Ugandan elephants’ long march to recovery



Date Published
It is an emblem of Africa’s heritage but has also become a symbol of human tyranny and greed. More than three elephants are killed illegally every hour across Africa. But Uganda offers some hope for the gentle giants.
Even as elephants continue to fall prey to the bullets of poachers, Uganda has emerged as a role model. The country has witnessed a staggering 600 percent rise in its elephant population over the past few decades.
According to a survey backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Uganda has taken giant strides in elephant conservation. The elephant count in the East African country now stands at more than 5,000, having risen from a low of 700 to 800 in the 1980s.
Simon Hedges of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) says other countries could learn from Uganda.
“It does show that with good law enforcement and technical support it is possible to reverse the decline that we are experiencing in some of the other places across. There are still too few places where elephant’s numbers are clearly growing,” he said.
Uganda’s success story contrasts with the abject failure of neighboring Tanzania. The elephant population there has plummeted by more than 60 percent during the past five years. Tanzania is a leading source of illegal ivory.
The elephant population in Tanzania, a leading source of illegal ivory, has plummeted by more than 60 percent during the past five years.
A report by UK-based NGO Environmental Investigation Agency has revealed that Chinese-led criminal gangs are conspiring with corrupt Tanzanian officials to traffic huge amounts of ivory.
“The demand for ivory from the ports of Dar el Salaam and Mombasa is very high. 20 years ago there were only few ports where illegal wildlife trade could operate through across Africa, there are now thousands,” said Michael Keigwin of the Uganda Conservation Foundation.
“The demand from the Chinese and the canniness of how people are going about this illegal criminal supply chain is professional and we need to professionalize against it. Tanzania sadly is fighting a corruption battle as well,” he added.
The era of Idi Amin
Uganda’s checkered history makes the country’s conservation efforts further stand out. In 1960s Uganda had more mega herbivores such as elephants and hippos per square kilometer than any other African country. Then came the brutal Idi Amin era. Elephants were butchered at will for their tusks.
Things only got worse with the ousting of Idi Amin by the Tanzanian forces. Soldiers from both sides camped in forests, slaughtering the wildlife for food and profit. The number of elephants came crashing down.
But a series of interventions over the past two decades have brought the elephant back from the brink of extinction. The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) has been reorganized so that it can tackle poachers effectively. The safe environment in the country has prompted many elephants from trouble-torn Congo’s Virunga National Park to cross over into Uganda.
“There are certainly some elephants moving across from Virunga but it is not just migration which is driving the increase. We are looking at real increases too,” Hedges said.
Aerial surveys conducted in June 2014 by WCS and UWA staff estimated that there were 1,330 elephants in Murchison Falls National Park, 2,913 in Queen Elizabeth National Park and 656 in the Kidepo Valley National Park and neighboring Karenga Community Wildlife Management area. Elephant numbers in Queen Elizabeth Park have reached levels similar to those in the 1960s before heavy poaching hit the park, according to a statement by WCS in May 2015.
“Credit must go the rangers and wardens of the Uganda wildlife authority. They are the ones who have to put up with being shot at. And have no illusion, it is a dangerous job,” said Keigwin.
Challenges remain
Armed poachers and poaching remain a big problem as recent poaching incidents in the Queen Elizabeth National Park indicate. Moreover, Uganda continues to be a stopover for international smugglers, who are aided by corrupt officials.
In 2012 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) identified Uganda as one of the eight countries of primary concern in the ivory trade.
The Ugandan Parliament is debating legislation to provide stiffer penalties for those caught trading wildlife products. Punishments may include jail sentences of up to 20 years.
Nevertheless Uganda’s efforts offer a sliver of hope that the forests of Africa will continue to reverberate with the trumpets of the gentle giants.