FOR 32-year-old Andrew Namasoko, staring death in the face is an everyday experience. A chill goes down his spine whenever he recalls that fateful day in October last year, when Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) guards confronted three of them for allegedly killing two young antelopes in Kapchorwa-Bugimotwa village of Mt. Elgon forest.
That morning, two armed guards got them unaware at the forestâ€™s extreme end, shot and instantly killed two of his friends; Alan Wofuba, 26, and Peter Nandila as they tried to flee from the scene of crime armed with one gun and two bows and arrows.
â€œWe were hunting and had got our biggest catch for the week when we were confronted by two guards. We struggled to escape, but unfortunately the guards caught up with us and opened fire, killing two of my trusted friends and shot me in the leg and arm. This made me crippled,â€ he says, with tears welling up in his eyes.
Namasoko fell in the bush with his friends and he was left for dead. With the guards away from the scene, he could neither walk nor stand up. He crawled towards the nearest footpath in the dense forest, where he was rescued by another poacher, who rushed him to the hospital. An amputation was recommended for his badly injured foot and arm. He now uses crutches to walk and his hunting life is no more.
The recent eviction of the Bennet from part of Mt.Elgonâ€™s protected area was the climax of the many clashes between the locals and UWA.
Namasoko, Wofuba and Nandilaâ€™s lives are a representation of hundreds of poachers forced to hunt wildlife in Mt. Elgon to survive the biting poverty, hunger and disease â€“ but poaching is like shaking death by the hand in the forest.
Forest guards roam the forest protecting it from illegal poachers, loggers and those engaged in cutting down trees for firewood and charcoal.
They target poachers because they believe they are destroying wildlife and confronting them is the only way to scare them.
Pushed to the wall by poverty, ignorance, and marginalisation, the poachers cannot afford basic needs like clothing and good shelter. That is why many people in the area have turned to poaching.
However, many people feel that UWA guards are heavy handed in dealing with the poor people. â€œUWA is so cruel. This is the only area for survival and livelihood, for our community. The forest is ours and we have depended on it for years without destruction from organisations like UWA.â€
â€œWe have used it for hunting wild animals, collecting fuel wood and building materials. Why kill the people? We are hurt because UWA is using illegal ways to handle a simple problem. This is massacre and if nothing is done, the major conflict brewing between us will result into a fight for our forest, against the people who want to prevent us from using our resources,â€ says Felix Beswa, a community leader of the area.
The poachers confess that going into the wilderness to hunt is dangerous but they cannot stop. â€œI only feel safe once am back home. But I cannot stop poaching because it will mean sleeping hungry. I would rather die while looking for food to survive than starve,â€ adds Beswa.
Like Namasoko, other poachers like Martin Gambwa have not been that lucky. In 2006, Gambwa was shot in the right arm by UWA guards when he was caught red-handed felling a tree for timber.
In the scuffle which involved one guard, Gambwa wrestled him, but ended up sustaining a bullet wound when the guard pulled the trigger. Luckily enough, it was minor and he managed to flee for his life.
â€œI was almost killed but my strength helped me,â€ he says. In Bugimotwa, some 20 kilometres away from Gambwaâ€™s home, the community is campaigning against the killings by UWA.
The community argues that UWA should arrest the culprits and the court be brought in to solve the situation, rather than shoot the suspects on sight.
According to Rev. Nathan Manana: â€œThis is not the right method of protecting a forest which people use for their benefit. UWA needs to take the culprits to court and the due process followed, otherwise this is unethical and the community will fight to the end.â€
The Reverend advises that what UWA needs to do is to sensitise the forest community about the benefits of the forest.
Part of the problem is that UWA has excluded the people from the management of the forest. The community does not receive any benefits from the forest with UWA in charge and therefore feel isolated.
â€œWe are very disappointed by UWA. We know this is our forest and we also know that we are entitled to the benefits from it. Unfortunately, since UWA started managing the forest in 1993, when it was gazetted into a forest reserve, cutting of trees for timber by rich people has accelerated, but UWA has not even constructed a simple hospital, road or even a mere borehole.
These are double standards. We are tired of this routine and soon we shall mobilise the population to bring our forest into local management,â€ says Moses Wodi, the LC1 chairman of the area. But UWA denies the claims.
According to the chief warden Johnson Masereka these allegations are totally untrue and malicious. â€œOur guards are well-trained in handling civilians. UWA has never taken the law into its own hands. We shall never shoot anyone unless that person is armed and dangerous to our guards. We have a code of conduct and if there is a guard breaking the code, the law will apply to him or her.â€
Masereka adds that in fact there is maximum co-operation between the guards and the local people and that the local people are getting employment in UWA.
â€œWe have employed their sons and daughters as forest guards, field officers and as a matter of accuracy, UWA involves itself in community projects like provision of water through improvement of wells, uplifting rural roads by providing a token to the areas we operate in at a local level. Therefore, it is totally untrue that we are doing nothing to help the population,â€ adds Masereka.
According to James Woliba, a UWA guard and the son of the area: â€œThe people who have been killed so far are bandits who trek from their homes to Kenya and steal cattle from there and end up exploiting forest resources in various ways like cutting down timber for wood. In most cases these are armed people who retaliate when we try to restrain them.â€
Woliba adds that the stakes are high in Mt. Elgon and the conflicting activities in the forest are on the increase.
In the Bennet area for example, people have defied UWA and continue to occupy the disputed 6,000 hectares of forest land and the environmental effects have increased, according to Masereka.
â€œThe Ndorobo people have occupied a very big portion of the forest and efforts to remove them have hit a snag with the government allowing them to settle there until a court battle between them and UWA is cleared,â€ says Masereka. â€œBut the forest is reducing in size and its resources are fast dwindling through agriculture-slash and burn.â€ But even in the midst of all this, there is hope.
According to Masereka in 2006, the poaching went down from 20% to 5%, mainly due to UWA efforts.
Woliba adds that the clergy and the community leaders have taken steps in encouraging environmental protection through planting of trees and encouraging agro-forestry.
Locals, wildlife authority battle for Mt Elgon forest