Why poaching is on the increase
When Moses Olinga recently nabbed Patrick Businge with ten dead Uganda kobs in a Toyota Carib car, he was confident this was enough evidence to earn this poacher heavy punishment.
But Olinga, the warden in-charge of Semliki National Park, would be disappointed. When Businge appeared before a grade II magistrate in Fort Portal, he was fined a paltry Shs 100,000 (Shs 10,000 per kob) or six months in jail. A beaming Businge promptly paid the money, and walked free.
The kob, a national symbol that appears on the coat of arms, is one of the most endangered animals. It would, therefore, be expected to be grave for one to be found with a dead kob.
However, under the current environment perpetuated by the 1996 wildlife act, a sentence or fine for a poacher depends on the judge – depending on how convinced he/she is that poaching is a serious crime. Consequently, many poachers walk free – a matter that is breeding frustration among conservationists who want the laws made tougher to stamp out increased poaching in the national parks and game reserves.
Speaking during the Greater Virunga landscape regional meeting held in Kasese, Echoeu Edyau, the warden in-charge Ishasha sector, Queen Elizabeth national park, asked for the law to be revised.
“When this law was made, poaching was for subsistence (domestic) purposes, but it is now commercialized. Poaching is now a business where items like ivory sell like a hot cake,” Edyau noted.
Poaching is now sophisticated – with poachers who previously used spears acquiring guns while others use complex snares or even poison, to elude wardens, who may be alerted by the gunshots.
“The people who are looking for wildlife today have the money. We need to invest more money into our staff to ensure that they are motivated to stay longer in the operations,” Edyau said, adding: “It is more difficult today to get a poacher if you do an operation for only three or four days in a week.”
A ranger in Uganda earns about Shs 200,000 a monthly– with a paltry allowance of Shs 2,000 for each day spent on patrol. As such, they are easy prey to poachers who can bribe them with as much as Shs 1m, to fell an elephant. Edyau, who was recently transferred to Ishasha sector, says that during the three months he has been there, there have been two cases of elephant death, one pierced and the other suspected of poisoning.
“The law at the moment is very weak. People go poaching because they know there is no strong law. We need to revise the law and take consideration of specific animals especially mountain gorillas, elephants, and leopards, their law should be tough – life imprisonment - so that when a poacher is arrested, others should be able to fear,” he said.
Edyau also suggests that rangers need legal protection because they could also be prosecuted for killing a poacher in the process of arresting them. Following the lifting of a ban on the ivory trade in 1989, poaching is being driven by growing demands of its products like in China and Japan, where carvings and signature stamps called hankos are made.
The elephant death rate from poaching throughout Africa is about eight per cent a year based on recent studies, which is actually higher than the 7.4 per cent annual death rate that led to the international ivory trade ban nearly 20 years ago, says Samuel Wasser, a professor of biology at the University of Washington. At the time, the elephant population was over one million, but has dropped to less than 470,000. Yet the public outcry that resulted in that ban is absent today.
“If the trend continues, there won’t be any elephants except in fenced areas with a lot of enforcement to protect them,” says Wasser.
At the time the treaty was enacted, poachers were killing an average of 70,000 elephants a year. The ban instigated much stronger enforcement efforts, nearly halting poaching almost immediately. However, according to www.wildlifeextra.com that sense of success resulted in waning enforcement. Western aid was withdrawn four years after the ban was enacted and poaching gradually increased, reaching the present alarming rates, Wasser says.
Currently, for example, the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration (GVTC), which is trying to coordinate Uganda, Rwanda and Congo for collaboration in conservation, is struggling to raise 3m Euros for the second phase, after the expiry of the 4.1m Euros first phase, which was funded by the Dutch embassy in Rwanda.
“Funding has not yet come in to the levels it should but we think that the funding will come. What we are missing is governments recognizing the importance of conservation and put resources there,” Sam Mwandha, GVTC’s Executive Director told The Observer.
“Look at Uganda, they talk of tourism being the main foreign exchange earner but how much is going into conservation or tourism? Very little.
Government should realize that when we conserve these parks, they will attract tourists,” he added.
Today, GVTC survives on $623,00 a year – from Norwegian embassy in Rwanda, which is meant to go into research to establish the root causes of poaching, illegal timber cutting and charcoal burning.