An injured hartebeest lay in Murchison Falls National Park’s grassland helpless. One of the rangers had seen it struggling to survive and went to seek aid, hoping to find it in the same place when he returned. Its legs had been caught in a wheel trap, almost severing them. The game rangers searched for it a few hours later but could not find it.
“The snare must have caused it to bleed to death,” one ranger exclaimed. Another was sure it was somewhere in the park trying to stay alive. The search went on to no avail and the team retired. The hartebeest was a victim of poaching, a vice that is predominant in many of the parks in the country.
Poachers use crude means to get their prey. They set snares and wheel traps – very powerful contraptions that derive their name from the leaf springs of vehicle wheels from which they are made, as well as spears and nets that immobilise and injure the animals. Some are even armed with automatic weapons.
Poachers’ snares trap a wide variety of animals. They do not discriminate. Trapped animals usually bleed and die slowly if not immediately attended to.
In 2011, hundreds of animals in Murchison Falls National Park – including giraffes, elephants and lions – were killed or severely injured after getting caught in snares or traps. The snares are laid by criminals who hunt wild animals for commercial bush meat market or to profit from other illegal wildlife products such as ivory.
“In 2011, about 40 rangers did a three-day patrol of the Delta to Pakuba area of the park [Murchison Falls National Park] that has the greatest number of animals. In that period, 1,154 snares were recovered and destroyed. This is evidence of the high rates of wildlife crimes,” recounts Peter Ewau, the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) in-house Prosecutor for Murchison Falls National Park.
Also in 2013, rangers did a six-hour search in a small section of the Delta and discovered 285 wire snares. This on its own tells the magnitude of the problem.
Wildlife crime in Murchison Falls National Park is driven by many complex factors. Often cited is the lack of education – the locals in the area do not see the benefit of wildlife conservation, which helps to support tourism, currently the largest GDP earning sector in Uganda. The scarcity of sustainable livelihoods is also blamed; poverty drives people to make a living from illegal means. For instance, a hippo carcass is worth about Shs1.5m and a kilogramme of buffalo meat costs Shs15,000 on the black market.
However, there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel as UWA and its stakeholders are installing strategies such as the Wildlife Intelligence and Leadership Development for Law Enforcement Officers (WILD LEO) project, designed to curb crime and provide evidence for prosecutions.
Andrew Lemieux, a criminologist and researcher from The Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement, one of the pioneers of WILD LEO, says he was more interested in wildlife crime because the animals cannot defend themselves in court like humans.
“I first spent time with the UWA rangers in 2009 and saw a gap in their law enforcement data collection and crime analysis. I was inspired to start the project and returned in 2011, to Queen Elizabeth National Park, to test the cameras and the software that the rangers now use.
Before WILD LEO, there was no evidence being collected for use by law enforcement units in the criminal justice system,” explains Lemieux.
He realised the park needed a faster way to record data and build a strong prosecution case.
“We purchased cameras with GPS (Global Positioning System). Each cost between $200 (about Shs664,800) and $300 (about Shs997,200). We started with 10 teams or outposts and 10 cameras. The cameras were meant to take pictures of suspects, collect and keep data,” he says.
Currently, there are 65 cameras and trained WILD LEO rangers in five Protected Areas of Kibale, Kidepo Valley, Queen Elizabeth, Murchison Falls parks, and Toro Semiliki Wildlife Reserve.
“We have trained about 200 UWA Law Enforcement Rangers and Crime Analysts on how to use the cameras. A patrol strategy is built basing on the number of snares by location,” Dr Lemieux says.
How it operates
According to Anne-Marie Weeden, Uganda Conservation Foundation (UCF)’s general manager, WILD LEO uses techniques and insights from the world of criminology to enable UWA collect evidence and map it. “Crime mapping is used by analysts to map, visualise and analyse crime incident patterns using geographic information systems. UWA’s crime analysts can now identify crime hotspots, along with other poaching trends and patterns, and use the evidence for prosecutions.”
UCF has trained rangers to collect and analyse evidence of illegal activity using a digital camera with an integrated GPS unit, which can then be presented to commanders and a prosecution team to use as evidence.
“We have trained analysts in using a free mapping programme. They download data from pictures taken by the cameras and turn it into something useful. The programme specifies wildlife crimes by recording snares and distance from the snares. This way, UWA officers and prosecutors are able to find solutions,” Lemieux highlights.
Ewau says: “The system is easy to learn and use – even someone without the benefits of a full education is able to use it.”
Before WILD LEO, the process of prosecution was slow. “Very few poachers were convicted at that time,” the park’s sole prosecutor says. He adds that the park reports poaching cases on a weekly basis, the most recent being 35 cases, of which 18 were convicted in September last year. Ewau cites January and February as having higher poaching rates because they are dry seasons and the majority of the people are not cultivating.
Back then, UWA was losing a great number of cases since the penalty was only Shs30,000, yet game meat cost more than Shs1m. Rangers were frustrated. “Poachers used to deny all charges. They can no longer deny because of the GPS camera, which records location and coordinates,” explains Patrick Agaba, the projects manager for UCF.
“WILD LEO has aided us to know where concentration of crime is. On being arrested, one cannot deny. We used to have cameras in the northern bank of the Nile where majority of animals and illegal activities are. Most of these cameras were vandalised by poachers. This is why we opted for mobile GPS cameras,” notes another UWA ranger.
Agaba says the suspects would often admit their crime upon being arrested, but change their story by the time they reached court. With the latest cameras, UWA rangers are able to record video confessions in the field. These confessions, supported by the GPS evidence that puts the suspect at the scene of the crime, have helped UWA achieve a successful prosecution rate of 95 per cent.
In 2014, out of 256 cases of poaching, the park won 242 cases. Six cases were not concluded and three were dismissed.
“By the end of last year, WILD LEO covered 100 per cent of Uganda’s key elephant ranges, and early this year, will start training members of the UWA Intelligence Unit, and other enforcement organisations in the techniques to help bring the capacity of WILD LEO to the fight against trafficking, transit and trade of illegal wildlife products,” says Weeden.
Even with all the strategies in place, there is still an alarming rise in bush meat poaching, predominantly using snares and powerful wheel traps that are having the greatest impact on wildlife in Murchison Falls National Park.
Poaching remains one of the park’s deadliest nightmares – and threatens the economy of Uganda by depleting the wildlife populations upon which tourism is dependent – so more efforts will be needed by all stakeholders to curb the vice.