By Gerald Tenywa
On a typical Sunday, when the church is full to the brim, Ben Baguma steps up to the pulpit to implore people to abandon their sinful ways. He is the reverend of Rwebisengo Parish in Ntoroko district. When I caught up with him recently, it was not in the environs of Rwebisengo.
He was in detention at Kira Road Police Station in Kampala over charges of poaching elephants. Baguma’s other life came to light when wildlife officials, together with the army, bust a racket behind the armed killing of elephants in Kibale National Park. It was an unpleasant scene.
The reverend was barefooted. Because of his position in society, he always avoided eye contact. He was ashamed of the charges placed against him. Rangers, who were excited about what they called a big catch, kept urging him to face the camera. He did not oblige and they forcefully pushed his head to look up.
It was a ‘feast’ for the pressmen and onlookers. “He has been poaching for long, but his luck ran out when we used spies as buyers of ivory,” said Moses Olinga, a Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) law enforcement officer, who coordinated the operation. “We have a network of informers and Baguma’s name kept coming up as the chief financier of ivory trade in most of the intelligence reports,” he added
Part of the ivory that was being exported. Photo by Gerald Tenywa
What does Uganda Wildlife Authority say?
Charles Tumwesigye, the director of conservation at UWA, confirmed that poaching was still a problem. However, he said the animal numbers for most species were either stable or going up. Tumwesigye said some huge herds of animals were no longer visible because the distribution had changed.
He attributed this to ecological changes, which he said were negatively affecting pastures. As a result, he said, most animals were moving towards Lake George and areas near Kasese in Queen Elizabeth National Park. “We have conducted an animal census and the conclusion is that the animal population is increasing. But the tourism routes will have to be changed in Queen Elizabeth to enable visitors to see the animals easily,” he said.
Baguma was nabbed selling ivory. Photo by Gerald Tenywa
Reasons for unabated poaching
UWA has been raising awareness by calling for creation of alternative livelihoods for people living near the parks. But the approach has failed to tame poaching. In addition, community conservation strategies are thought to contribute to changing attitudes and mobilising support, according to sources. But UWA is underfunded and community conservation is not working to reduce poaching, according to sources. “Also, people around the parks are poor and, therefore, depend on bush meat for food and income.”
“In the absence of effective poverty reduction programmes in such areas as national parks, poaching is unstoppable. What are the acceptable alternatives to the poacher?” the source asks.Queen Elizabeth National Park. Its tusks had been extracted from the carcass, meaning UWA officials are still running in the shadows of the poachers at the park.
At Kibale, elephants are being killed using automatic rifles (AK47) or trapped in pits, where sharp sticks are planted and covered with leaves. When the elephants fall into the trap, the poachers cut off the tusks and leave the carcass behind. In northern Uganda, poaching is still a problem in Murchison Falls National Park, but Olinga says the rate has reduced, compared to what it was two years ago.
Uganda among the gang of eight A dark cloud still hangs over Uganda, which was accused at the most recent Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), of providing a safe haven for poachers from neighbouring countries. The poachers also use Uganda as a trafficking route. Sources also fear that the poachers could turn their guns to Uganda’s elephants. CITES cited Kenya and Tanzania among what they called the ‘gang of eight’, in reference to countries which are doing little to curb the illegal trade in ivory.
Others are Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines, and destination countries, Thailand and China. The countries were ordered by CITES to provide a programme of action to minimise the trade in ivory in the next 12 months or face sanctions. “There was a high level meeting on elephant poaching when the Thailand prime minister visited Uganda recently,” says Mutagamba. Other measures, according to Mutagamba include setting up an intelligence unit, recruiting 430 rangers and placing gadgets that can detect ivory at Entebbe Airport.
Sources say Kenya has put in place punitive laws, from which Uganda can copy. Poachers from West Africa and countries in Asia were operating rackets in Uganda because of the weak wildlife laws, according to sources. Illegal ivory traced back to Uganda About 1.3 tonnes of elephant ivory were recovered in Mombasa, Kenya, hidden under fish for export.
According to the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), the Malaysia-bound ivory was from Uganda. KWS revealed that the ivory was stashed in bundles and sacks and hidden in the fish maws within the container and was ferried from Malaba (at the Kenya-Uganda border) to Mombasa. Its value was estimated at $342,000. Asan Kasingye, the Interpol director told Saturday Vision that they were working with UWA and Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) to establish the origin of the ivory. Last year, tusks belonging to 200 elephants were impounded at Entebbe Airport, according to Kasingye.
This happened just after a massacre of elephants in Garamba National Park, in the DR Congo, by heavilyarmed poachers, assisted by a helicopter. animals hard to see in Queen Elizabeth In areas around Queen Elizabeth NAtional Park, poaching is worse than is reported, according to sources.
“When you take a game drive through the park, you will keep wondering where the animals have gone.” A tourist who was giving feedback to one of the tour operators after a game drive in Queen Elizabeth complained that the animals were becoming too elusive. Tour operators say Murchison turns into butcher ground In Murchison Falls, the problems have been compounded by the current exploration of oil.
Also key is the fact that bush meat is part of the culture of the people in northern Uganda. While park authorities in Murchison say poaching has scaled down compared to the rate two years ago, tour operators say every time they are on a game drive, they encounter abandoned carcasses or poachers on a hunting spree.
“When you report to UWA, they intimidate you,” a source told Saturday Vision on condition of anonymity. “It is unfair for tourists to spend their money and get almost nothing out of it. After encounters with poachers spearing animals, what will tourists tell others who are planning to come?”