Following the review of the Wildlife policy for which consultations were concluded last year, Uganda intends to clear any grey areas in the wildlife legislation by moving to amend the 1996 Wildlife Act.
Among the proposed amendments in the draft, which was recently up for consultations at Grand Imperial hotel, is the issue of poaching and trading in wildlife products whose penalties - both fines and jail sentence - have been revised and made more punitive. For example, if you are caught hunting an elephant, the minimum you can pay - with the draft act - is Shs 200m plus ten years in prison.
Yet previously it was at the discretion of the judge to decide the penalty. For businesspeople caught illegally trading in wildlife products, the fine shall not be less than the value of the products. Also, any other items such as a vehicle, gun, aircraft, or boat that one is caught with while carrying out the crime will be handed over to the government.
"This should be deterrent enough," said Akankwasah Barirega, the Principal Wildlife Officer, Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities.
"We are also providing, under the amendment, that government will regularly publish in the gazette a list of wildlife species according to their conservation status so that if you are trading in elephants which is endangered, you shouldn't face the same penalty with someone who is trading in butterflies, where we have so many or someone trading in cockroaches," he said.
Previously, poachers and smugglers have been walking away with paltry fines, with some of the rulings raising eyebrows. For example, once a man who killed a gorilla was fined Shs 50,000. And recently, a trader who was caught with pangolin scales worth Shs 300m was fined Shs 200,000 at the Makindye Magistrate's court, where also the scales disappeared.
"We have raised the threshold for all existing offences. We want to see how these criminals will walk free," Akankwasah said.
Oil and Gas
The draft has updated the law to take care of the emerging challenge of oil and gas activities in protected areas. At least 31 oil wells are found within protected areas.
"We are putting in place a provision, which requires that activities of oil and gas must recognize first of all the sensitive habitats and breeding areas for wildlife conservation, and must follow Environment Impact Assessment as provided by National Environment Management act," Akankwasah said.
The current 1999 wildlife policy, which is under review, does not allow mining in protected areas, an anomaly that the new act seeks to regularise.
"We are creating a provision that harmonizes the activities of oil and gas together with wildlife conservation because when the law was made, oil and gas wasn't an issue. So, we are providing for coexisting of sustainable wildlife conservation and extraction of oil," said James Lutalo, the Commissioner, Wildlife Conservation, ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities, who is heading the review of the act.
"Oil has come and it will have to be extracted. What we want is to minimize the damage it will cause. We are legalizing it so that activities can take place in a legal framework," he added.
The draft bill also seeks to harmonize the supervision of the sector. The intention is to spell out each one's role, including that of the minister. Some conservationists are worried that the draft bill has given a lot of powers to the minister. For example, the power to run the wildlife fund, which has been under the UWA executive director, has now been transferred to the board of trustees.
This board answers to the minister. Conservationists are worried that the minister might abuse his/her powers.
Not strong enough?
There are some who feel that the draft is not comprehensive enough. Dr Arthur Mugisha, the country representative Flora and Fauna International, says: "There is no major input in terms of looking at the challenges of the country for the wildlife and looking for appropriate legislation to address those challenges. What causes poaching? The land is becoming smaller and smaller. We need new strategies, policies and legislation."
Dr Andrew Seguya, the UWA executive director, says whereas UWA has rights over management of wildlife outside protected areas, it has no say in the land use within those areas. Yet land use is important because these are the habitats of the wildlife.
"These are very crucial things that have to be captured. How are we going to manage wildlife outside protected areas if we have no say in the land use, in the management of the wetlands, or the management of forests where wildlife is?"