Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Who will save Uganda’s heritage from destruction?

The year 2014 has begun with disturbing news from the corridors of the custodians of Uganda’s wildlife heritage. Some of the impounded ivory pieces found their way in the trafficker’s suitcase at Entebbe airport only to be impounded again. How did the exhibits end up in the hands of the wildlife poachers and dealers?

The search for answers to this question has been a bone of contention between Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and some elements in the conservation/tourism business. While UWA blames its sacked staff for being culpable, the tour operators argue that’s half the story. They point fingers at weak management at the wildlife authority.

Reports of wild animals seen in national parks with snares, bruises, etc all due to attempts by poachers abound. In some cases the remuneration of park rangers is said to be very low making them vulnerable to the poachers.

The tourism business community allege that there is a mafia like racket which is facilitating ivory smuggling in the country. A report by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species  (CITES) suggests Uganda among the countries involved in illegal ivory trade either as a source, transit or export country based on the large scale seizures in which Uganda has been implicated.

As a conduit for illegal ivory trade, is Uganda equipped to stop the syndicate? Well, the country has no specific law on castigating the illicit trade in ivory which is on high demand with a rise of economic fortune of many people in Asia particularly China. Uganda relies on the Uganda Wildlife Act (Cap. 200 of 2000) to prosecute the illegal ivory traders.

Some ivory pieces impounded by Uganda Authorities recently
Moreover, the many porous borders in Uganda make it even harder for law enforcement officers to effectively apprehend ivory smugglers. At the same time, by the end of 2012 Uganda had only two ivory detectors; one permanently stationed at Entebbe airport and another used across the country. This leaves far too many loopholes which the ivory smugglers can easily exploit.

That said, the ivory detectors have been very useful on spot checks along major high ways following intelligence tip offs of vehicles carrying ivory. Since 2012 there have been increased seizures of illegal ivory at Entebbe Airport in 2012 mainly by Customs officials as a result of the sensitization about the illegal wildlife specimen trade.

The heightened efforts by government to combat illegal ivory trade have resulted in the seizure of over 500Kgs of illegal ivory pieces and arrest and prosecution of 22 suspects in connection with illegal ivory trade between 2011 and November 2012. But more needs to be done.

Even the courts of law where one would seek retribution and protection of the endangered wildlife species, convicted criminals get away with light sentences. Recently, a court in Fort Portal town, western Uganda, sentenced one Misaki Maitene, and his two accomplices to 12 months imprisonment or a fine of shillings 8million (approximately $3,200) each; after they were each charged with  illegal possession of ivory and trading in protected species. In many ways, this punishment is not deterrent enough.

Compare this sentence handed to Maitene and accomplices with the one in neighbouring Kenya where a  court in fined a Chinese man a record $230,000 for smuggling ivory, in the first such case under tough new anti-poaching laws. Uganda needs more deterrent punishments to illegal ivory dealers if it will ably save our wildlife heritage from vicious ivory traders. 

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