Monkey tricks in wildlife body foiled gorilla audit

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:

  • UWA was thrown into the spotlight last year after it emerged that staff from reservations and accounts departments infiltrated the booking system and issued fake permits which allowed them to steal billions of shillings. 

Officials from the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) played monkey tricks and withheld key information about revenues from gorilla and chimpanzee tourism, the Office of the Auditor General (OAG) has said. 
The Auditor General, in his annual consolidated audit report for the 2022/2023 financial year, said the refusal by the authority to avail the documents meant that he could not authenticate the body’s financial statements, leading to a qualified audit opinion. 

“I did not obtain all the information I required to audit the gorilla and chimpanzee booking and reservation process to enable me to fully satisfy myself about the accuracy of information reported by management on revenue collected over the year,” the AG’s report noted. 

UWA was thrown into the spotlight last year after it emerged that staff from reservations and accounts departments infiltrated the booking system and issued fake permits which allowed them to steal billions of shillings. 
At least four people from the reservation, ICT, and accounts departments were arrested in connection with the fraud but were later released on police bond. Several others were suspended. However, some of those suspended have since resumed work with some redeployed to the UWA head office in Kampala. Some resumed work last week and others are expected to report to work this week. 

The OAG audit observed that the permits extended to tourists trekking in search of gorillas lacked security features to deter fraudsters, contrary to good practice and UWA’s own financial procedures manual. 
The report noted that while several conditions are printed on the back of the permit including the booking number, this is only seen at the booking stage but is not linked to finance for accountability purposes. 
The audit also noted that the permit does not provide for a receipt number, which can allow forgeries. In addition, while the permit is expected to indicate the dates when reservations were made and the expected trekking date, this was not always done. 

“Visitor’s details are not given the due attention [they] deserve. The visitor’s details practically require an individual’s details as prescribed. This assists in assessing information in case a tourist gets any complications during his/her stay with UWA,” the report said. 
“Non-adherence to the Financial Procedures Manual leads to financial losses as such inconsistencies are likely to lead to the creation of duplicate permits leading to the loss of gorilla trekking revenue for the government,” the report added.

 While the UWA did not comment on the issue of denying the audit team access to the required documents, the authority admitted to weakness in the booking system. UWA officials said management has rolled out a new booking and revenue collection system which is integrated with the accounting system. 
“The output from the two integrated systems is a ticket which has enhanced features i.e. three QR codes for the ticket number, invoice and receipt respectively. The ticket also has other features that are intended to make it a better document than the earlier used permit,” a statement from the Authority said.
UWA speaks out
UWA executive director Sam Mwandha declined to comment about the audit report when reached at the weekend because he said he was yet to read the report. He, however, explained that the authority abandoned the old system and is now using the new gorilla and chimpanzee booking system which is foolproof. 

“I am currently on leave and I cannot respond to what the audit report says,” he said. What I can only say is that the system they are talking about is an old and outdated system which we have since abandoned. We now have a new system with enhanced security and is directly linked to the authority’s accounts system. On the issue of us refusing to give relevant documents, I can only respond to that maybe next week when I see what the auditor has said because I will be back in office by that time.” 

The Auditor General in his report urged UWA to review the design of the permit and enhance its security features and system to improve revenue collection and mitigate the risk of loss of revenue from gorilla trekking. 
On October 5, 2023, the Minister of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities ordered a forensic audit into the accounts of UWA spanning the last three financial years and gave the Auditor General 30 days. However, to date the audit has never been finalised. 
The State Minister for Tourism, Mr Martin Mugara, at the weekend, told this publication that the audit is ongoing and a report will be presented to the ministry very soon. The minister said the auditors will have access to all the information they require this time. 
 “The one the Auditor General is talking about is a different one which is the annual audit report. I am not sure of that and if they denied him the access, it is unfortunate, but the one we asked for, though it delayed, right now it is ongoing and we expect the report to be tabled before the ministry,” he said. 

Mugara however said the ministry will have no leniency on those found culpable, whether they have since been reinstated in their positions or not.  
“I have not heard about the transfers and reinstatement of those who had been suspended, and if it is true, then it is unfortunate. However, for us, we are waiting for the bigger and more authoritative forensic report and whoever is found to have committed the act will be handled according to the law. We shall not compromise on this,” he said.
Bloated expenditure
The audit report also faulted the management of UWA for bloated expenditure, which the report said is contrary to the cash limit issued by the Secretary to the Treasury. According to the financial statement, the authority was allocated a cash ceiling of Shs106.75 billion but overshot that by Shs4.77 billion. 
“The Authority spent beyond the approved budget limit because extra funds from collections were spent on payment of fines and penalties levied by URA. Shs4.77 billion spent arising from the tax audit of UWA revenue was not in any budget item and was incurred without the authority of the Secretary to the Treasury who allocated the ceiling of Shs106.75 billion,” the report said. 
During the same financial year, the Auditor General also had issues with UWA over failure to audit its assets for more than five years and that the authority only disbursed Shs4.785 billion in respect of revenue sharing for the surrounding communities in national parks, leaving a balance of Shs7.44 billion undisbursed. 
UWA also spent millions of shillings in administrative advances, according to the audit report, without supporting documents. 
“Shs462 million paid out as administrative advances remained unaccounted for. There were no supporting documents while some of the payment vouchers were missing. During the financial year, the Authority did not implement 10 planned procurements valued at Shs7.371 billion. This delays service delivery,” the report says. 
Positively, the report said that the Tourism and Wildlife ministry and related agencies internally generated Shs105.3 billion against a set target of Shs92.8 billion for the FY 2022/2023, translating into 113 percent performance. UWA remained the largest contributor and accounted for 93 percent of all non-tariff revenue collections.

Monkey tricks

The mountain gorillas, which are only found in Uganda and two other neighbouring countries, are a major tourist attraction and a key source of revenue. When this publication broke the news of the trekking permit scandal last year, multiple sources at the Authority at the time explained how it worked: 
The team at the head office in Kampala would print tickets and permits and sell them out to tourists without remitting the money to the accounts department. Our sources said the team had accomplished this at both Bwindi and Mgahinga national parks where the gorillas are situated. 

Ordinarily, when one books for a gorilla permit, the person would be asked to pay the money at the bank and then bring the payslip 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 trekking permit. 

On reaching the park, the person presents the permit and the officials at the park cross-check in the system to confirm that the permit matches the identity of the person and records in the system. 
However, our sources say, the racket included people who ‘verified’ the duplicate permits created in the system allowing tourists into the park while the racketeers pocketed the money.