Lately, there has been a series of press reports in print and electronic media going viral on the various social media platforms about the increasing illegal activities in the protected areas of Uganda; rampant poaching which has affected the population of the wildlife in national parks and wildlife reserves.
Following this very long time, the Ugandan government has finally got a solution for poachers encroaching on the wildlife that habits the different National Parks of Uganda. Over the years, poachers have been infringing on the wildlife that attracts travellers for Uganda wildlife safaris in Uganda’s different national parks including Queen Elizabeth National Park, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Mgahinga National Park, Murchison Falls National Park, Kidepo Valley National Park among the many.
The Uganda Wildlife Authority; an organization that regulates Uganda’s National Parks welcomed the Uganda Wildlife Act 2019 that was enacted by the Ugandan parliament early this week (Tuesday) which instructs a life sentence or a fine of 20 billion shillings if found guilty of killing endangered species in conservation areas.
What are the endangered species?
Endangered is a term that refers to species which are ‘endemic’ to a country or specific area in other words not found anywhere else in the world, outside the country or specified area. Because they are only found in particular areas, this raises their profile definitely. Once they are driven to extinction here, then they will automatically become globally extinct.
Uganda is home to many endangered species including the famous mountain gorillas that are open for travellers interested in Uganda gorilla safaris or Uganda gorilla tours. Uganda is home to half of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas in its two gorilla destinations; Bwindi Impenetrable National Park Uganda and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. Other endangered species in Uganda include; African lions, African Elephants, Rhinos, Pangolins, chimpanzees etc.
Why is there poaching in Uganda?
According to the Uganda Wildlife Trafficking report Poaching in Uganda is practised mainly for meat, human-wildlife conflict, for the pet trade and traditional and medicinal uses. The main target species for ivory, meat and skins and other products like scales, feathers in Uganda are: antelopes, Warthogs and wild pigs (meat); Lions, and Leopards Panthera pardus (human-wildlife conflict and skins); pangolins (meat and scales used in African and Asian traditional medicine), chameleons (for international pet trade); and birds (as pets and for traditional purposes–rituals and beliefs).
Areas prone to poaching in Uganda
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
Three suspected poachers were once arrested over the brutal killing of a 12-year-old male mountain gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park situated in south-western Uganda, on June 17. Four others are on the run. The healthy gorilla identified as Mizaano, was the only black back in the Habinyanja mountain gorilla family, was speared to death as he tried to fight the poachers’ hunting dogs. The poachers had reportedly laid traps in the forest, targeting antelopes, duikers and other edible animals, but the traps caught the male gorilla instead.
Mountain gorillas, the lifeline of Uganda’s tourism industry, were once listed under the critically endangered species by the IUCN. Uganda is home to half of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas hence attracting a big number of travellers for Uganda gorilla tours. Much of the total population is found in Bwindi which has over 32 gorilla families among which only 18 are habituated and available for gorilla trekking safaris in Uganda compared to Mgahinga Gorilla National Park Uganda which has only one habituated gorilla family. These mountain gorillas are threatened with encroachment on their habitat, low birth rates and zoonotic diseases.
Murchison Falls National Park
Murchison Falls National Park is a hugely important component of Uganda’s protected area network and the biggest of all measuring 5200 sq. km. In the 1960s Murchison Falls National Park Uganda was famed for its abundance of wildlife. At that time, elephant numbers in Uganda were over 30,000. Half of that population was found in Murchison Falls Park. From the early 1970s, elephants were hunted down with liberty by both security forces and raiding poachers for ivory, accounting for the decline in the elephant population by over 80%.
In the early 1990s, the government of Uganda was committed to conservation and protection of the remaining wildlife. Counts in 1995 indicated a population of 200-350 for the entire protected area while the survey done in 1999 indicated an increase in elephants to 780. The population of elephants is now estimated at 904 in Murchison Falls National Park following the UWA count in 2010.
Although recovering, wildlife populations in Murchison Falls National Park remain a fraction of their former extent. As a result, an increase in poaching represents a major threat and must be met with swift and effective counteraction to prevent major setbacks in the species’ recovery.
Other parks under threat in Uganda include Kidepo Valley National Park, Queen Elizabeth National Park Uganda among the many.
About the new Uganda Wildlife Act 2019
The Ugandan Parliament on Tuesday endorsed a strict wildlife law that would see poachers jailed for life if found guilty as their days are now numbered. According to the new law, anyone who hunts or attacks a protected specimen is liable for life imprisonment upon conviction. The same penalty awaits those who sell, buy or transfer protected wildlife specimen.
Earlier this month, authorities arrested two Vietnamese nationals who were found with about 750 pieces of ivory and thousands of pangolin scales en route from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
We acknowledge the President of Uganda, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, that he has given assent to the Uganda Wildlife Bill 2017, effectively making the Uganda Wildlife Act law.
The Uganda Wildlife Authority Bill 2017 replaces the old Uganda Wildlife Act 1996 that conservationists say was no deterrent. The object of the bill is to provide for the conservation and sustainable management of wildlife, to strengthen wildlife conservation and management, to continue the Uganda Wildlife Authority, to streamline roles and responsibilities for institutions in wildlife conservation and management; and for other related matters.
The Act was passed because the penalties in the Uganda Wildlife Act Cap 200 had lost value since 1996 and were not preventive enough to check the increasing levels of poaching and wildlife trafficking.
This new law has significant reforms that will transform wildlife conservation in Uganda. See highlights;
- Community participation in wildlife management is strengthened through Community Wildlife Committees for each protected area.
- Penalties up to life sentences and fines of UGX 20bn (€4.83m) or both have been introduced for wildlife crime involving endangered species.
- Revenue-sharing programme reformed into conditional grants to communities.
- The commercialisation of wildlife on private land is promoted through sustainable utilisation.
- Domesticated CITES implementation in Uganda.
- Compensation for wildlife-induced damage outside protected areas.
The objective of the Act is set to provide for the conservation and sustainable management of wildlife and to streamline roles and responsibilities for institutions in wildlife conservation and management.
Why are there challenges in implementing the laws?
The main challenge Uganda Wildlife Authority is facing is addressing the issue of poaching and other illegal activities inside and outside protected areas. This challenge 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 yet they sell animals and get about 5 million. These weak laws are not deterrent enough to stop the diehard poachers as well as their collaborators. However, with the proposed amendments in the Wildlife Act suggesting lifetime imprisonment and more stringent penalties, we believe the vice will be minimised.
There are no strict leaders at the local levels set to fight to poach. Many times, local politicians 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 the Uganda Wildlife Authority 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.
Uganda Wildlife Authorities strategies to address poaching inside and outside protected areas
The Uganda Wildlife Authority (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. The staff have lost their jobs and others had their contracts not renewed for suspected involvement 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 grind with UWA.
UWA shall continue to engage and work with relevant stakeholders to address poaching and other illegal activities especially encroachment on wildlife protected areas. It has put up multi-agency wildlife sensitization seminars targeting the Judiciary, the police, the army, customs and other law enforcement agencies to bring these agencies on board, asking their support for wildlife conservation and this strategy is still on.
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 number of policies, regulations and guidelines to address illegal activities like intensifying patrols, ambushes, spot checks and intelligence gathering in and around protected areas to protect the wildlife from poachers to preserve the honour 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.
Close to 500 game rangers have been passed out by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) to beef up the security of wildlife in the country’s national parks and game reserves after undergoing training at Murchison Falls Training Ground in Nwoya district. Also, the fight against poaching guarantee increased Uganda safaris for gorilla trekking in Bwindi, game viewing and other related packages in the Pearl of Africa.
In conclusion, the Uganda Wildlife Authority 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.