Recently there has been a spate of press reports in print and electronic media, including The New Vision, on increasing illegal activities in the protected Areas with particular emphasis on rampant poaching which has affected the population of the wildlife in national parks and wildlife reserves. Of particular concern was a special report reinforced with an editorial opinion in the Saturday Vision of September 1, 2012 under the headline "25 Elephants killed in 2011 as poachers go on rampage" and the editorial titled "Let us deal with poaching decisively".
Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) appreciates the concern from the media and the public about these unfortunate situations. Since its creation in 1996, UWA inherited the problem of poaching and encroachment of protected areas and has been battling them for sixteen years now. Fortunately, the efforts UWA has since invested in fighting poaching yielded fruit as the wildlife numbers have continued increasing. Statistically, large mammals censuses have revealed that the elephant numbers for Queen Elizabeth Protected Area increased from 400 in 1988 to 2,959 in 2010, buffaloes from 5000 to 14,858, Hippos from 2200 to 5,024 and Kobs from 18,000 to 20,971. In Murchison Falls Protected Area, elephant population increased from 201 in 1995 to 904 in 2010, buffaloes from 2,477 to 9,192, giraffes from 153 to 930 and Hartebeests from 2,431 to 3,589. However, it is important to note that the killing of elephants for ivory generally shot up over the last four years, not only in Uganda but within the entire elephant range states in Africa, for which concerted efforts of governments, NGOs, Donors, communities and the general public are needed to fight it. The reasons for this increased illegal killing of elephants in Africa shall be explained later in this article. Nevertheless, with such data in place, its not correct for the press (The Saturday Vision of September 1, 2012) to report that Uganda's wildlife is at the verge of extinction and that UWA is not doing much to control poaching in protected areas. UWA has an effective law enforcement unit in each protected area whose role is to control and prevent illegal activities and this is being done amidst a number of challenges like any other Institution.. The Special Report also contained inaccuracies and wrong information that UWA would wish to correct with regard to the alleged brutal murder of Semliki's Baraka. UWA wishes to clarify to the general public that the alleged Baraka elephant is not known to UWA staff and we would like to challenge any tourists or tour operator who has ever taken pictures with this otherwise peaceful Baraka as insinuated in the article to produce such photos to substantiate the claim. The picture of the dead elephant published in the report as that of Baraka and purported to have been killed recently is a UWA photograph taken on 2nd September 2010 when two elephants were killed by poachers in Toro Semliki Wildlife Reserve. The said poachers (led by Mr. Isaya Mugisha of Rwebisengo in Ntoroko District, accompanied by Mpaka Erica, Bihwaho Jamal and Mwine) were tracked and arrested by rangers, three pieces of ivory recovered, an automatic rifle AK47 used in the brutal killing of the two elephants impounded and the suspects arraigned before the 2nd Division Court Martial in Mbarara where they were charged in 2010. This was one of the cases that was properly and exhaustively investigated and the culprits prosecuted successfully. Reports of this incident and case as well as photographs including the one published on Saturday Vision of September 1, 2012 are all on file. It is unfortunate that one would use such a picture to portray UWA as a failed institution which has turned guns on the wildlife they are supposed to protect.
What has triggered increased poaching of elephants?
Elephants are generally killed not for meat but for their tusks made of ivory that is used in making expensive jewellery. In 1989, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) banned trade in ivory and other elephant products following the massive killing of elephants in Africa to supply the demand for ivory in Asian markets especially in China. With the ban of the International market on sale of ivory, elephant populations in Africa started recovering and in Southern African countries (South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe), the numbers of elephants increased to levels that instead caused habitat destruction and created lots of community conflicts. In 1997, these countries successfully convinced the Conference of Parities of CITES to downgrade their elephant populations from Appendix I (very high protection status) to Appendix II and allow limited commercial trade in raw ivory from these countries to Japan and China but this trade was not effected as a number of conditions set for these countries to trade in ivory were not met. In 2008, the CITES Conference of Parties (CoP14) allowed the four countries mentioned above to get rid of their stock piles of raw ivory as a "one-off sale" to China and Japan to generate resources for conservation of the remaining population. This opening up of the ivory market (meant for only the legally hunted and those killed as problem elephants from southern African countries) that was once closed unfortunately opened up illegal trade in ivory with the scrupulous traders finding an . Within four years of opening up the ivory market for the legal ivory trade, Africa has experienced the highest levels of illegal killing of elephants and though Uganda has only lost 25 elephants through illegal killing in 2011, other countries including our neighbours Kenya, Tanzania and DRC have lost several hundreds according to the data presented at a recent CITES meeting in Geneva Switzerland (62nd CITES Standing Committee meeting in July 2012) . The elephant poaching seen in Africa is a well coordinated and organized crime involving unknown rich, lots of monies and guns and the fight against this vice will require concerted efforts of communities, government, all security and law enforcement agencies including UWA, Police, Interpol, Army, Judiciary and URA's Customs to break down the international racket involved in the ivory trade. The local communities who are involved in the killing of the elephants are like the disease symptoms and not be the biggest problem. Rather, the buyers of this ivory who are living lavishly in Hotels as they wait for their kill are what we need to land our hands on to break the racket.
Poaching of other animals inside and outside protected areas
The perceived increase in poaching is actually a result of increased awareness of the general public on wildlife conservation than an actual increase in poaching. The general public is now more sensitized and enlightened about wildlife conservation that they are beginning to see that there is poaching going on yet this has been historically happening before the national parks were created more than 50 years ago. Originally, Kings used to hunt openly in our present protected areas. Likewise, community members used to hunt wildlife both inside protected areas and in areas that hosted wildlife outside the protected areas. Generally, more game was killed during that time as compared to today as almost all the communities depended on wildlife for meat food resources, including ceremonial dresses. Worldwide, poaching evolved with conservation and is still a challenge for all countries with wildlife resources. The problem is therefore not isolated in Uganda but a global threat to wildlife conservation. However, in Uganda, poaching has always been handled through the usual means of deployments, ambushes, patrols where the suspected poachers are arrested and prosecuted and this strategy will be be enhanced with more effective method to deter poachers who are becoming more advanced in machinery and techniques. There is also still plenty of wildlife outside protected areas in some areas like Kafu Basin, Karamoja, and the entire "cattle corridor" as it is often called for which UWA has no presence and these areas continue to be the source of game meat that finds its way to towns including Kampala. UWA has occasionally deployed and undertaken operations in these areas where several poachers have been arrested and prosecuted in courts of law but because there is no permanent presence, it is difficult to patrol all these areas when we still have challenges of maintaining effective mechanisms of controlling poaching within the areas gazetted as protected areas.
What seems to be a significant impact on wildlife population is reflected in the numbers of the Uganda kobs and Predators (lions, leopards, hyenas etc), in Queen Elizabeth National Park as wildlife counts indicate a reduction in populations of the wildlife species listed above. Other species populations are either stable or increasing (see attached table showing trends of wildlife populations in the country since the 1960s to present. UWA is working with other conservation bodies and NGOs to conduct research into the causes of decline in populations of Uganda kobs in Queen Elizabeth National Park but our preliminary findings point to the fact that the Kobs in Queen Elizabeth are not breeding and this may be attributed to habitat changes as a result of climate change, which is a global phenomenon. However, this will be established once the ongoing research is concluded. It cannot be true that kobs in Queen Elizabeth have reduced because of poaching as poachers generally do not focus on kobs as their main target. Besides, the population in Ishasha Sector is healthy than in northern and central Queen Elizabeth National Park where there has been noticeable habitat change.
The decreasing predator population is three fold; one is that their populations are affected by the prey population and as the kob population goes down, so will the lion populations; the second reason is that there is a serious conflict between pastoral communities which have invaded and settled within the fishing villages where the predators (lions, leopards and hyenas) roam freely. With this routine activity of the predators, livestock has always fallen as the culprit and the pastoralists have always retaliated by poisoning the predators. Some of these incidences were recorded in Kahendero fishing village where a lioness and a number of scavenging birds were found dead after being poisoned. A pride of nine lions was also cleared by the Basongora at the time they invaded and stayed inside the park before they were evicted by Government. Since the predators' numbers are generally fewer as a result of their position on top of the food chain, further poisoning of a few predators will have a significant impact on their populations. The third reason is the disease factor. Research has shown that large predators suffer from several viral and bacterial diseases that result in high infant mortalities. This is a natural phenomenon to regulate the population of organisms that sit on top of every food chain. There is however still a healthy population of lions in the national parks and many visitors to Murchison Falls, Kidepo Valley and Queen Elizabeth National Parks still report good sightings of this king of the jungle that makes their visit memorable. However, government needs to assist UWA to address the issue of pastoralists who have started staying in fishing villages as these areas were purposely established for fishing as the main economic activity. It is important to note that as long as the influx of pastoralists into the fishing villages is not controlled, the conflicts between predators and livestock will definitely continue and the country will therefore continue to lose them through poisoning and other unknown methods of elimination. Unfortunately, it is not the responsibility neither a mandate of UWA to regulate activities in fishing villages which are legally outside the national park.
The other factor that might have contributed to the perceived increase in poaching is related to the turmoil experienced by Uganda Wildlife Authority two years ago when almost its entire top management and the Board of Trustees were removed creating a situation of uncertainty amongst the staff and the general public .We believe the outside communities, particularly the poachers also took advantage of the situation to intensify their illegal activities as the morale of the patrol men dwindled. However, the situation has since improved and a governance Board put in place which has immediately started addressing the human resource issues as well as staff welfare issues.
The main challenge UWA is facing in addressing the issue of poaching and other illegal activities inside and outside protected areas is related to the weak laws and penalties for the culprits convicted of wildlife crimes. Most of the convicted criminals for wildlife offences are fined as little as 50,000 shillings or few months/years imprisonment (for say hippo carcasses from which they will get about 5 million) which is not deterrent enough to stop the diehard poachers and their collaborators. However with the proposed amendments in the Wildlife Act suggesting fines equivalent to the values of affected species on the International market and more stringent penalties, we believe the vice will be minimised.
UWA is also gradually strengthening its prosecution unit to expedite investigations and prosecutions. This is coming after realization that UWA currently does not prosecute and instead hand over the suspects to police who if not properly sensitized end up mishandling wildlife cases resulting in suspects winning cases or getting light sentences that are not punitive enough to stop them from engaging in subsequent poaching activities or other illegal activities. There are many instances where the same suspects have appeared more than 3 times in courts over similar offences, an indication that they never learn from weak sentences which they earn from the Courts of Law.
There is also a factor of lack of political will at the local level to fight poaching. Many times, local politicians will intervene to ensure that suspected poachers who are arrested are tried in courts within their home areas where the cases can be influenced. It is very rare to find local politicians condemning poaching. Instead they condemn UWA staff for being ruthless and anti-people. Unless this political will is cultivated within the local politicians including some Members of Parliament, it will always be a big hurdle for UWA alone to address poaching.
UWA strategies to address poaching inside and outside protected areas
UWA shall continue to engage and work with relevant stakeholders to address poaching and other illegal activities especially encroachment on wildlife protected areas. We have been having multi-agency wildlife sensitization seminars targeting the Judiciary, the police, the army, customs and other law enforcement agencies to bring these agencies on board and solicit their support for wildlife conservation and this strategy will continue. Workshops have been held in each region of the country and such meetings will be intensified as the officers sensitized get transferred to other areas and go with the knowledge. The new Board of Trustees has approved the creation of a special intelligence unit within the structure of UWA to gather information about poaching and other illegal activities and prevent these before they occur. This way, we shall be more proactive than being reactive. The unit will be comprised of about 80 staff located in all regions of the country to work with other intelligence agencies to address issues of wildlife crime.
UWA has a policy of zero tolerance to staff involvement in illegal activities. Any staff that gets proved involved in poaching or other illegal activity is summarily dismissed from the institution. A number of staff have lost their jobs and others had their contracts not renewed for suspected involvement and/or abetting illegal activities. The biggest challenge however is that some of the staff who have lost jobs in UWA have ended up being employed by the private sector as Tour Operator guides, drivers and Hotel managers and therefore remain working within the wildlife sector. Some of these disgruntled former UWA staff continue to peddle several lies and misinformation about UWA to the general public and tourists because they have an axe to grind with UWA.
UWA has in place a number of policies, regulations and guidelines to address illegal activities. We shall intensify patrols, ambushes, spot checks and intelligence gathering in and around protected areas to protect the wildlife from poachers and preserve the integrity of protected areas.
UWA appeals to the general public to work closely with the institution in addressing and combating wildlife crime as patriotic citizens. Wildlife is important to this country and is one of the top three leading contributors to the GDP that it should be a concern of everybody and not UWA alone to combat poaching and other illegal activities. We are open to criticism which is positive and genuine for the betterment of our country. We can only achieve much as a country if we work together and join hands.
Conserving for Generations