KAMPALA - Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) has apprehended a number of people suspected to be the masterminds of illegal trade in wildlife.
The culprits, under the leadership of a Malian national with expired travel documents, were intercepted with six tons of pangolin scales.
Due for deportation to Tanzania where the shipment was detained, the multi-nation operation was led by UWA together with partners like the Lusaka Agreement Task Force with support from Interpol and Freeland.
“All eight species of pangolin are listed as threatened with extinction on the IUCN Red List,” stressed UWA publicist Gessa Simplicious.
“Neither can their long and powerful claws that enable them rip open ant nests protect them against poachers nor can the long sticky tongue used for picking up insects deter aggressive intruders.”
Pangolins are unique in that they are the world’s only scaly mammals.
Their scales are made of keratin, which is the same protein found in rhino horn and human fingernails. The strong scales overlap themselves like leaves. In the wild, when attacked, they roll up in a ball to protect themselves but lately, this defense mechanism does not help them defend against poachers.
They are one of the most sophisticated mammals with their tongues attached near their pelvis and are sheathed in a chest cavity. There are eight species in total, four of which are found in Asia and the other four are in Africa.
But their high demand is triggering an unsustainable level of poaching and illegal trade. Known to be the world’s most illegally trafficked wild mammals, more than one million are estimated to have been traded in the past ten years.
“This is despite a commercial trade ban for wild-caught pangolins in Asia,” said Gessa.
“Unfortunately, as their populations of the four Asian pangolin species plummet, traders are now looking to Africa to meet demand. We have had a rapid succession of confiscated cargo by air, road and water.”
Although they have been eaten by local communities and used for medicinal purposes in Uganda, the number of pangolins is declining due to an increase in demand for their meat which is becoming a delicacy in Asia. The scales and other body parts are now on high demand where they are used in medicinal concoctions only.
This tree pangolin was rescued by Augustine Kikomeko around Kisekka market in August last year
During the latest seizure of the six tons of pangolin scales, the suspects comprising one Ugandan Haruna Bahago Ibigo and Tanzanian nationals Geoffrey George Peleus, Benjamin Gregory Ruvunduka, Ali Saidi Ahmed, Ombeni Hausi Mbekilwa, Kibonese Golagoza Ruvunduka, Shukuru Joel Mwakalebela, Nuru Athumani and Nixon George were arrested.
“The suspects will face charges in court in Tanzania for conspiracy and trafficking in the illegal wildlife trade,” said Gessa.
“Their final destination must have been Asia where they are on high demand for food and medicine concoctions.
Part of the confiscated stock has been traced to from West Africa, DR Congo and Uganda. It was being smuggled to Tanzania by buses shuttling between Kampala and Dar es Salaam via the Mutukula border. The network reportedly involves sophisticated transactions and a wide network.
With collaborations and support from key partners comprising Lusaka Agreement Task Force (LATF) and Freeland, the crackdown on the suspects was made possible through coordinated planning at regional level and sharing intelligence briefs.
The UPDF also had a series of UWA rangers training to halt and investigate poaching.
“The cooperation in enforcement operations among states is key in fighting wildlife trafficking especially in respect to endangered species such as the pangolin,” said a tourism police official.
“The continued seizures of large quantities of pangolin scales across the world suggest massive poaching of the animal that constitutes a great risk of species extinction.”
LATF team where Uganda is signatory to have been undergoing specialized training by a US government-sponsored counter wildlife trafficking program to investigate wildlife trafficking syndicates and other major wildlife crimes.
The increasing scarcity of pangolins in Asia has led to an escalation in market prices which is now driving the illegal poaching of African species.
All pangolin species are in rapid decline due to heavy poaching pressure, particularly for use of their body parts in traditional medicine, as luxury foods in Asia, and as bush meat throughout their range.
The latest arrests will be seen as a welcome disruption in the illegal chain of supply of these endangered mammals on the market.