Scandal in Uganda as Court Hands Back Ivory


Frank Pope - COO

Date Published

An ongoing courtroom drama in Uganda is threatening to undermine the nation’s international credibility after a judge ordered three tonnes of seized ivory to be returned to the smugglers who were caught with it.

In October last year the Uganda Revenue Authority seized the shipment of 850 pieces of ivory from Congo concealed in a shipping container. Instead of jail, a fine or both, two days ago high court Justice Musalu Musene ruled that the ivory be returned to the traffickers for onward export, flying in the face of international agreements and sparking outrage both within Uganda and across the world.

“We are very dismayed by the said judgment and the likely implications it has for Uganda as a contracting party to CITES Convention [but] most importantly the damage this has on tourism development and wildlife conservation in Uganda,” said Tourism Minister Maria Mutagamba.

Asan Kasingye, Director of Interpol Uganda, was also confused at the decision. “It is very unfair to make such a ruling because someone claimed to have got the ivory from elsewhere. The world was very surprised with the ruling and all eyes are watching us. Can you imagine over 400 elephants were killed to get this ivory,” he said.

Uganda was once known as the Pearl of the Nile for the beauty of its National Parks, protected areas that were renowned for their Great Tuskers. But following savage poaching during Idi Amin’s rule and subsequently, Uganda’s elephants were reduced to a remnant population fighting for their survival.

While the Ugandan Wildlife Authority tries to encourage a recovery in their numbers the country has taken on a new, sinister role in emptying the great forests of central Africa of its elephants. The vast and chaotic Congo once harboured hundreds of thousands of elephants. Now, in one of the most tragic mammalian catastrophies of the last century, these populations have largely collapsed. The ivory of the few that remain are being smuggled out of Africa through Uganda, and Kenya.

Kenya has been locked in a battle with its judiciary over proper sentencing for ivory crime. While the future there still hangs in the balance, a new wildlife act and several landmark rulings with stiff sentences suggest a good chance of success. Ivory cases are being monitored closely and intense efforts are being made to sensitise the judiciary by Wildlife Direct in a programme sponsored by Save the Elephants.

Meanwhile in Uganda, a bidding war is reported to have sprung up over the newly legitimised ivory, with at least seven buyers in the fray. The case contravenes at least two international agreements that Uganda has signed up to, including the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and the Ugandan Wildlife Authority, Revenue Authority and police force have all appealed. The eyes of the world are now on the Ugandan government to see what they do next.