The Ugandan Revenue Authority (URA) had seized the ivory being smuggled through Uganda from the DR Congo on 17 October last year. Reportedly consisting of 832 individual pieces, the haul is gruesome evidence of the deaths of many hundreds of elephants and has a market value of several million dollars.
According to the Ugandan authorities the culprits behind this heinous crime are Ugandan, Congolese and Kenyan, reflecting the international nature of wildlife crimes in Africa today. However following the confiscation of the material, the traffickers sought a court order to compel the URA to release the ivory, which they claimed had been imported legally.
Despite the traffickers never putting an appearance in court, and there being no documentation confirming the ivory entering Uganda, high court judge Justice Musalu Musene ruled in their favour and ordered the ivory to be released for onward export.
In a press release today Maria Mutagamba, Minister of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities, has expressed her shock at this ruling:
We are very dismayed by the said judgment and the likely implications it has for Uganda as a contracting party to CITES Convention [and] … most importantly the damage this has on tourism development and wildlife conservation in Uganda. A team of lawyers of the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and URA have already filed a notice of appeal to challenge the judgement. We shall decisively pursue the criminal prosecution of suspects (owners of the confiscated ivory) until they are brought to book. Security Agencies continue to pursue these suspects who are at large.
The minister called on all the organs of the state to proactively support government efforts to stamp out illegal wildlife trade and trafficking in order to conserve Uganda’s heritage and tourism aspirations which are essential for the social transformation of the economy
Meanwhile Charles Tumwesigye, the UWA’s Deputy Director of Conservation, has vowed the UWA will do everything possible to ensure this consignment does not leave Uganda’s borders.
This case contrasts with recent successes in Kenya, where traffickers have been successfully prosecuted and given hefty sentences. These successes reflect improved inter-agency collaboration and high-level political commitment to combat wildlife crime, as well as informed public awareness of the issue. It will take time to create these favourable conditions in Uganda.
But this case is a flagrant violation of Uganda’s treaty obligations and the international community should make it clear that it will not be tolerated. CITES should be asked to impose sanctions on Uganda. This court’s decision undermines those Ugandan authorities, such as the UWA, that are seriously working to protect wildlife.