The arrest of two Chinese, Liu Wei, 24, and Deng Xiaojun, 32, and Guineans Doukoure Sekou, 28, and Abou Toure, 35, could provide leads to the racket behind the 832 pieces of ivory that Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) impounded recently.
On October 19, URA made its biggest ivory catch ever by intercepting ivory pieces at a freight company in Bweyogerere, a city suburb, which were destined for Asia. The ivory, weighing 1,903kg (worth about Shs 6.4bn), raised concerns over the future of elephants around the region given that the 832 pieces got means 416 elephants had been killed.
As security personnel move to establish the owners of this consignment, the arrest of these four could provide necessary leads since they were arrested around the same time as the consignment was planned to be transported out of the country.
The four were found with 116kg of ivory, which brings the total to 2,019kg impounded in one week. The 116kg was being sneaked out through Entebbe International airport, and the suspects, netted on separate occasions, had already beaten the security at the airport to get into the departure terminal with bags full of ivory.
There is strong belief that the four colluded with the immigration officials at the airport, further widening the investigation into this racket. To beat the security, the suspects put polished ivory in form of necklaces, bangles, hair holders, smoking pipes and beads on top of the bags to cover raw ivory cut in pieces that were inside.
But following a tipoff from Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) intelligence officials at the airport, police was able to swing into action and arrest the quartet. According to the Commandant of the Aviation police, Lodovick Awita, it was the Guineans who were first arrested on Friday, October 11.
A week later, Liu was arrested (on Friday, October 18) in similar circumstances like the Guineans, before his countryman Deng was arrested on Sunday. Deng had pangolin scales weighing 2.5kg at the time of his arrest.
Security is investigating information that the four could have spent time around the region and gathered the two tonnes of ivory, which they then decided to split up. One of the parcels found in the bags shows that the ivory originated from Burundi and was transported to Uganda by Gaagaa bus services.
According to UWA’s law enforcement officer, Moses Olinga, Burundi is used as a transit route into other parts of the region. The Guineans, however, told police that their ivory was bought from the Democratic Republic of Congo at $20,000 (Shs 52m).
“We are very much interested in knowing the source of these products and where they are headed so that we are able to block them,” Olinga said.
“We need to establish whether this ivory is from Uganda, and which routes they use because arresting suspects alone is not enough.”
Uganda has become a common transit zone for smugglers of wildlife products and drugs. Recently, the country was accused by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, of providing a safe haven for poachers from neighbouring countries.
About two weeks ago, two tonnes of ivory were impounded at Mombasa on transit from Uganda. In November last year, another Guinean, Mohammed Kourouma, was arrested with 13 pieces (27kg) at the airport.
This is attributed to the laxity of the laws. According to the Uganda wildlife act, which makes it unlawful to possess or attempt to export wildlife products, the offence attracts a maximum sentence of five years or a minimum fine of Shs 1m, which the culprits find it easy to pay.
Government is currently reviewing the Uganda wildlife act to put in place stringent measures that will help in curtailing trade in wildlife products.