President Museveni, keen to stop the rampant illegal drugs and ivory trafficking through Entebbe International airport, has directed that all travellers' luggage should be checked by sniffer dogs.
According to the minister of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities, Prof Ephraim Kamuntu, the directive is largely intended to curb the increased trafficking in wildlife products through the country's only international airport.
The minister said the sniffer dogs and their handlers will from now have access to any part of the airport, including the VIP section, to ensure they do their job without any interference.
In the past, sniffer dogs had been confined to the check-in area. But the president, a source said, was told that traffickers are not ordinary travellers. Some, the source said, have diplomatic passports and can easily use the VIP lounge.
"The directive is to ensure that Uganda's international airport is not used as a transit route for smugglers. There are guys that smuggle from outside Uganda and use Entebbe as a transit route; we are stopping it," Kamuntu said.
Last week, a Vietnamese national was arrested at the airport. Uganda Wildlife Authority's newly acquired dogs sniffed out 23.38kg of rhino horns in the Vietnamese's possession.
The 22-year-old Thai Xuan Tuan entered the country by road through Kenya and was scheduled to fly to Hanoi, Vietnam through Doha with Qatar Airways.
The dogs sniffed out the rhinos' horns in Tuan's bag at the baggage conveyor and followed it to the departure lounge where it was checked and found tagged in his names.
"These dogs are to help sniff any of these poached ivory or rhino horns. What the president has done is to grant unlimited access for the dogs and their handlers at the airport to any part of the airport, including the VIP section, to ensure they do their job without any interference," Kamuntu said.
Kamuntu made the announcement at an awards ceremony for the conservation fine art challenge held at the Entebbe-based Uganda Wildlife Education Centre (UWEC). At the ceremony, the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), with support from USAID, handed over a van worth $65,500 (Shs 235.8m) to transport UWA sniffer dogs.
The conservation body also received 130 smart phones worth $33,800 (Shs 121.6m) for ecological monitoring and 50 high performance power banks worth $2450 (Shs 8.82m) from the same donors.
With US funding, AWF first procured four dogs for UWA and funded the training of 12 dog handlers before increasing the number of dogs to six.
Museveni's directive, according to Kamuntu, was based on available evidence of traffickers who have in the past been arrested at Entebbe.
Asked by this writer whether government is not worried about inconveniencing its VIP guests, Kamuntu said, "Dogs don't inconvenience anyone, they simply come sniffing and if you are a VIP, you should not be smuggling anything, be true to [your VIP status], be honourable. If you are not smuggling anything, when the dogs come, they will sniff and go."
According UWA's director in charge of conservation, John Makombo, about 15 tonnes of smuggled ivory, rhino horns and bones have so far been impounded at Entebbe.
"We have had challenges in the trafficking of wildlife but ever since we deployed the dogs, we have been able to intercept and impound seizures at Entebbe, implying that without the dogs, we wouldn't be able to get these smuggled animal parts," Makombo said.
Quoting a report on the state of Uganda's biodiversity 2017 by Makerere University, US ambassador Deborah Malac urged government to do more to address poaching and trafficking of wildlife products.
"We can do this by collaborating and strengthening national agencies, including law enforcement and the judiciary, to ensure that wildlife crime cases are appropriately settled," Malac said.
Government is also increasing its conservation efforts, given that nearly 10 per cent of Uganda's GDP comes from tourism yet over 80 per cent of tourism is nature-based. In the past financial year, tourism stood out as the country's leading foreign earner generating $1.35bn (Shs 4.86 trillion).