WORST YEAR FOR EAST AFRICAS ELEPHANTS IN DECADES
Last year turned out to be the worst for a very long time, with poaching of elephant reaching alarming proportions across Eastern Africa, Uganda alone allegedly losing 25 of them in the wider Murchisons Falls NP conservation area. Reports are now emerging that the notably the Auditor Generals office has looked into tip offs by conservation groups and concerned citizens that the data released by UIW were not entirely reflecting the true situation on the ground, which in contrast to Kenya, where the outspoken CEO of Eco-Tourism Kenya got arrested under an obscure medieval law after publicly questioning the KWS figures, a dispute later thankfully put to rest by both parties, did not end in a witch hunt. The report candidly speaks of the worst year ever obviously referring to the more recent past, comparing previous annual losses of in average 3 with the 25 allegedly poached last year. There was also thinly concealed reference to UWA allegedly having doctored their own data releases which however came at a time when the wildlife authority was in turmoil and under assault by kangaroo courts instituted by former Minister of Crocodiles aka Minister for Tourism Kahinda Otafire.
The upsurge in poaching in Uganda is in line with what is happening in Kenya, Tanzania and Southern Africa. The ivory demand by China has just gone through the roof, just like their demand for rhino horns. But here in Uganda the increase can have several other reasons too. For one UWA was a bit disorganized last year with all the enquiries and probes into them and the suspension and sacking of staff. That could have influenced their ability to collect and collate data properly. Secondly, there is an increase of elephant straying outside the park and entering areas which are now inhabited by people. They destroy their plantations and when UWA is not readily available to drive the animals back into the park, they can be killed also to protect lives of villagers, their homesteads and produce. And one of the big problems for UWA is that they are understaffed. When Otafire went into his attacks on UWA he disrupted them at all levels. Recruitment was not what it should be, attention to a lot of issues made way for staff to defend themselves or go into neutral mode. It was so often admitted by UWA that they need maybe three times as many rangers but funding allocation is not there and their ability to generate revenues has not yet fully evolved and matured. Those plans also suffered over the events of last year. They have no substantive Chief Executive and only a few weeks ago was a new board appointed after more than a year and a half of vacuum. As I said there are many factors so let us not just blame UWA but consider the background and circumstances and join hands rather than start another vendetta said a regular senior conservation source from Kampala, clearly in a mood to mitigate whatever shortcomings there have been and looking into the future, in order to restore game numbers in the 10 national parks across Uganda to the levels last seen before Amins soldiers went on rampage, almost wiping out the countrys wildlife.
Across the border in Kenya official statistics reveal that as many as 70 elephant have been killed by poachers, alongside at least 4 rhinos, few compared of course to the staggering number lost in South Africa alone, last year nearly 450 of the prized animals. KWS lost 5 rangers who were killed by poachers while at least 13 of those criminals were in turn killed in firefights, other wounded and many arrests were made. KWS has increased aerial surveillance, a capacity lacking with UWA in Uganda, using their two helicopters and also fixed wing aircraft and have already committed to purchasing more helicopters with special equipment to spot movements on the ground and track poachers until they can be cornered by teams on the ground, engaged and either arrested or else killed should they opt to open fire.
Tanzanias wildlife too has been under attack and the new minister for natural resources and tourism Khamis Kagesheki has already publicly committed himself to make anti poaching operations a core issue on his agenda, something his sacked predecessor failed to do. Here President Kikwete himself is on record to have pledged army support for TANAPA and other security organs engaged in fighting poaching and trafficking so that larger scale operations can be mounted and a wider dragnet be established around the parks to catch poachers, middle men and traders in illicit blood ivory.
All three of the original East African Community member states depend significantly on tourism incomes, investments and job creation, most of which are wildlife and nature based, and poaching is now recognized as a serious danger to tourism into the national parks, as on one side negative publicity deters visitors generally and lesser game number discourage tourists to come to the national parks across Eastern Africa once the word has spread into the market places overseas.
Solutions though are limited until such time that laws have been amended, making poaching an economic crime and allowing for crippling financial fines and very long term prison sentences, unlike today where poachers are often granted bail and are back at their bloody game within hours of being freed, while those eventually sentenced pay the fines with pocket money and serve their short sentences almost like having a holiday.
Endless squabbles though over other provisions, introduced to change the respective laws, may well have delayed new amended versions going to parliament. A way forward could be to perhaps delay wider changes and let those take a back seat for the moment allowing simply for the overdue issues of fines and sentences to be tackled, before then engaging in a broader consultation with stakeholders to make wildlife legislation reflect todays ambitions and needs of conservation and sustainable use. Watch this space.