Tour operators sucked into UWA scam

A tour guide tends to a gorilla in Virunga National Park. Photo/Virunga National Park

What you need to know:

  • At the centre of the scandal, in which it is feared Uganda has lost billions, are a number of tour operators, whom investigators now want to be permanently blacklisted

An internal investigation into the suspected theft of billions of shillings at the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) has left several tour operators open to accusations of collusion in the racket.
Carried out between June and August this year, the audit into UWA’s finances has reportedly discovered that officials connived with these operators in the scheme perpetrated over several months.

The auditor’s findings followed a raid on Bwindi and Mgahinga national parks where it was discovered that officials were tampering with, or recycling lucrative gorilla tracking permits to enable the theft. 
The raid was triggered by a tip-off from a knowledgeable insider.
So far, four officials (names withheld) have been taken into custody with at least 16 others being suspended as the spotlight is turned on the Authority’s IT and Finance departments.  

At the centre of the scandal, in which it is feared Uganda has lost billions, are a number of tour operators, whom investigators now want to be permanently blacklisted.
But with the country still reeling from the shock revelations, some of those fingered in the fraud dumped all blame at the feet of UWA’s internal control systems which they say were compromised, while others chose not to comment.

Ms Joan Ichumbi, a consultant with Nshongi Tours yesterday denied her company is involved in the scam. 
“I was shocked when I saw the report that is circulating on different WhatsApp groups. I have never bought permit for Buhoma and I always take my tourists to Rushaga. If that was the area we are implicated for, I would have said maybe true some of my staff must have misbehaved, but Buhoma... no,” she said yesterday.
Ms Ichumbi also said when she visited UWA offices on Monday to procure gorilla permits, she was told someone had gone there to procure permits in the name of Nshongi.

“People are impersonating our company to procure fraud. I was at UWA today to procure permits but people at reservations said somebody had been here on Saturday. When I asked the details of the person, they told me the invoice had been taken to the Executive Director, so there are people who impersonate us. We have always dealt directly with UWA honestly and I am surprised where this is coming from,” she said.
For his part, Mr Henry Wavamuno, co-director at Dream Bandas, maintained that tourists listed against his company’s name in the UWA internal audit report have never been clients of Dream Bandas.

“I have only taken a single client to Buhoma. Most of the time I operate at Rushaga. Secondly, all the clients listed against my company have never been my clients at any time and I don’t know anyone of them,” he said.
Mr Wavamuno proposed that UWA improves its booking systems so that when someone books a permit in the name of a company, the company is automatically notified through a traceable email.
“This is one of the weaknesses UWA should work on. When I book, my company must be notified for official records purposes otherwise wrong people are impersonating our companies [which are] dealing legitimately with the UWA,” he said.

Tourists track gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in 2021. PHOTO/FILE

A senior staff member at Standard Safaris, which is also implicated in the audit report, suggested that because UWA’s booking systems are open to abuse as has been exposed by the unfolding scandal, fraudsters are taking advantage of it to impersonate legitimate companies.

“I am prone to impersonation. I have not seen that report and UWA has not officially written to me. However, I have heard the names from other sources and I can say those have never been my clients,” the individual, who asked not to be named, said.

At institutional level, UWA’s spokesperson, Mr Hangi Bashir sounded very angry when Monitor  reached him for comment.
“You have already published everything and even cooked up your own figures so what do you want me to say? We have already reported the matter to CID and let us allow the police to do its investigations,” he snapped.
He said it is only after investigations that the full truth will be come out. 

Documents seen by this publication suggest the swindle has been going on for years, but more distressing are claims that when red flags were initially raised by staff members, UWA’s top management allegedly ignored the warnings.
The auditors in their report observed that there is a general laxity in the supervision of staff in the reservation office. 

“We recommend that management should assign staff to specific system workflows to enable staff check themselves for errors and omissions before the permits are printed. We recommend that management should caution staff who print gorilla permits without proof of payment, which may lead to financial loss to Uganda Wildlife Authority,”  the report notes.

About the audit
The June-to-August audit report says tour operators recycled permits and in some cases forged accompanying receipts with the help of rogue Authority staff.
Auditors had set out to, among others, check compliance with gorilla tracking guidelines; confirm the physical stock of gorilla tracking certificates; ensure that gorilla tracking revenue is banked intact and to review the unearned income at year ended June 31, 2023.

The reservation department is faulted for over-booking, leading to noncompliance with tracking regulations, conniving with tour operators to defraud the Authority and outright corruption by some reservation staff.
A look into records at Buhoma location revealed that receipt number PSI-H01-0016708 was recycled as proof of payment by various tour companies leading to financial loss to UWA and also tax loss to Uganda Revenue Authority.

“According to the visitor register at Buhoma and Rushaga receipt number PSI¬HOl-0016708 was used to defraud UWA approximately of $62,300 for the month of July and August 2023, which is approximately Shs230.5 billion,” the report says.
Monitor is withholding names of tour operators named in specific cases for now.  There are seven tour companies implicated in transactions involving receipt number PS1- H01-0016708.

“According to the financial accounting system, Business Central Receipt No, PS1- H01-0016708 is not recognised in the system. Therefore no revenue was recorded in UWA books of account. There is a financial loss of revenue to Uganda Wildlife Authority caused by multiple usage of 
Receipt PSI-H01-0016708, which is not banked as per the Citibank register on May 5,  2023,” the report says.
Other report observations are that the “head [of] reservation, RO Gad Ekochu, should be cautioned for printing permits without proof of payment”. 

Gorilla Koko and her lifelong teacher and friend Dr Penny Patterson in 2018. PHOTO/COURTESY OF The Gorilla Foundation

Adding that, “We recommend that the warden for Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Rushaga sector should be cautioned for failure to check permits, invoices and receipts as proof of payment. We recommend that the tour companies involved in this vice should be requested to refund the money. We recommend that the tour companies involved should be blacklisted from doing business with UWA…”.

At Buhoma location, the auditors observed that receipt number PSI-HO1-0016709 was recycled as proof of payment by various tour companies to cause financial loss.
They reported that the visitor register at Buhoma and Rushaga showed that receipt number PSI¬ HOl-0016709 was used to defraud UWA approximately of $13,300 for the month of July and August 2023 which is approximately Shs49.2 million.

The audit report says at least five tour operators used Receipt PSI-H01- 0016709 as proof of payment.
“According to the Citibank register Receipt No PSI-H01-0016709 was recorded in the Citibank register on 15th April 2023 as $1,800. According to the financial accounting system, Business Control Receipt Number, PS1-H01-0016709 was issued to Hombill Treks and Safaris to track chimpanzee in KNP under SO-H01-0010358 but it was used for gorilla tracking in Rushaga and Buhoma,” the report says.

The audit report says during the revenue audit they observed that Reservation Officer Gad Ekochu reserved a number of permits with varying booking and invoice identities, totalling to $17,200 (Shs63.6 million). 
An example of how the losses were incurred is provided in the audit report where it says “that tax invoice PSI-H01-0020381 dated 12th June 2023 was issued to… for park entrance fees and not gorilla tracking… the booking ID GT126139 dated August 1, 2023 was printed by Gad Ekochu but supporting documents to support proof of payment are forged”. 

The report captures a range of such similar transactions running into millions of shillings and involving at least 15 tour operator firms. 
Calling for the blacklisting of the companies, the auditors reported that in most cases booking permits and payment receipts for proof of payment to UWA were found to have been forged or recycled to enable fraud.