complimentary gorilla permits to undeserving individuals and tour operators.

Complimentary permits are given out for promotional purposes. For example, our source said the Uganda Tourism Board annually gets about 200 complimentary permits, the chief executive  officer also has a percentage, which he gives out.

Such complimentary permits are supposed to be given out to tour operators that have bought a certain number of permits.

However, our sources allege that many senior officials have become beneficiaries of the complimentary permits, which they sell to tour operators who do not qualify for a discount.

“A gorilla permit costs $700 (Shs2.6m), but they get $500 (Shs1.8m), and issue complimentary tickets to the visitors who would track the gorillas and they pocket the money,” the sources said.

ISO petitioned

The source further said concerned staff reported the corruption case to the Internal Security Organisation.


Mr Bashir Hangi, the manager of communication and public relations at UWA, said it is true corruption has been cited at the Authority but investigations are underway to fish out the culprits.

“Yes it is true our internal control measures detected fraud and we are investigating the case. These people exploited the internal IT system to engage in fraud which we are investigating so it will only be after [the exercise] that we shall be able to know the magnitude of the fraud,” he said.

He further said the Authority does not condone corruption and whoever is found culpable will face the law.