However, this beautiful wildlife resource is plagued by the perils of relentless poaching by communities around the national parks.
Over the years, Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), together with its partners, such as Uganda Conservation Foundation (UCF), has come up with strategies to combat poaching inside and outside protected areas.
Last week, UCF officially handed over a Weapons Security and Anti-trafficking Facility to UWA. The facility, on the southern bank of Murchison Falls National Park (MFNP), represents a Shs1b investment by the British High Commission in Kampala.
The project, which includes two marine ranger stations, equipment, and training of law enforcement teams in evidence collection and analysis was designed and implemented by UCF.
Semanya Marine Ranger Station on the northern bank of MFNP has helped reduce the levels of poaching around the Albert Nile because of the permanent presence of rangers and the regular patrols they carry out.
Alfred Ochan, assistant warder, law enforcement, says before construction of the station, rangers would every day dismantle at least 200 wire snares, set up by poachers to trap unsuspecting animals.
“Unfortunately, whenever we would dispose of the snares, we would return the next day to find they had laid more snares. Poachers would come across the Albert Nile in boats under the guise of fishing. Instead, they would use the opportunity to lay snares on the river bank. This area is a known elephant habitat.”
Now, equipped with a marine unit and three patrol boats, the rangers can patrol the river. The number of rangers has also increased, with a minority being swift rangers (UPDF) and the majority, law enforcement rangers (UWA).
Although the community carries out fishing activities, they are now forbidden from accessing the river bank.
“They stop 100 metres from the shore,” says Ochan, continuing, “Our efforts have paid off because in the last three months we have recovered only 20 wire snares.”
Another station, Kabim Marine Ranger Station, has also been built on the White Nile, an hour’s ride away from Semanya. So far, UCF has constructed six ranger posts and three marine ranger stations in poaching hotspots in MFNP,
Dangers of poaching
The poachers use sophisticated wheel traps which have short spikes that enter the flesh of the animal once the trap closes. The fabricators of these traps work on a large scale and while the traps are small, they are extremely strong and require five or more men to re-open them.
More than 700 wheel traps have been recovered by the law enforcement rangers, led by Conservation Area manager, Tom Okello, over the course of three years.
“We have captured spears with hooks on them, which are used in poaching hippos,” says Ochan, adding, “A long wire with floaters (dry pieces of wood) is attached to the spear so that when it enters the flesh, the floater shows the poacher where the animal is.”
Other tools captured include wire snares, saws, bows, empty magazines, flat iron traps, and wire baskets. Of particular interest is a three-pronged hooked metal used for trapping crocodiles. The poachers place meat bait on the hooks and attach a string to the metal, which they tie to a tree. The crocodile swallows it all – meat and hook. The hook was recovered from River Kafu with a dead crocodile attached to it.
The rangers are also at risk because poachers hide the traps in the ground, and cover them with soil or grass. As they conduct regular foot patrols in the park, an unsuspecting ranger can step on one.
“A ranger was severely injured as he was running after a poacher. The poacher run to his traps, and while he jumped them, the ranger stepped on one.”
The traps are laid in remote areas meaning a ranger can suffer a slow and painful death. The opportunity presented by this evidence is to highlight the fact that wheel traps can be categorised as lethal weapons that present a new legislative challenge that needs to be addressed in the amendment of the Uganda Wildlife Act.
Veterinary laboratory built
At Mubako Murchison Falls Headquarters, UCF is constructing a veterinary and analytics laboratory to improve the rangers’ ability to respond quickly to animals injured by snares.
The lab will also undertake disease monitoring and management and treatment trials for outbreaks such as anthrax. The lab will also conduct forensic DNA analysis and postmortems on dead animals.
Dr Andrew Seguya, executive director UWA, says, “The forensics section will help in the prosecution of poachers. Previously, there have been difficulties in court when it came to determining whether an exhibit found with a poacher is wildlife meat or domestic meat.”
Commissioning the facility
Before the Weapons Security and Anti-trafficking Facility was built, rangers used old buildings to store exhibits captured with poachers.
At the entrance of the facility is an old uniport with a few rusted bicycles taken from poachers. Nearby, is a three-room dilapidated office block where one office was used as a prosecution office where poachers made statements before being taken to court.
The new facility was implemented with funding from the UK Conflict Security and Stability Fund via the Defence Section of the British High Commission.
It provides UWA with secure storage for weapons and exhibits, to prevent them from finding their way back into the community. There is also a decommissioning workshop where rangers destroy the traps by cutting them using power tools. The metals cuttings can be taken to steel mills for smelting or disposed in the foundations of buildings.
At the commissioning ceremony, Dr Seguya stressed the importance of campaigning for legislation to ensure wheel traps are recognised as lethal weapons, so that their manufacture, possession, transport and supply can be penalised.
“At the moment, that is not provided for in the law, but we hope to make it possible,” Seguya said, adding, “In the current law, if there is no evidence that a poacher laid the trap, then he can go free. Even those outside the park who are found with traps cannot be easily prosecuted.”
Alison Blackburne, the British High Commissioner to Uganda, formally opened the facility and acknowledged that poaching is a danger to Uganda’s precious resource of wildlife and to the life of rangers.
“It is good to see these facilities are up and running and we are starting to see results because the rate of poaching is going down. It is our hope that by supporting projects like this, your children and grand-children may live to see and benefit from the rich biodiversity of this country.”
Lt Gen Ivan Koreta, in his capacity as vice chairman of UCF board of directors, thanked the British Government for the funds.
“After inspecting this facility I have found it to be very secure. From my experience, there is nothing more important than ensuring your weapons are safe, and your men protected. In future, we hope to expand to other conservation areas in Uganda, and also be an example to the nieghbouring countries.”
Besides the facility, UCF has also introduced WILD LEO (Wildlife Intelligence Leadership Development for Law Enforcement Officers), a tool that uses smartphones and GPS-enabled cameras to promote better evidence collection and wildlife crime analysis.
Another such facility is being built in Queen Elizabeth National Park.