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How Uganda Plays a Key Role In Global Illicit Wildlife Trade

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Criminal organizations in Uganda and East Africa are linked to ivory and of recently heavily linked to pangolin trafficking. A third of hunters and traders interviewed in Uganda reported that traffickers take advantage of the weak border controls and security challenges in northern Uganda, Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan to offload the scales they collected, sometimes concealing themselves as impoverished locals to avoid detection at known checkpoints.
22 Jul 2021 10:34
An illustration by the 2020 Willdlife Crime Pangolin Scales report showing Uganda trafficking network routes.


Several recent reports  have identified Uganda as one of the common transit points for the trafficking of wildlife and wildlife products in the Central and East Africa region. Criminal organizations in Uganda and East Africa are linked to ivory and of recently heavily linked to pangolin trafficking.

Environment Investigations Agency (EIA) reports that Uganda alongside countries in Central and West Africa have become the epicenter for trafficking of pangolin scales and elephant ivory to countries in Asia by well-organized criminal groups.

EIA partner in Uganda, Vincent Opeyene of the Natural Resource Conservation Network (NRCN) says this is linked to the insecurity in some of the neighboring countries like DRC and South Sudan is fueling Illicit Wildlife Trade.

“Wildlife traffickers cross those countries to mobilize a bulk of wildlife products in terms of pangolin scales and Ivory and move them to Uganda. They use Uganda for collection and then distribute in small bits. Because the law was initially very weak, if they are arrested, they could easily pay fines in courts and get away with it” said Opeyene “And because of corruption, they can pay and out without being successfully prosecuted.”

From DRC, EIA has worked with Adams Cassinga, the founder of ConservCongo to investigate and track some of the illicit wildlife and items that normally transit through Uganda.

Cassinga blames the Illicit wildlife trade on the insecurity in DRC on the fact that tourism based on flora and fauna is almost nonexistent. So he says transnational criminals tend to plunder wildlife to the detriment of DRC’s Security and sovereignty.

“Because most of the armed groups which are based in Eastern parts of the country have found a safe haven within our national parks. They actually understand these parks more than our security agencies. And so revenue which is being generated from the sale of these wildlife products, are the same revenues which acquire guns which are bringing insecurity in the country” observes Cassinga

The insecurity resulting from the Illicit Wildlife Trade has got the attention of Uganda Police and state  security agencies.The police have particularly began training its police commanders on convergence crimes after realizing that criminals use illicit wildlife products and fish to “legitimize” laundered money.

“Owing to Uganda’s porous borders, weak law enforcement and deterrent penalties, the country became an attractive trafficking route for illegal wildlife products from central, west, south and east Africa en-route to Asia. This makes the role of law enforcement very critical in combating illegal wildlife trade,” said Dr. Nampindo Country Director, Wildlife Conservation Society while at lecture attended by police commanders at the Police Senior Command and Staff College (PSCSC) in Bwebajja before the COVID-19 outbreak.

According to TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, wildlife crime is a big business run by dangerous international networks, wildlife and animal parts are trafficked much like illegal drugs and arms.

“By its very nature, it is almost impossible to obtain reliable figures for the value of the illegal wildlife trade" says the report released in March this year.

Quoting this report in relation to East Africa, the Director of Intelligence, Wildlife Justice Commission, Sarah Stoner said since 2000, an average of between 80 to 90 sampled case files show that transnational criminal networks are engaged in seven or more types of organized crime including wildlife trafficking.

“And this office conducted a study on larger amount of data on various serious crimes in Eastern Africa. And they found that illegal wildlife trade was converging with other organized crime, especially drug trafficking. And what was really interesting is the study found that Wildlife trafficking could be regarded as soft underbelly of the criminal ecosystem. In sense that understating wildlife trafficking better provides a gateway in understanding into combating other serious crimes” said Stoner

According to Uganda Wildlife Authority, the iconic species such as elephants, pangolins and lions continued to be poached even when the country was under COVID-19 lockdown.

“We had 1987 suspects involved in poaching and related offences into the conservation areas between March and June 2020 says Uganda Wildlife Authority Spokesman, Bashir Hangi

According to Hangi, 60 poachers were arrested, over 4300 assorted wildlife and wildlife products seized. He said of the confiscated poaching tools included 23 guns, five of which were Kalashnikovs or AK47. Most of these were from Queen Elizabeth and Murchison Falls National Parks which contain rich wildlife including elephants, lions, buffalo and crocodiles.

In June last year, 14 Chinese nationals were arrested and charged in court on charges of illegal possession of wildlife species which included elephant penises valued at Shs 17.1 billion, six tortoises valued at Shs 22.8 million and half kilogram of pangolin scales valued at Shs 5.7 million.

According to Uganda Revenue Authority, by early January 2019, 762 pieces or 3.2 tons of elephant tusks  and 432 tons of pangolin scales were seized.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crimes report on Wildlife Crime: Pangolin scales, 2020 was one the most revealing documents about pangolins in Uganda, Nigeria, DRC and Cameroon.  It said Nigeria, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo act as transit countries and logistical hubs for pangolin and wildlife trafficking more generally.

“In fieldwork in Cameroon and Uganda, it was reported that Congolese and Nigerian citizens act as traders and intermediaries. In the urban areas, the goods are sold to international traffickers, primarily Chinese, but also some Nigerians and Vietnamese,” said the report released June.

The report says pangolin trafficking takes several stages from the hunter, trader, intermediaries to the wildlife trafficker. 

A pangolin hunter is paid between $ 2.5 – 9 for a kilogram of pangolin scales, $ 4 -14 per live pangolin, while the trader is paid between $ 13-40/kg scales while intermediaries get US$ 135 commission per delivery (10 -16 sacks, 50 kg each)

The report which was recently discussed at a UN high level meeting on Illicit Wildlife trade (IWT) said in Uganda traffickers take advantage of the weak border controls and security challenges in northern Uganda, Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan to offload the scales they collected, sometimes concealing themselves as impoverished locals to avoid detection at known checkpoints.

This story was produced by Uganda Radio Network . It was written as part of Wealth of Nations, a media skills development programme run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. More information at www.wealth-of-nations.org. The content is the sole responsibility of the author and the publisher.