The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) has officially complained to the Judiciary and demanded recovery of highly lucrative pangolin scales that went missing in Makindye Magistrate's court.
In a January 7 letter to the Chief Registrar of the Courts of Judicature, UWA Executive Director Andrew Seguya says 115kg of pangolin scales (worth Shs 300m) were deposited with the court on August 29, 2012 by police officer Herbert Wanyoto of Katwe police station.
This followed the arrest of James Busanane, an illegal trader in wildlife products. Busanane was reportedly netted in Najjanankumbi, Kampala with the scales packed in six bags in his car headed for Entebbe airport for export.
"When he was taken to court, he pleaded guilty and we were shocked that the magistrate convicted and sentenced him to just a fine of Shs 200,000 and yet the exhibits were worth over Shs 300m," says Lillian Nsubuga, UWA's Public Relations Manager.
According to Nsubuga, following the judgment, UWA then demanded to have its exhibits. The law stipulates that exhibits are handed back to the conservation body for safety. However, it is alleged that the court ignored UWA's persistent requests.
It was towards Christmas that UWA discovered the disappearance of the scales when officials at the Makindye Magistrate's court attempted to make one of the wildlife authority's official sign as having received them. The official, however, refused to sign for the scales before seeing them.
"My staff and the police officers who were involved in the investigation, prosecution and handling of this matter were dismayed because they were eventually availed cut pieces of cow horns, sawdust, empty mineral water bottles in the place of the exhibits they had handed over to court," Dr Seguya writes in his letter, also copied to the Inspector General of Government (IGG), Judicial Service Commission, Director Public Prosecutions, Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities and Board of Trustees UWA.
"The purpose of this correspondence is to seek your intervention in the matter, have the exhibits delivered to lawful custody and legal action taken against the culprit," the letter further reads.
Pangolins were, until recently, some of the most common mammals in Africa, particularly Uganda. The small squirrel-size mammals mostly live in hollow trees, while others dig tunnels underground, to a depth of 3.5 metres. To people who spend some time in gardens, pangolins are common species because they always frequent tilled land looking for insects to feed on.
The pangolin, known as Lugave in Luganda, has big scales that are as hard as ivory or rhino horn. In November 2010, pangolins were added to the Zoological Society of London's list of genetically distinct and endangered species because their scales can be used as jewellery, ornaments, traditional medicines and hand-held weapons.
According to Nsubuga, a kilogramme of pangolin scales fetches $1,000 on the international market. But because of the small nature of the animals, one would need to kill at least five pangolins to get one kilo of pangolin scales. This means that in order to have 115kg of pangolin scales that Busanane was arrested with, about 575 pangolins were killed, showing the extent the animals are facing extinction if nothing is done to save the situation.
"Wildlife is a treasure in this country. So many people are earning their livelihood through this treasure and if people are caught dealing illegally in wildlife products, it is the courts that should even take the lead in getting these wrong elements out of society. Instead, they seem to be helping the criminals," Nsubuga said.
Efforts to get a comment from Erias Kisawuzi, the judiciary spokesperson, were futile, as he was attending a conference. However, two weeks ago, the New Vision reported that the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP), Richard Buteera, had ordered a probe into the missing exhibits.