IN the last six months, five Chinese nationals were arrested at Entebbe International Airport with ivory. In the same period, more than 10 elephants were killed by suspected poachers around Queen Elizabeth National Park in western Uganda.
Given that Uganda was previously losing only three elephants to poaching every year, the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) is concerned about the new wave of elephant poaching, writes Gerald Tenywa
Two weeks ago, six-year-old Henry Musisi of Kawempe paced away saying: â€œGo away,â€ before disappearing into a crowd of school children, but his new friend, Charles Hamukungu, a baby elephant at the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre kept on directing his trunk at him. It was a hide-and-seek game that evoked a lot of laughter from Musisi.
But Musisi was saddened when he learnt that underneath this innocent, charming crowd puller at the wild side of Entebbe, lay a tale of anguish.
Two months ago, a fisherman found this baby elephant fighting for his life by the lakeshore in Hamukungu village in Queen Elizabeth National Park.
The calf still had its umbilical cord, meaning he was a new born. He was alone and about to drown in the lake waters. The fisherman found it strange that the mother had abandoned this sweet bundle of joy. But the truth soon unravelled: A carcass of a bull with bullet wounds was discovered floating on Lake George.
This comes hot on the heels of other elephants that had been gunned down along River Ishasha along the Uganda-DR Congo border in April. Earlier, two elephants were poisoned using water melon and pineapples laced with acid in the Ishasha area of Queen Elizabeth National Park.
Within the last six months, eight carcasses of elephants were discovered in the nearby Kasyoha-Kitomi forest reserve in Bushenyi. Their tusks had been removed.
Ivory hunters on rampage
Wilson Katamigwa, a warden in charge of the Ishasha sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park, elephants are targeted and poaching is not about to stop.
Before 2009, about three elephants was being killed every year in Uganda. Currently more than 10 elephants could have perished at the hands of poachers.
Ugandaâ€™s protected areas have always been considered a safe haven for wildlife species and conservationists would only worry once large mammals like elephants crossed over to the DRC. The DRC has, since the mid-1990s, been turned into death fields for wild animals. Armed groups operating in the eastern parts of DRC shoot down animals for ivory.
â€œThe rate of elephant death in Uganda has been investigated and it is not as high as it is in Kenya and the DRC,â€ says Lillian Nsubuga, the UWA public relations manager. â€œBut the Ugandan elephants are far from being safe since there are corridors through which elephants from Ugandan parks move to neighbouring countries. We need concerted efforts across the boundaries if we are to protect elephants from poachers.â€
About 38,000 of the surviving population live in Kenya, and 50 in Akagera National Park in Rwanda. DRC has about 300 in Virunga and a larger population occupies Garamba National Park.
Wave of poaching in Uganda
Between September 2009 and February 2010, nine elephants were found dead with bullet wounds along Ishasha River on the Uganda-DRC border.
According to Katamigwa, the elephants were shot from the DRC, but ran seeking refuge in Queen Elizabeth Park.
Other residents of Kanungu including Nelson Natukunda, the Kihihi LC3 chairperson, confirmed that gunshots are sometimes heard across the border and this is followed by elephants crossing over into Queen Elizabeth National Park. Residents in Kanungu also poison the elephants.
Chinese and West Africans fuel poaching
Two months ago, authorities at Entebbe International Airport recovered ivory in form of carvings and ornaments from suspected traffickers â€” Chinese nationals in five different incidences. In the past decades, investigations have also implicated a number of West Africans.
â€œWe are wondering whether this ivory impounded in Uganda is coming from neighbouring countries,â€ says Nsubuga. â€œThis could mean Uganda is seen as an easy trafficking route for ivory.â€
The ivory trade is becoming more lucrative with reports from Lusaka Task Agreement Force indicating that a kilogram of raw ivory goes for as much as $1,700 (about sh4.3m) in China. In Uganda, a kilogram of raw ivory on the black market fetches about sh300,000).
Elephants are important to Ugandaâ€™s heritage. In addition to this, wildlife tourism contributes about 80% of the total tourism earnings.
Last year, Uganda earned about $800m (about sh2,048,474,976,600). This benefits the local population through employment, transport and market for local products.
Elephants are a key species to conservation and tourism.
UWA has established two ranger outposts at Ishasha and Maramagambo forest where cases of poaching have been reported. This, according to Kirya, has improved the presence of UWA on the ground. The wildlife authority has also opened a 17km road in Ishasha as part of its anti-poaching measures.
Part of Kasyoha-Kitomi forest reserve where elephants migrate from Queen Elizabeth through Kyambura during the dry season, in December and January, Kirya says, is under the National Forestry Authority. However, he says investigations were ongoing to expose the culprits.
Another intervention is the coordinated patrols of the border areas with DRC. â€œWe work with Congolese wildlife officials to mount operations at the same time and when poachers come running from Congo we arrest them. They also do the same,â€ says Katamigwa.
â€œBut this has not been taking place for the last three months because the manpower in the DRC has reduced from 1,000 to only 300.â€
In addition to creation of awareness about the importance of the park as an attraction to tourists and conservation of water, UWA also shares 20% of its revenue from gate collections with the local communities.
In addition to UWAâ€™s efforts, the wildlife clubs of Uganda are cultivating a spirit of conservation among young people.
Katamigwa says ivory traders are rich and well-connected and it requires adquate funding to break through their rackets. He also pointed out that some security operatives have been implicated either in the killing of elephants or facilitating the trade.
Because of the widespread poverty and ignorance, it becomes easy to lure the local population into the illicit ivory trade, according to Kirya.
The animals also keep on straying into private land escalating conflict between park authorities and the communities. â€œMany communities think the wild animals that destroy their crops only benefit white people,â€ says Kirya.
Musisiâ€™s encounter with a baby elephant at Entebbe remains memorable. But elephants belong to the wilderness where they can thrive and benefit Uganda more by sustaining park tourism.
Are we losing the battle to poachers?