The mention of Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) evokes feelings of heroism. The average person on the street knows that this is the body tasked with preserving the wildlife that Uganda is endowed with. Unfortunately, some officials in the authority threaten to ruin its reputation, Charles Etukuri and Geoffrey Araali discovered
UWA staffers have been accused of colluding with poachers to kill wildlife in Murchison Falls National Park and other game parks across the country, and of being part of the illicit trade in ivory, thereby endangering elephants and rhinos in particular. Some authority staff have also been accused of the murder of seven former poachers in Murchison Falls National Park. The former poachers went missing on June 29, 2013.
Emmanuel Opyem, Bosco Kalire, Gilbert Jawotho, Moses Mali, Lawrence Ochokudogou, Benard Ozelle and Geoffrey Okwonga belonged to a group that had denounced poaching on August 31, 2007. At the time, they handed over their hunting tools to UWA officials and formed an association, Kwer Angira ex-poachers group. Ochokudogou was the chairman. One staff member of UWA is now in detention and has been charged with kidnap with intent to murder the seven men.
Meanwhile the families have instituted a civil suit against UWA and are demanding sh3.2b in compensation. In the suit, the families have implicated four UWA officials in the area in the murder. Relatives allege that the missing men were called to execute a special mission by UWA officials and it was not the first time.
The relatives said in June 2012, UWA officials allegedly engaged some of the seven poachers, including Ochokudogou, to kill elephants and buffaloes. “They killed three elephants and 36 buffaloes and antelopes and the meat was transported to Kampala,” says John Bosco Jawotho, a relative to one of the missing men.
“When I was told that they were back into poaching, I called for a family meeting and put Ochokudogou to task to explain why he had gone back to poaching yet he was the chairperson of the association of former poachers. He promised not to engage in the practice again,” Jawotho said.
A group comprising 82 poachers who were captured with game meat. Poachers know the geography of the national park well and some officials use them to help track and illegally hunt down animals
WHAT COULD HAVE HAPPENED?
A long-serving warden who spoke on condition of anonymity said the seven were approached by officials of UWA in May last year to help transport ivory. “They went for them because they had poached in the area for long and knew the geography of the park well,” the warden says. The seven men were allegedly to transport the ivory through Masindi, to a venue where the tusks would then be loaded onto trucks. A former poacher said UWA officials had assured the men of protection. “We were assured that even the Police were involved,” he said. He said he missed out on the mission because of an urgent assignment in Masindi town. However, some of the men confided to their wives where they were going.
Jawotho, a relative of Ochokudogou, who lives in Kijura cell, alleged the seven men were lured into the park by game rangers attached to the Murchison Falls National Park. Jawotho said the men called him and told him they had met with rangers deep into the park who had asked them transport the elephant tusks through Masindi, Kiryandongo then into West Nile and then later into South Sudan. “They were promised they would be paid handsomely,” says Jawotho.
After searching for the men in vain, relatives reported the matter to Police and also sued UWA in court. According to the letters written by the family lawyer and submitted to the police, the court and to UWA, some of the men refused to transport the ivory when they were told that they would link up with some elements of the Lord’s Resistance Army who were travelling from Garamba to receive the items.
According to the documents, the men were allegedly murdered for fear that they would leak the plan and expose the racket. According to the lawyer’s documents, the men were then put under gun point and matched away and shot dead by a warden attached to Murchison Falls Park. The letters said two days after the incident a warder informed the families of what had befallen their next of kin.
The families informed the then Resident District Commissioner of Masindi, Maj (Rtd) David Matovu, about their missing relatives and asked for help. Matovu convened a security meeting during which it was decided to hand over Richard Ochaya, a UWA game ranger, to Police for criminal prosecution. The army was called in to help in the search, but it bore no fruits, prompting Matovu to write to the LC3 chairperson of Pakanyi sub-county, Mahamudu Kyamanywa, in August 2013. In the letter, Matovu said a four-day search with the Police, security, family and UWA officials on July 12 to July 16, 2013, had yielded nothing.
The RDC said a general inquiries file had been opened and that, after evaluating the evidence, security had decided to hand over Richard Ochaya to the Police. Ochaya is currently remanded and has been charged with seven counts of kidnap with intent to murder.
In November last year, the families of the missing persons protested over the manner in which the case was being handled. Through their lawyer, Willliam Alenyo of Alenyo and Company Advocates in Hoima, they wrote to the resident state attorney to order the arrest of the other UWA staffers accused of involvement. The lawyer also filed a printout of telephone calls which he said showed UWA staff were communicating with the seven during the alleged mission.
The families of the poachers that went missing in June last year
FORMER POACHERS PETITION MUSEVENI
Meanwhile, former poachers have also petitioned President Yoweri Museveni to urgently intervene in their matter. In their petition, they said for over three years, UWA had killed over 300 people extra-judicially. They said some of the people killed include 10 people in Nyamasa in 2012, 25 in Mboyra in 2011 and four in Kilyango, Buliisa in 2012. Some residents said they were living in fear as “strange people” threaten them. The lawyer himself said he was being harassed by certain elements who are using the police. “I fear for my life. My law firm and the movement of my staff are being constantly monitored,” Alenyo said.
Apart from the criminal prosecution, the family has also initiated a civil suit against UWA demanding for compensation. Their relatives desperately hope that UWA will eventually help them find out what really happened to the men, and to find their bodies if they were killed. “We have lost hope after seven months of waiting. The spirits have been demanding us to hold funeral rites which we have done. We believe they were killed,” says Jawotho. Under Ugandan law, a person can only be declared dead after missing for seven years.
Through interviews with former UWA staff and former poachers, Sunday Vision has learnt that the racket involves top Police, army and UWA officials. They are responsible for finding buyers and, in certain cases, steal from stockpiles of impounded ivory. In April last year, the District Police Commander of Kiryandongo was arrested in Matugga together with two CIID officials transporting ivory aboard a police truck. On December 19, 2013 for instance, UWA seized at Entebbe Airport 440 pieces of raw ivory and 372 pieces of worked ivory in form of bangles and chopsticks.
The consignment was destined for Malaysia through Lagos. On thorough examination of the boxes, 15 rhino horns were found stuffed together with ivory pieces and three of the tusks were marked with numbers similar to the markings UWA puts on confiscated ivory that is kept in the UWA strong room.
A suspected poacher being interrogated by wildlife officials
HOW DID THE IVORY LEAVE UWA STRONG ROOM
UWA says it is still investigating the source of the ivory. In 2011, UWA dismissed a staff member managing the armoury for involvement in the theft of 10 pieces of ivory from the strong room. Some of the stolen ivory was recovered and kept at Central Police Station as exhibits. UWA said some poachers and smugglers use Uganda as a transit route. The presence of 15 rhino horns in the illegal ivory consignment intercepted at Entebbe is an indication that some of the ivory may have come from elsewhere.
Uganda’s current population of 14 rhinos is still intact. According to UWA, since the loss of ten pieces of ivory between 2010 and 2011, no other loss has happened. “The ivory stock currently kept at Uganda Wildlife Authority is very safe and well kept in a strong room that is accessed through a password protected locking system operated by three officers.
“The door to the strong room can only be opened after entering the three passwords in the right sequence/combination. One therefore needs all the three officers to access the strong room. But sources said a group of officials are involved in connecting illegal ivory dealers online.
Sources also say some of the officials help poachers, by warning them about ranger patrols and harass any locals who report crimes. “This cartel is very powerful and their network has a chain of people, operating right from the headquarters in Kampala, to rangers in the bush, who guide every step poachers make,” a source said.
“Every time we have intelligence on the movement of poachers, they impose delaying tactics to allow them to tip off the criminals, divert patrol teams and even hold on to patrol vehicles.” In some of the game parks, poachers hide among pastoralist communities allowed to graze in parts of the park and from there, unleash terror on the animals.One of the most affected game parks is Lake Mburo National Park where the population of animals has greatly dwindled.
In a bid to fight the vice, the UK will on February host an International Conference which starts on February 13th targeting governments across Africa and America, Asia to galvanise international action against poaching
Poachers getting away
Neighbouring countries like Kenya have of recent passed new anti-poaching laws, but in Uganda poachers are treated with leniency. The majority of perpetrators pay token fines. Last year, a Chief Magistrate’s court in Fort Portal, Kabarole District, for instance, sentenced an Anglican priest, the Rev. Misaki Maitene and an ex-soldier Retired Captain Benon Twinomujuni to 12 months in prison or a sh8m fine for illegal possession of ivory and trading in protected species.
A magistrate’s court in Kiboga on Wednesday sentenced 76 poachers to a fine of sh100,000 each or serving a four month jail term after they pleaded guilty to the charges of illegal hunting and being in possession of wildlife species. The source also said corruption, particularly among wildlife custodians, makes it difficult to rein in poachers and the public officials who collude with them.
A statement on the UWA website says the organisation has a policy of zero tolerance to staff involvement in illegal activities. “Any staff that is proved to be involved in poaching or any 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 in the private sector as tour guides, drivers and hotel managers. Some of these disgruntled former UWA staff peddle several lies and misinformation about UWA to the general public and tourists because they have an axe to grind with UWA.”
UWA denies allegations
In a written response, UWA boss, Andrew Seguya, protested to the Law Council and also asked the Police to put the lawyer to task to explain the source of his information on the missing people. “We are wont to believe that the said law firm has ulterior and sinister motives other than that of seeing that justice in the matter is done. We are forced to believe that this brouhaha by the said law firm is a well-orchestrated plot to put UWA at ransom for personal gain by the members of the law firm,” Seguya said.
He said UWA and its staff had nothing to do with the alleged disappearance and/or death of the seven people. He termed the accusation as malicious propaganda aimed at tarnishing the image of the institution. He insisted that UWA could account for all the people who have access to the national park. “We have six gates at the park and each person who enters the park is registered on entry and exit.”
Asked whether some officials could be engaged in the practice behind his back, Seguya says it is impossible, maintaining that UWA has some of the best intelligence networks. Seguya also denied that the missing poachers had been in touch with his staffers shortly before they left for the alleged mission. Certified phone communications indicated that the men were in touch with their wives and some UWA officials during the alleged mission. He denied the numbers belonged to his staff.