Inside govt dilemma to fight wildlife trafficking

Hippos at Kazinga Channel that connects lakes, George and Edward, in Queen Elizabeth National Park. The hippopotami are prized for their teeth. Photo / Edgar R. Batte

What you need to know:

  • Except for pangolins and lions, poaching in Uganda typically targets lower-value ‘bushmeat’ species—such as African buffalo and antelopes.

Ranger Nicholas Opiyo’s walkie-talkie hoots while on a routine monitoring of cubs of a leopard at Pakuba Safari Lodge inside Murchison National Game Park.

Bathed in the February sunshine, he hears his colleagues’ panicked voices shouting for backup. They have been chasing half a dozen poachers from the neighbouring Pujwang village, northeast of Pakwach Bridge, along the River Nile.

Armed with axes, spears, sharpened sticks plus bows and arrows, the poachers raided the park and killed an elephant. Three rangers gave chase, firing several bullets in the air, but only managed to apprehend four of the six poachers after a two-hour engagement.

Pujwang village is Uganda’s leading hippopotamus habitat. Groups of hippos bask in the marshes of the river’s shoreline.

The area is also a mating corridor for elephants. Poaching has been on the rise over the past two years, with the pandemic said to have made a bad situation worse.

“A key driver to this vice is sourcing food (meat), skins and other products for the domestic market. The poached wildlife here is mainly for local consumption,” Mr Justine Adinga, a bodaboda rider at Pakwach Town, said.

Poaching galore

Except for pangolins and lions, poaching in Uganda typically targets lower-value ‘bushmeat’ species—such as African buffalo and antelopes. The snares and traps set up by the poachers are largely indiscriminate. They often result in the killing of higher-value or more endangered species, such as giraffes or elephants.

Some animals like elephants are poached for their ivory and pangolins for their scale. The hippopotami are prized for their teeth. While such products are exported for lucrative returns, the blow to tourism is huge.

The Albertine Rift Valley—the northernmost section of which runs almost the full length of Uganda’s western boundary—contains more threatened vertebrate species than any other part of Africa. While it is a tourism magnet, the threat posed by wildlife crimes is as complex as it is existential to the rift  valley.

The 2019 International Institute for Environment and Development’s research with poachers in Uganda showed that up to 40 percent of elephants killed by study participants were ‘by-catch’—caught in traps set for other animals.

In January 2020, an agreement was reached among government agencies to establish an operational-level Joint Financial Investigations Team (JFIT).

The unit, staffed by among others, Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), Uganda Revenue Authority (URA), the Uganda Police Force, and Financial Intelligence Authority (FIA), runs parallel financial investigations on ‘significant’ illegal wildlife trade cases. The JFIT is, however beset by a string of problems.

In midyear 2021, UWA reported that the reported cases of wildlife crime had nearly doubled.

Maj Joshua Karamagi, the manager of investigations at UWA, concedes that it’s becoming more complex to fight wildlife crimes since the perpetrators have switched to using digital technologies.

“We have done some good work in fighting wildlife crime since I joined UWA in March 2018. In 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 revealed.

By 2020/2021, UWA found itself handling 790 cases with 1,310 suspects. Maj Karamagi says they “reached a conviction rate of 22.6 percent and prosecution rate of 55 percent.”

Threat to tourism

The increase in wildlife crimes threatens a tourism industry that directly employs more than 670,000 Ugandans. In 2019, the sector generated over $1.5billion—about nine percent of GDP.  It, however, ran into strong headwinds when the pandemic struck in 2020. Tourist visitation to the national parks and reserves dropped to almost zero from a monthly average of 25,000 visitors.

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

It is hoped that a revamped Uganda Wildlife Act 2019 will help curtail wildlife crimes like poaching. The new law heralds changes to both offences and enhanced penalties applicable to wildlife crime in Uganda.

The Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (ODPP) for instance recently established a specialised Wildlife and Environmental Crime Prosecution Division to complement the earlier establishment of a specialised wildlife crime court. This division has a broad mandate to prosecute wildlife crimes, forestry crimes, fisheries crimes and environmental management crimes.

Pangolins  are poached for their scales 

“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 prosecuting wildlife crime,” Justice Jane Frances Abodo, the Director of Public Prosecution, told The Independent (UK) in mid 2020.

Against the background of an expanding human population in the country, increased cultivation and habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict is increasing. Since 2009, human-wildlife conflict rates have reportedly risen by more than 22 percent.

At Murchison Falls National Game Park, Mr Wilson Kagoro, the manager in-charge of Community Conservation, says that poaching activities heightened during the lockdown due to difficulties in the deployment of manpower and security personnel to do monitoring of wildlife.

“We registered more cases of poaching at the park because of the lockdown,” he reveals, adding,  “It was difficult to deploy due to curfew, and there were more illegal activities.”

Although he says the scale of poaching at the park is generally not too high, Mr Kagoro hastens to add that people continue to sneak into the protected area and harvest wildlife illegally

 He is hoping that “several interventions” that include “conduct[ing] meeting with communities surrounding the park” will bear fruit.

Illegal trade corridor

For now, though, several wildlife species in the country are deliberately destined for international markets. Ever-expanding consumer markets in East Asia have driven a significant rise in transnational illegal trading in pangolins for instance.

Uganda is home to the tree/white-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis), giant pangolin (Smutsia gigantea), Cape/Temminck’s ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii) and (as yet unconfirmed), black-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tetradactyla).

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 new urgency around their protection.

Despite this 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. Yet 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 combine to make Uganda a transit hub of choice. In 2021 research, the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies revealed that Uganda has become a corridor to trade other 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 says.

It adds:  “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.”

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

While numerous inter-agency structures have been developed with external support, these—the report says—have often suffered due to overlap, lack of donor coordination, and lack of clarity on the intended purpose.

Whereas wildlife products continue to be seized and significant progress has been made 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 prioritises preventive measures alongside financial approaches.

Report

In midyear 2021, UWA reported that the reported cases of wildlife crime had nearly doubled.

Maj Joshua Karamagi, the manager of investigations at UWA, concedes that it’s becoming more complex to fight wildlife crimes since the perpetrators have switched to using digital technologies.

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