21 June 2017

Uganda: Court Boosts Fight Against Ivory Smugglers

The fight against illegal possession of ivory had one of its major breakthroughs recently when court convicted a racket of smugglers in what is being defined as the most prominent victory for wildlife conservationists, writes JEFF MBANGA.

The conviction nearly brings to an end a nine-month ordeal where police, acting on a tip-off, intercepted two suspects transporting 250kg of ivory in a swanky neighbourhood in Kololo near the Cuban embassy, with some conservationists saying they will not settle for anything short of at least a seven year jail term for the culprits when the sentence is read out.

For Chief Magistrate James Ereemye Jumire Mawanda of the Buganda Road court, passing the maximum sentence should be easy; he found the accused, Ibrahim Onzima and Muhammad Kulubale, guilty on all four counts.

The counts were: unlawful possession of wildlife species, conspiracy to commit a felony, illegal importation of wildlife species, and possession of restricted goods contrary to the East African Customs and Management Act.

"I want to agree with prosecution that on 15/9/2016, the accused persons possessed ivory without lawful excuse. The court finds that prosecution has proved this ingredient beyond reasonable doubt... In conclusion, I find that all the ingredients in count 1 were proved beyond reasonable doubt and I entered a guilty verdict and conviction jointly against the accused," Mawanda wrote in his judgement, a copy of which The Observer has seen.

The court victory eats a little deeper into a ring of smugglers of ivory, which, by the Uganda Wildlife Authority's admission, can be too hard to crack. Ivory is recovered after elephants are poached. Uganda, however, is one of the few countries where the population of elephants is growing, meaning the issue of poaching is not big, according to the Uganda Wildlife Authority.

Charles Tumwesigye, the deputy director field operations at Uganda Wildlife Authority, said: "At any one time, we have never lost more than 30 elephants a month. Other countries can lose more than 300."

From the volatile regions of Burundi and DR Congo, through the safe transit of Uganda, to the small South Eastern Asian nation of Laos, busting the cross border network of illegal trade in ivory remains complicated, a tedious exercise of trying to penetrate a shadowy underground clique of buyers and sellers, with the only visible dealers being the transporters. The transporters on the other hand tend to claim ignorance about the illegal stuff they carry.

ARREST

This particular case had a similar scenario. Moving in a Toyota Mark X, registration UAV 419X, Onzima, who was driving the car in the company of Kulubale, approached a gate in Kololo on the afternoon of September 15, 2016.

By that time, Police was disguised as security personnel of the residence. The residence, court documents appear to show, belonged to a Chinese whose name is not mentioned.

When Police checked the car boot, they found a huge amount of specimen of ivory. The story is that the Chinese man came out and helped the police pin Onzima and Kulubale on their motive. The Chinese told police that the two suspects were there to sell him ivory. The Chinese was not charged on grounds that he was a crucial informant.

On November 10, 2016, Dr Andrew Seguya, the executive director of the Uganda Wildlife Authority, wrote to Thomas Miliken, a programme leader at TRAFFIC, a non-governmental organisation that tracks illegal wildlife trade, to examine the markings of the ivory that had been seized from the accused to identify the source country.

The ivory matched stock piles from Burundi. While there is no known value of ivory since it is contraband, it is estimated that a kilogramme in the black market can go for as much as $4,000, depending on how desperate the buyer is. The amount captured in Kololo was valued at more than Shs 1.2 billion, the largest seizure in recent history.

During the court hearing, both Onzima and Kulubale denied knowledge of the materials they were carrying and the scene of the arrest.

The court victory comes at the time when President Yoweri Museveni has asked the Inspector General of Government to investigate claims that some staff at the Chinese embassy had colluded with some officials at the Uganda Wildlife Authority to sell ivory smuggled out of DR Congo.

Seguya, speaking to a group of editors at Apoka lodge in Kidepo Valley National park, said he "welcomed the probe," which is expected to shed further light on the illegal trade in ivory. Already, even before the probe kicks off, the Chinese embassy has hit back, saying the embassy staff that Museveni mentioned have never worked there.

SOLUTIONS

Seguya, during the meeting in Kidepo, said they have written a paper to cabinet offering solutions on how to deal with ivory that has been captured. According to official figures, Uganda has about 16 tonnes of ivory that it has captured from the illegal trade.

Of this amount, four tonnes are with the Uganda Wildlife Authority. The rest is split between Police and the Uganda Revenue Authority customs.

UWA's paper makes mainly three recommendations: to destroy the ivory, keep it for future study, or use it to build a tower as a monument of remembrance. Cabinet is yet to pronounce itself on these ideas.

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