By Mubatsi Asinja Habati
Why did Uganda lose 25 elephants last year?
Questions are being asked about how Uganda, which has the tiniest number of elephants in the region, lost 25 of them in one year, 2011.
Whistle blower reports to the auditor general from the media, Civil Society Organisations like African Conservation Foundation and International Gorilla Conservation Programme, and Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) workers indicate that the loss of the elephants shows that poaching in protected areas is on the increase.
The Auditor General, who investigated the allegations and has just issued a report that shows the killing of 25 elephants in Murchison Falls National Park,agrees. He describes the killings as the “worst ever reported scenario in a single conservation area, considering that Uganda was previously losing only 3 elephants annually.”
The audit report quotes UWA’s Monitoring and Research Department figures focusing on years between 2008 and 2011 but say the loss of the 25 elephants was concealed from them by UWA.
“The information provided by UWA is inaccurate as it was inconsistently being entered. For instance, there were incomplete figures provided for the poaching on elephants, giraffes and Oribi. Available records from the monitoring and research department (animal health monitoring) of Murchison Falls show that 25 elephants and 6 giraffes were killed in 2011,” says the report.
But the Acting Executive Director of UWA, Andrew Seguya, told The Independent that the reported loss of elephants attributed to Murchison by the auditors was for the whole country. However, statistics given by Seguya to auditors shows that over the four years under review, 24 elephants were poached; 18 in Queen Elizabeth National Park and 4 in Murchison. Over this period, Uganda has had a stable population of about 4,393 elephants. Over this time Kenya has had over 35,000 and Tanzania 74,000.
Last year Louis Onzima, then acting conservation manager Murchison Falls National Park, told journalists that poachers always kill elephants, skin them and take their meat and tusks. Lions, elephants, buffalos, rhinos and leopards in Uganda continue to be endangered as poachers roam conservation areas unabated. Lions in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda’s second largest wildlife conservation area, have reduced from 400 in 1980s to 200 today.
Only zebras have increased slightly surpassing the 1960s number. According to Sseguya Uganda’s zebras now estimated at 11,814 has surpassed those of 1960s by 1,814. But these figures are estimates for 2007 to 2010.
In the last 40 years, poachers have killed the rhinos and significantly reduced the once famed herds of elephants that gave Uganda the reputation of having the most mega-herbivores per square km in Africa. The country has not quite recovered from the wildlife loss to match the 1960s figures.
The loss of elephants is a big blow to the conservations of Uganda which is trying to revive its attraction to tourists. The African elephant is one of the fabled “big five”; a phrase that describes the wild animals tourists are most attracted to and includes the lion, rhino, leopard, and Buffalo. Uganda has all five but in relatively small numbers and conservationists believe the numbers can increase if animals are adequately protected from poachers. So far this has not happened because UWA is embroiled in battles of leadership, incompetence, and corruption. These have given a free rein to poachers who are local but work with foreign smugglers.
On May 11, 2011 Wu Linfel, a Chinese national, was arrested at Entebbe Airport’s departure wing after his luggage tested positive for ivory. In an effort to stave off the arrest, Linfel attempted to give a US$150 bribe to an aviation policeman to assist him pass the checkpoint, but a senior officer present at the scene arrested him. Linfel was arrested with his two colleagues. Their luggage contained 34 pieces of ivory disguised as ornaments. They were scheduled to fly to China via Dubai. The suspects claimed the ivory was from the DR Congo.
On Feb.12, Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) handed over to UWA a consignment of 176 pieces of ivory and 189 pieces of hippo teeth and monitor lizard skins, valued at about US$ 700,000 (Approx. Shs1.7 billion) impounded at various points from smugglers.
The latest case is of a university student who was arrested in Kampala with 76 hippopotamus teeth, two elephant tusks, and four kilograms of pangolin scales. The suspect is linked to a known businessman, Yokoyada Nuwagaba from Bushenyi district. In all cases, on conviction game traffickers are usually sentenced to 3 months imprisonment or a fine of Shs 1 million. Most pay the fine and walk away. Locals prosecuted for illegal activities in the national parks get only non-deterrent sentences ranging from 4 to 18 months imprisonment or fines of between Shs 100,000 and Shs 1million. As a result wildlife poaching and trafficking crime is currently said to be only second to drugs in monetary terms in Uganda.
Ivory is a protected species under the Uganda laws, which is in line with the Convention on International of Trade of Endangered Species that prohibits trade and possession of endangered species without a license.
Poaching is a huge blow to Uganda’s recovering population of elephants. In the 1960s, an estimated 20,000 elephants roamed Uganda’s large parks like Queen Elizabeth, Murchison Falls, Toro-Semliki and Kidepo. Poachers nearly took over parks during the years of political turmoil and civil unrest, where the population of elephants had reduced to an estimated 2,000 by 1982.The latest Auditor General’s audit of Uganda’s wildlife suggests that the battle to recover wildlife numbers is being lost.
The report says number of lions, kobs, elephants, roans, bright gazelles in Uganda’s national parks has declined while some wildlife species like the northern white and eastern black rhinos, derby’s, eland, and Oryx are now extinct due to poaching.
In the midst of all this, Seguya says the population of some of these animals is either increasing or stabilising. Seguya’s UWA is mandated with overseeing wildlife on behalf of Ugandans. However, its credibility, operations, and commitment to protecting wildlife are being tested by its denial of the poaching reports.
Patrick Agaba, Project Manager Uganda Conservation Foundation, says there is need to recognise the existence of a problem (poaching) in order to arrive at a solution.
He says the illegal trade involves huge money that is used to lure the members of communities near conservation areas to coordinate poaching for ivory.
“Poaching is almost like drug dealers racket and it is being fueled by foreign markets like China,” he says, “93% of the confiscated ivory in major East African airports is destined to China.”
Elephant poaching in Africa is on the rise despite a 23-year long international ban on the trade in ivory. While poaching is a historical challenge faced by conservationists, the new wave in trade of ivory and growing demand especially in Asian countries like China is fueling the vice. In neighbouring DRC, in April alone 22 elephants which included 4 calves were shot dead by poachers aboard a helicopter in Garamba National Park and the tusks and male elephant genitals were removed. Since January, Cameroon has reported an elephant poaching crisis with as many as 200 elephants poached from BoubaN’Djida National Park.
Even if it was properly run, UWA would have a hard time policing Uganda’s 10 national parks, several game reserves and animal sanctuaries. UWA has only 1,202 rangers covering 19,798 square km of protected areas.
The auditor general’s report says discussions with UWA management revealed that the ideal ranger deployment strategy should be 1 ranger to every 6 square kilometres meaning over 3,000 rangers are required to counter threats. The UWA ranger coverage is 36% of all protected areas. The report says UWA management said the small number of rangers is due to lack of capacity to recruit more staff due to the wage ceiling set by the Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development.
“Low rangercoverage led to failure to cover the entire protected areas. This could explain the illegal activities within protected areas,” reads part of the Auditor General’s report.
Weak laws also make poaching a lesser deterrent crime as punishment is not punitive enough. According to the Auditor General’s report, 29% of the convicts were habitual offenders, “a sign that the penalties were non-deterrent”. UWA has been talking of amending the existing wildlife laws but is yet to implement the decision.
At the same time, illegal killing, habitat loss and fragmentation, and human-elephant conflict remain the main conservation challenges for African elephants. In 2007 when the Basongora cattle keepers forcefully occupied Queen Elizabeth National Park they poisoned over 30 lions. “The human population has increased and encroached on habitats for wildlife. When this happens animals think of safety and they stop breeding as they conserve their energy for survival. The wild animals need enough territory for food, security and breeding,” says Seguya.
He added that UWA is formulating a new policy to address legislative loopholes, mobilising money to fence off protected areas and implement better management strategies.