The Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) has invested $6 million (approximately Shs 17.9 billion) in big container scanners as part of its efforts to combat illicit wildlife trade, which costs the country billions of shillings in revenue.
According to Richard Kamajugo, URA’s commissioner for customs, the scanners, procured at $3 million each, will be operational at the Malaba and Busia border posts within the next two months.
Malaba and Busia are some of the busiest border points in Uganda, where it is thought smuggling and wildlife trafficking are rampant. Due to increased vigilance at Entebbe international airport, officials say that wildlife traffickers have switched to other porous border points such as Malaba and Busia, where controls are thought to be lax.
Kamajugo, who was speaking at the opening of a five-day regional workshop on prevention of wildlife tracking at Hotel Africana on Monday, said URA’s decision to invest in the ultra-modern scanners followed a value-for-money assessment. According to statistics, recent seizures of ivory and pangolin scales by URA and Police at Entebbe airport and Mpondwe border post were valued at more than Shs 3bn.
Yet, officials admit that some wildlife traffickers go undetected across Uganda. In a bid to elude customs and other enforcement officials, some traffickers seal the wildlife products in consignments declared as tea exports.
But with the installation of big container scanners, Kamajugo says URA’s capacity to inspect large transit, incoming and outgoing consignments for illicit wildlife trafficking will be more efficient. Already, URA has finished construction of ideal shades and related infrastructure needed for the scanners.
“They [scanners] should be operational in two months,” Kamajugo stated, noting that previously URA staff have been labouring to check large consignments manually.
Kamajugo also noted that URA’s capacity at Entebbe airport is still limited as the tax authority relies on smaller scanners operated by Entebbe Handling Services (ENHAS). However, he said that they had managed to make major illegal wildlife trafficking interceptions, thanks to joint effort by the customs, police and airport authorities.
Uganda is one of the infamous ‘gang of eight’ illegal ivory and other wildlife trafficking transit routes and sources. Kenya, Tanzania, China, Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam are the other notorious trafficking sources, transit routes and destinations.
While officiating at the opening ceremony of the training workshop, URA Commissioner General Doris Akol said that since traffickers use sophisticated methods, custom officials cannot afford to remain rudimentary. She noted that trafficking is an organised crime and there is need to have an organised law enforcement network to counter it.
Customs, wildlife, police, judiciary and conservation officials from nine countries including Kenya, Tanzania, Sudan, Ethiopia, South Sudan, DR Congo and Rwanda are attending the workshop. The training workshop is jointly funded by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) and the United States’ Department of State and Bureau of Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.
Akol is optimistic that by the end of the five-day discussions and interactions, wildlife enforcement officers and their counterparts could have forged a way forward to fight the illicit trade. Officials will be equipped with skills on wildlife products, trafficking laws and tips on spotting trafficked items.
Dr Andrew Seguya, the executive director of Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), noted that the impact of trafficking was not only depriving the country of multibillion revenues but threatened to wipe out some wildlife species.
For instance, Seguya singled out African elephants whose herd has dwindled over years because of illegal wildlife trade. According to statistics 22,000 elephants were killed across the world in 2012 by poachers who sell their tusks to illegal ivory dealers. Uganda lost at least 20 elephants in 2010 to poachers, according to UWA estimates.
Seguya said that illegal wildlife trade thrives because it ranks among the top four multibillion dollar businesses in the world. Wildlife products such as ivory are lucrative items on the black market, he added. For instance, a kilogram of ivory is priced at $1,300, far higher than a kilogram of Arabica coffee which is just above $3.
To combat the increasing incidence of this trade in Uganda, Seguya disclosed that parliament is due to review the Wildlife Act in which amendments will prescribe tougher punishments and bigger fines for the traffickers.
One of the reasons traffickers target Uganda as a transit corridor and source of illegal wildlife is the weak punishments prescribed within the current law, Seguya said.