But while the rangers were passed out – they are now more than 1300 – there are questions over the kind of impact they will have. At the passing-out ceremony, presided over by President Museveni at Paraa training school in Murchison falls national park, Conservation Area Manager Tom Obong Okello pointed out inadequate manpower as the biggest problem facing Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA).
“We have been having fewer rangers. The ranger-to-protected-area ratio has been low,” Okello told The Observer. “The ratio is about one ranger patrolling 30 square kilometres, which is practically impossible. With this number, the ratio will narrow, but still it will not be enough.”
For the last 40 years, severe poaching has killed many rhinos and elephants that gave the country the reputation of having the most mega herbivores per kilometre in Africa. According to Okello, in the last three years, poachers have killed over 20 elephants in Murchison Falls national park alone.
Media reports recently indicated that Queen Elizabeth national park had lost 10 elephants within six months. UWA Executive Director Andrew Seguya says poaching is now fuelled by an international criminal syndicate, mainly operating out of South East Asia, which bankrolls the wanton slaughter of wildlife, especially elephants. Some 50 rangers have been killed and hundreds injured in the course of their work, Seguya says. President Museveni ordered UWA to decisively deal with the poachers.
“These people [poachers] are terrible people. They are undermining our wealth; this is wealth of the whole country,” Museveni said.
“You need to develop a strategy on how to catch them, including electronic tracking to catch sophisticated poachers. Tusks, for example, are very heavy things; how do you carry them through all these borders? There must be some collusion.”
UWA has started an intelligence unit to beef up the surveillance. According to Seguya, 80 of these newly-trained rangers will undergo further specialised training by the UPDF 4 Division in Gulu and upon graduation, they will be the pioneers of the new unit. The unit will work closely with the recently-created Special Wildlife Force for Tourism (SWIFT), which is made up of mainly soldiers.
The other rangers will be distributed to different conservation areas – with Murchison Falls taking 100, who will be deployed to monitor the ongoing oil exploration activities within the park and hydropower developments at Ayago and Karuma.
“I sound an appeal to all the poachers out there to lay down their weapons because their time is pretty much up,” Seguya said.
But much as UWA continues to upgrade its security unit, conservationists believe rangers alone cannot decisively deal with the issue of poachers. UWA has an uphill task to win the support of the communities neighbouring conservation areas.
“Although we are more than ready to confront those who refuse to listen to us, the poachers, our emphasis will continue to be conveying the message of conservation and the benefits of conservation,” says UWA Board Chairman Benjamin Otto.
“We urge especially the local communities bordering conservation areas to appreciate that wildlife in their areas belong to them and protecting them is to their benefit.”
UWA has, over the years, attempted to interest communities in conservation by using the revenue-sharing scheme, where 20 per cent of all revenue earned from park entrance fees goes to local community development projects.
According to Otto, last year alone, UWA disbursed Shs 4.7bn to various local communities. UWA has also built trenches to deal with problem animals that stray out of the parks, destroying people’s crops.
According to Okello, in Queen Elizabeth national park, an 80km trench has been dug along the park boundary with the community, while in Kibale, it is a 40km stretch. In Murchison, it is so far 32km. But much us as these interventions have been put in place, Okello says more needs to be done to control problem animals; particularly, communities need to do more.
“Even the issue of poaching, we can address it using community-based approaches. If the neighbouring communities are with us, they can go a long way in reporting illegal activities.”