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Wednesday,September 30,2020 14:46 PM

The game is up for Nebbi poachers

By Vision Reporter

Added 1st July 2005 03:00 AM

When Leba Oketcha worked with the Uganda Electricity Board in the 1980s as a meter reader, nobody looked at him as a potential poacher.

When Leba Oketcha worked with the Uganda Electricity Board in the 1980s as a meter reader, nobody looked at him as a potential poacher.

By Frank Mugabi

When Leba Oketcha worked with the Uganda Electricity Board in the 1980s as a meter reader, nobody looked at him as a potential poacher.

But, back home in Kitolo village, Atyak parish, Pakwach sub-county in Nebbi district, he had left an entrenched poaching culture and when he retired after eight years of service, he got back to live out what he was taught in his early age—poaching.

Last Sunday, I made a trip to Oketcha’s village that shares boundary with Murchison Falls Game Park. there can never be a better poaching village than that.
Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) officials were to meet a group of over 100 poachers, who wanted to voluntarily denounce their lifetime activity and were willing to hand over their tools.

The decision had not come easily as almost every male in the sub-county is or was a poacher armed with a spear he probably inherited from the great, great grandfathers. Nobody could remember when poaching started in this area because the animals have always been in their neighbourhood. They seemed to be more familiar with the taste of game meat than goat’s meat or beef.

We sat under a huge tree on a few reserved wooden chairs as though we were the supreme powers in the area while others sat on mats laid down on the dusty compound.

Pakwach is a hot place but our venue was just metres away from the Nile so the cool breeze reached us easily.

Participants trickled in one after another each holding buffalo spears, wire snares, hippo spears and knives. They placed them in one area.

But in unique communities like these strange things are bound to happen and this one came in timely for me to witness.

Junga Ocan plucked his adungu to entertain us with traditional hunting tunes. Before we could enjoy, the sound provoked spirits in 61-year-old Simea Nono, a practising witchdoctor, who usually counsels the poaching group on the safety of their trip.

He shot up from his position on the bench with extra ordinary strength while pointing at the tune player and asked for water. He was handed a cupful and the music was stopped to avoid awakening more spirits. Nono moved aside facing the park side, filled his mouth and flashed it out in three angles before cooling down.

I was the only terrified person as others joked about the toughness of the spirits. He reportedly got them from an elephant he killed in the park during one of his poaching trips.

When the meeting started only the grey-haired elders, were asked to introduce themselves by giving a brief account of their poaching experiences, some going as far back as 1940s.

“When I left work in 1980, I became a fishmonger but did not take long before I joined my poaching colleagues,” Oketcha started his narration.

“I inherited two spears from my father, which I have killed 10 buffalos, five warthogs, five hippos, three waterbucks and trapped a giraffe.”

He was a popular transporter among the poachers because he owned a canoe that they used to cross the Nile into the park.

Poachers do not lose their hunting tools. Oketcha said he lost one of his spears to colleagues whom he transported across to the park but was arrested and the second one was the one he handed over that day to the UWA officials.
He confessed that he was the one who had transported the poachers who had been arrested two weeks back.

Oketcha said he had made up his mind to give up poaching because he was not benefiting much.

“I have come to realise that the park is more advantageous to us. Even the share I always got from the people I transported was small,” he said.

However, the story of Kisaw Katyere, the 75-year-old man stunned the audience. He started poaching in 1956 and by last Sunday, he had killed 170 buffalos, 120 hippos, three lions, six elephants, 72 antelopes and 70 kobs with only a spear.

He said he had a traditional herb inserted in his skin that helped him kill all those animals. Each time he killed an animal, he dedicated some portion of the meat to his ancestral powers to keep him going. He claimed the herb blindfolded the game rangers from seeing him. But he kept the spirits at a cost.

“I pay back the diviner by giving him a piece of meat that I return with and if I spend three days without poaching I grow boils around my body,” he confessed.

He said traditional doctors had requested for two goats and sh50,000 to bind the charms and set him free.

“Now that I can never to go back I do not know where to get the money for my treatment,” he lamented.

Oloya Jagaya, 60, who was nicknamed ‘Raleigh’ (the ancient strong bicycle) by the poaching fraternity was a fast runner. Jagaya’s duty was a daring one.
“My work was to provoke buffalos so that they chase me and I lead them into a trap or a frontline of armed spear-wielding poachers,” Jagaya said. He says this was his task since 1961 and no buffalo had ever hurt him.

Ubediyo Onyeng, 58, said his spear was nicknamed Ameyowu, (Alur for I have snatched it from you) because his spear was light and always landed on the animals first.

Of course this meant he would have a whole thigh of meat to carry home. He also earned himself the heart, tongue, liver and tail— symbols of bravery.

Ameyowu spear was responsible for the death of 64 buffalos, two kobs, one giraffe, two rhinos, two hartebeests, 12 hippos and three warthogs. It was handed over to UWA in a proclamation never to go poaching again.

Out of the 103 poachers who attended the meeting some of them were once or twice arrested, others detained and released after months but still did not give up poaching.

For many years the group operated under a well-established system with a director, a planner, a traditional diviner who consulted spirits on safety issues before flagging off the poaching entourage. His decision was final; they would not go on a trip without his clearance.

The coordinator, Musa Okende, said their poaching trips usually took two to three days. Willing participants informed their wives who then prepared roasted cassava, cassava flour, salt and fish for the expedition.

They set off from the landing site into the park by canoe at 8:00pm. The poachers travelled in the night to avoid the game rangers. They would then camp and wait for the sun to rise.

Okende said poaching is done in broad daylight. Before an animal is attacked each person’s opinion is sought. Action is taken on the majority’s decision.

Once killed, the animal is partitioned immediately. The one whose spear landed first gets the biggest share, a whole thigh of meat, the heart, tongue, liver and the tail while the second person to spear the animal gets the second thigh.

Others share the rest of the animal but the neck is always reserved for the canoe rider. After a successful hunt they would wait for 8:00pm to get back home.

Almost all ranges of animals are edible among the poaching community, including lions whose meat is eaten and the skin sold mostly to traditional and cultural institutions. The women have learnt to smoke the meat dry such that it can be kept for as long as two months.

So when the park authorities realised that the number of animals especially elephants being trapped, was increasing, they agreed on an intensive programme to sensitise the communities bordering the park on the benefits of conservation.

The senior warden, Murchison falls conservation area, Stonewall Kato, and his colleague the Murchison falls head ranger in charge community conservation, Innocent Wakonga, embarked on the programme without special funding.

For the last one year Kato and Wakonga had been trying to meet the communities with no breakthrough since the poaching community had tagged them “enemies”. Incidentally, the poachers knew them by face.

The turning point began last year when Kato commissioned Paroketo Secondary School that was constructed with funds from the park.

Kato said two prominent poachers came to him and expressed their desire to denounce poaching after seeing the benefits the park was bringing to their community.

Apart from Puyo, the park also provided funds that constructed Panyimur Secondary School and two community centres in the neighbouring parishes.

Kato said over the last three years the park released over sh110m in cash to communities in parishes in Nebbi District that border the park.
Kato and Wakonga could not afford hiding their joy the day 103 poachers surrendered as their hard-fought campaign yielded its first biggest achievement.

“Today is a very important day. It is one of its kind in the history of conservation where a group of 103 poachers come out voluntarily to denounce their activity. It is a very big achievement for this conservation area that people are coming to realise the importance of conservation.” Kato said.

The game is up for Nebbi poachers

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