By Ronald Musoke
Is elephant poaching making its way back in Uganda’s game parks?
The news that half a dozen elephants were killed late last year by ivory hunters in Queen Elizabeth National Park has triggered off both anger and frustration within the Ugandan conservation fraternity. Nelson Guma, the manager of the Queen Elizabeth Conservation Area in western Uganda recently described the killing of the elephants as a setback to both conservation and tourism gains.
Elephants are one of the original ‘Big Five’ game that attract tourists from around the world to come to Uganda for a safari.
At 1978 sq km, Queen Elizabeth National Park is the biggest game park in the country and attracts the biggest percentage of tourists. Guma said the park has recently registered a rising number of poachers who use firearms in the country’s most visited game reserve.
The poachers target ivory whose demand has increased on both local and international markets. Although around the world elephants are under threat with an increased demand for ivory with estimates showing about 96 elephants are being killed every day, conservation agency estimates show that elephant numbers have decreased by 62% over the last decade.
Yet according to Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) statistics, the number of elephants in the country’s national parks has been going up. By 2014, UWA estimates showed Ugandan national parks hosted about 5346 from 4322 in 2006.
Currently Queen Elizabeth National Park has the biggest number of animals. As of 2014, Queen Elizabeth National Park had 3,018 elephants from up 2,497 elephants in 2005.
David Duli, the executive director of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature-Uganda told The Independent that it is upsetting that these killings happened in the country.
“Poaching of big game had significantly reduced and the only story coming out of Uganda has been that the country is being used as a transit route for the ivory smuggled from other countries.”
It is for this reason that as part of the ivory action plans [as requested by the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)], the government and the conservation partners have been working to tighten Uganda’s border posts.
Uganda was tasked last year during a CITES conference alongside seven other notorious states to come up with ivory action plans aimed at combating illegal ivory trade within a period of one year.
Uganda immediately submitted its national ivory action plan.
The government pledged to address five key areas including amending its Wildlife Act to provide for stiffer penalties, and raising awareness within the general public, judiciary, customs and other enforcement agencies on the importance of wildlife conservation and the management of the existing ivory stockpile.
Duli said Ugandan conservation and security agencies should expedite the investigations and find long lasting solutions to the vice.
We need to find out where the loopholes are and who are the people involved and how they can be tracked to solve the problem conclusively.
This is an issue the Uganda army, police and the Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) need to follow up seriously.
But Dr. Andrew Seguya, the executive director of the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) told The Independent that the agency has seen the lowest level of poaching in the country for years.
“It is true that there were elephants (about five) that were killed last year but the police took the matter up and the suspects are being held as investigations continue.”
“The problem was even plugged because we later discovered the groups involved. These poachers are really criminals. Other than that isolated incident, nothing has happened on a big scale in the parks.”
“What we see these days are people in the communities neighbouring the game parks struggling to put food on the table by killing small game like antelopes.”
Seguya says this is a vice which is making resurgence in the Karuma area near the Murchison Falls Conservation Area.
Seguya agrees with the WWF executive director saying awareness creation in the neighbouring communities is the way to go.
“When you kill a buffalo you are able to eat the meat for only one week but you need to look at the buffalo as a source of revenue, through tourism,” Seguya said, “When the communities start looking at these animals in terms of money and not meat, then we will have succeeded.”
Uganda is still rated top among countries that deal in illicit ivory trade. It’s among the so called ‘Gang of 8’together with Tanzania, Kenya, China, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines.
Tonnes of ivory have been impounded in the last couple of years both in the country and outside. The biggest seizure within the country was in 2013 when URA impounded up to 2.9 tonnes.
Tanzania has in recent times become the largest supplier of poached ivory and has in the process lost more elephants to poaching than any other country in the world.
In October, 2014, a UK-based conservation agency, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) implicated the Tanzanian government and security officials in helping a high profile Chinese delegation to buy and ship out a huge consignment of ivory during the visit of the Chinese president, Xi Jinping to Tanzania.
The agency noted in a report that about 10,000 elephants were killed in Tanzania by poachers last year.