13 October 2013

Uganda: Clerics Arrested With Ivory

On a typical Sunday, when the church is full to the brim, Ben Baguma steps up to the pulpit to implore people to abandon their sinful ways. He is the reverend of Rwebisengo Parish in Ntoroko district.

When I caught up with him recently, it was not in the environs of Rwebisengo. He was in detention at Kira Road Police Station in Kampala over charges of poaching elephants.

Baguma's other life came to light when wildlife officials, together with the army, bust a racket behind the armed killing of elephants in Kibale National Park. It was an unpleasant scene.

The reverend was barefooted. Because of his position in society, he always avoided eye contact. He was ashamed of the charges placed against him.

Rangers, who were excited about what they called a big catch, kept urging him to face the camera.

He did not oblige and they forcefully pushed his head to look up. It was a 'feast' for the pressmen and onlookers. "He has been poaching for long, but his luck ran out when we used spies as buyers of ivory," said Moses Olinga, a Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) law enforcement officer, who coordinated the operation.

"We have a network of informers and Baguma's name kept coming up as the chief financier of ivory trade in most of the intelligence reports," he added.

In their statements recorded by UWA officials in Kampala, Baguma and Kamuhangire Muhereza, who was arrested with the cleric, denied any wrongdoing.

The duo was arrested a week ago at Rwimi, which is located between Fort Portal and Kasese. UWA said it would charge the duo with illegal possession of specimen from endangered species.

The arrest, according to Olinga, was a milestone in the fight against poaching. Previously, Uganda was losing about three elephants every year, but the number had risen to about 25 over the last three years.

An elephant injured by a snare that was set up by poachers in in Queen Elizabeth National Park

Two months ago, the Rev. Misaki Maitene, a resident of Harugare village in Bundibugyo district, was also held at Fort Portal Police Station over poaching.

According to Olinga, Maitene had proved a hard nut to crack, often boasting among his peers that nobody could arrest him. Also in detention with Maitene is Capt. Benon Twinomujuni, a UPDF veteran, Monday Ben and Anastoli Ngonzi.

The Police in Fort Portal confirmed the arrest of the trio and said they were looking for John Katebwa, an accomplice.

According to Olinga, cases of elephant poaching are sometimes reported in Queen Elizabeth and Kibale parks. Olinga added: "The elephants are sometimes poisoned by cyanide, but this is also not as common as it was two years ago."

Three months ago, an elephant was killed around Queen Elizabeth National Park. Its tusks had been extracted from the carcass, meaning UWA officials are still running in the shadows of the poachers at the park.

An official of the Uganda Wildlife Authority displaying some of the snares that poachers use to set traps for wild animals in national parks

At Kibale, elephants are being killed using automatic rifles (AK47) or trapped in pits, where sharp sticks are planted and covered with leaves. When the elephants fall into the trap, the poachers cut off the tusks and leave the carcass behind.

In northern Uganda, poaching is still a problem in Murchison Falls National Park, but Olinga says the rate has reduced, compared to what it was two years ago.

Uganda among the gang of eight

A dark cloud still hangs over Uganda, which was accused at the most recent Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), of providing a safe haven for poachers from neighbouring countries.

The poachers also use Uganda as a trafficking route. Sources also fear that the poachers could turn their guns to Uganda's elephants. CITES cited Kenya and Tanzania among what they called the 'gang of eight', in reference to countries which are doing little to curb the illegal trade in ivory. Others are Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines, and destination countries, Thailand and China.

The countries were ordered by CITES to provide a programme of action to minimise the trade in ivory in the next 12 months or face sanctions. "There was a high level meeting on elephant poaching when the Thailand prime minister visited Uganda recently," says Mutagamba.

Other measures, according to Mutagamba include setting up an intelligence unit, recruiting 430 rangers and placing gadgets that can detect ivory at Entebbe Airport.

Sources say Kenya has put in place punitive laws, from which Uganda can copy. Poachers from West Africa and countries in Asia were operating rackets in Uganda because of the weak wildlife laws, according to sources.

Illegal ivory traced back to Uganda

Baguma was nabbed selling ivory. Photo by Gerald Tenywa

About 1.3 tonnes of elephant ivory were recovered in Mombasa, Kenya, hidden under fish for export. According to the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), the Malaysia-bound ivory was from Uganda.

KWS revealed that the ivory was stashed in bundles and sacks and hidden in the fish maws within the container and was ferried from Malaba (at the Kenya-Uganda border) to Mombasa. Its value as estimated at $342,000.

Asan Kasingye, the Interpol director told Saturday Vision that they were working with UWA and Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) to establish the origin of the ivory. Last year, tusks belonging to 200 elephants were impounded at Entebbe Airport, according to Kasingye.

This happened just after a massacre of elephants in Garamba National Park, in the DR Congo, by heavilyarmed poachers, assisted by a helicopter.

Animals hard to see in Queen Elizabeth

In areas around Queen Elizabeth NAtional Park, poaching is worse than is reported, according to sources. "When you take a game drive through the park, you will keep wondering where the animals have gone."

A tourist who was giving feedback to one of the tour operators after a game drive in Queen Elizabeth complained that the animals were becoming too elusive.

Tour operators say Murchison turns into butcher ground

In Murchison Falls, the problems have been compounded by the current exploration of oil. Also key is the fact that bush meat is part of the culture of the people in northern Uganda.

While park authorities in Murchison say poaching has scaled down compared to the rate two years ago, tour operators say every time they are on a game drive, they encounter abandoned carcasses or poachers on a hunting spree.

"When you report to UWA, they intimidate you," a source told Saturday Vision on condition of anonymity.

"It is unfair for tourists to spend their money and get almost nothing out of it. After encounters with poachers spearing animals, what will tourists tell others who are planning to come?"

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