On Tuesday March 19, more than 80 residents of Butambala and Gomba set off for a hunting expedition in Kyankwanzi.
The four-day adventure turned into a torrid experience as the hunters spent the night in prison.
When residents of Ggala village saw strange people disembarking from a Fuso truck UAS 818W, they got worried. The hunters carried spears, pangas, dogs, nets and baskets of food, some even bedding. On arrival, they hurried into nearby bushes to start hunting.
Residents alerted the nearby Kyankwanzi barracks and the intruders were arrested around 5pm. In just six hours, the group is believed to have killed over 70 animals including wild pigs, bushbacks, and one python. Witnesses say the hunters cooperated during the arrest and were handed over to Bukwiri-Kyankwanzi police station for further investigations.
“We received a call from UPDF because they were near to the scene, and we moved quickly to pick the suspects,” said Bukwiri DPC Frank Natamba.
The group, from Butambala and Gomba, was found with 77 spears, 66 hunting nets, 29 dogs, 50 pangas plus several sacks of food.
Asumani Musisi, 70, said they were a group of professional hunters called to various parts of the country to help people get rid of wild animals that destroyed crops.
“We were told that people here [Kyankwanzi] were being haunted by pythons and wild pigs and that is what we specifically came to deal with,” he said.
Musisi, a father of 31, says he has been hunting for the last fifty years, as a hobby, and not for commercial reasons. But Natamba insists that this was organized crime with a business motive.
“We do not have a hunting ground here, neither did we invite any people to hunt wild animals; these people had other intentions,” he said.
However, some residents were overheard praising the hunters for killing the “crop-destroying” wild pigs.
The hunters confessed that their ringleader, Saul Ssentongo, had asked them for Shs 27,000 each for both transport and upkeep for this four-day expedition.
“He convinced us with a signed and stamped letter from the local council authorities of Butambala allowing us to go for hunting,” Musisi said.
Kyankwanzi authorities disowned the letter, saying it was not addressed to them and these were not licensed hunters. In his defence, Ssentongo, a charcoal dealer in Kampala, claimed this was a cultural activity.
“It is part of our culture that we hunt at least once a year. If we don’t, the spirits will be unhappy and we can’t work successfully,” Ssentongo said.
He insisted that they had been invited by Ggala residents, but he could not pinpoint who exactly invited them. Peter Ogwang, Uganda Wildlife Authority’s assistant warden for problem animal control, says these people have consistently poached protected species and sold the meat at high prices in urban markets.
“How could these people hire a truck for over Shs 1m, carry food and travel through over three districts to come and hunt for fun and culture? This is real business,” Ogwang said.
It is believed these people collect their catch and sell it to a third party who, then, takes the meat to butchers in Kampala and other towns.
Ogwang noted that although Kyankwanzi is not a reserved area, it harbours a multitude of protected species and it is UWA’s duty to protect them.
“This corridor connects to national parks like Bwindi in the south, Kidepo, Queen Elizabeth and Murchison falls on the other hand. Therefore, many protected species wander in-between,” he noted.
Tourism is crucial for Uganda’s economy. It is the second biggest revenue earner for the country. Uganda has attracted international attention for its tourism potential, with respectable organizations listing the country as one of the best destinations to go to.
However, encroachment on wildlife areas and poaching are some of the issues that continue to hurt Uganda’s tourism industry. Solving these challenges, especially those concerning local communities, has been difficult.
Last year, another group of six poachers were arrested after being found with two guns and bush meat. In 2011, another group, of over 40 people, was arrested with two trucks full of meat, destined for Kampala. This is the biggest group of poachers nabbed in one swoop since 69 were arrested in Nakaseke in 2009.
After spending the whole of Wednesday at Bukwiri police station, the suspects were finally transferred to Kiboga magistrate’s court. Drama ensued at the court as all the suspects disembarked with their dogs; none wanted to part with them.
Though they arrived at court at around 5pm, they did not see the judge until after 6pm – as more time was spent trying to line up all the exhibits. They had to see the judge by all means since UWA could not hold them in custody and the police had already surrendered them.
Kiboga Grade I Magistrate Masitulla Mulondo presided over the court and charged all the suspects on two counts of illegal hunting and being found in possession of protected species. They all pleaded guilty.
Under section 75 of the Wildlife Act, cap 200, if anyone is found guilty of hunting, killing or in possession of protected species, they are given a fine of not less than Shs 1m or imprisonment of not more than five years or both.
In her verdict, the judge stressed that the group’s activities were contributing to the extinction of protected wild species, and that it caused losses to government in terms of tourism revenue.
Although the state prosecutor, Charles Okeny, had asked for a deterrent sentence, the judge went for lenience “since the accused had accepted their crime and did not waste court’s time.”
At around 7:30pm, with the room getting darker as there was no electricity, the poachers were sentenced to four months in prison or pay an alternative fine of Shs 500,000 each.
It was a passionate moment for some since they could not imagine being separated with their dogs. But then the judge ruled that the exhibits be taken by UWA for destruction, including the dogs.
However, some villagers argued that UWA should appreciate cultural hunting and specify areas where people can hunt peacefully without endangering the existence of protected species.
“It’s a cultural activity to hunt. UWA should work with people to know when, where and how to hunt,” said a resident identified as Nalongo.