Speaking in hushed tones on his mobile phone, Vincent Opyene sinks into a wicker chair on the leafy terrace of Entebbe’s No 5 hotel. His smart dress and discretion suggest the trained lawyer is discussing a business deal, but the topic of conversation is far riskier and more emotionally charged.
Several days earlier, his team had picked up two Ugandan men attempting to sell ivory. Now they faced the harrowing task of locating the elephant carcass.
“I think this year alone we have taken close to almost 150 traffickers,” says the 44-year-old founder of Natural Resource Conservation Network, a pioneering NGO revolutionising the prosecution of wildlife crime and bringing culprits to justice – whoever they might be.
A trainee lawyer, later employed by the Ugandan government as a state prosecutor, Opyene turned to conservation when he realised his totem, the rhino, had been poached to extinction in Uganda.
“We must help defend the right of animals,” he insists, when we meet at a neutral location to discuss his work. “These animals cannot come to court themselves and complain. Somebody else must do it for them.”
Frustrated by an ineffectual legal system and feeble fines dished out to poachers, Opyene knew a different framework was needed. He initially worked with the Ugandan Wildlife Authority to set up a specialised prosecution unit focussed on tackling local bushmeat crimes.
“I was hearing of ivory being impounded at the airports, at borders – 500kg, 700kg. My thinking started changing. In 2013, at CITES in Bangkok, Uganda was named as one of eight countries notorious for illegal wildlife trade. I was so annoyed. What had happened to our beautiful country?”
After resigning and setting up NRCN, Opyene persuaded his former bosses to sign a memorandum of understanding allowing his team to investigate and prosecute on their behalf. Ironically, his first case involved the loss of 1.3 tonnes of ivory from the national stockpile. “It was the toughest task I’ve ever had,” he admits. “But to fight illegality, we must start within ourselves.”
Flicking through images on his smartphone, Opyene shows me bundles of sawn-off ivory tusks confiscated, alarmingly, from an increasing number of women. Hauls such as these are intercepted by his team of investigators, who seek leads from within the community, carefully developing a network of contacts.
Arrests are made once all the evidence and witnesses are in place; information is passed to UWA and the investigators step safely back into the shadows.
One of Opyene’s greatest achievements, fundamental to his nomination at this year’s TUSK awards, has been his involvement in the creation of a specialist wildlife court, a first for Africa and a model he hopes will be replicated in neighbouring countries.
By giving greater value to wildlife, cases are now dealt with much faster – often taking less than two months, and Opyene believes stricter laws and improved prosecution methods are largely responsible for a drop in ivory trade passing through Uganda.
“We don’t have to fight with arms,” he says, confident the tools for tackling a poaching crisis lie largely with the law. “Our words will be our weapon. We will not be quiet.”
An African safari sets the stage for some of the greatest wildlife shows on earth, but protecting the headline acts is an ongoing challenge, with habitat loss, community conflict and poaching on the rise.
Supported by royal patron the Duke of Cambridge, the Tusk Conservation Awards, in partnership with Investec Asset Management, aims to give exposure to projects and individuals dedicated to fighting the cause.
Three pioneering Africans are in line for The Tusk Award for Conservation in Africa, sponsored by Land Rover, which offers an overall prize of £20,000 and runners-up grants of £7,500 each. All hail from tourism destinations, and their work has played a significant role in conserving endangered environments and species.
A winner will be announced at the awards ceremony in London on November 8, where The Prince William Award for Conservation in Africa – a lifetime achievement award sponsored by Investec Asset Management, will also be awarded, with a grant of £40,000.
Prince William, who will be attending the event, takes a keen interest in the judging process but doesn’t know who’s won until the night.
“He loves the fact it’s a surprise for him too,” says Tusk CEO Charlie Mayhew.