The killing of a rare mountain gorilla on a Ugandan game reserve in June 2020 made headlines across the world – and brought a pandemic-fuelled surge in illegal hunting in the country into sharp focus.
The silverback, Rafiki, who was believed to be 25 years old, was speared by poachers, whose numbers were increasing after tourism numbers dwindled due to Uganda joining the rest of the world in trying to contain the Covid-19 virus.
Uganda has 10 national parks – the largest, Murchison Falls, covers almost 4,000 square kilometres – all of which are key to the health of its tourism trade.
As the East African country imposed one of the continent’s most stringent lockdowns, with nightly curfews and orders to work from home, many people lost city jobs and retreated to rural villages.
Hardship was most keenly felt by those working in tourism, an industry devastated by Covid-19.
Without the thousands of park visitors and wildlife tourists, poachers seized the opportunity to hunt illegally, either for food or to supply the illegal wildlife trade.
“Because many people were leaving the towns and moving to the villages during the lockdown we had a big problem with poaching,” said Sam Mwandha, executive director at Uganda Wildlife Authority – a government organisation responsible for managing parks and reserves.
“Some areas saw a rise of 50 per cent in poaching during the pandemic.
“Gorillas are not often poached, but their habitat is also the habitat for duiker, small antelope that are a delicacy for people living in those areas.
"Poachers were putting up duiker snares and catching gorillas. In one case, a silverback gorilla called Rafiki was actually speared.
“It was likely he felt threatened by the poachers and attacked, and they responded with spears and killed him.”
Felix Byamukama in July 2020 pleaded guilty to illegally entering a protected area and killing a gorilla. He was jailed for 11 years.
A little more than 1,000 mountain gorillas exist in the wild, and are an endangered species.
Visitor numbers dropped off spectacularly in March 2020, as Covid-19 arrived in Uganda and international travel ground to a halt.
Travel and other restrictions hit the nation hard because of its heavy reliance on wildlife tourism.
Uganda’s 1.5 million annual visitors generate 7.75 per cent of its gross domestic product and provide 6.7 per cent of national employment.
Many of those jobs are in national parks and game reserves, with tourism worth $1.6 billion to the national economy in 2018-2019.
In a six-year period of growth annual visitor numbers swelled to 330,000 by March 2020. Just three months later a nationwide lockdown reduced those numbers to zero.
Although restrictions eased later in the year, visitor numbers in 2020 fell by 66 per cent.
Tourism employs about 650,000 to 700,000 people, from airports, to transfers, hotels and law enforcement, so many people suffered the consequences.
Poaching, however, increased. The UWA recorded 367 poaching cases between February and June of 2020 – more than twice the number recorded throughout 2019.
Uganda is a major trafficking route for ivory and other wildlife products, mostly originating from the Democratic Republic of Congo, West Africa and Southern Africa.
According to the Wildlife Conservation Society of Uganda, bribery and corruption allows well-connected networks of wildlife criminals to take advantage of law-enforcement loopholes to escape prosecution.
High levels of poaching are largely driven by poverty and unemployment in communities near the national parks, while human-wildlife conflict continues as settlements develop near by.
International partnership offers hope
A five-year partnership launched in 2020 between the United States Agency for International Development and Uganda Combating Wildlife Crime aimed to cut wildlife crime by investing in protection measures such as more park rangers, better training and community education.
So far, the activity has supported 258 intelligence-led operations against wildlife crime and procured a mobile canine vehicle fitted with kennels for sniffer dogs to boost operations.
Meanwhile, 23 law enforcement officers from UWA and the Uganda Police Forces have been equipped with intelligence gathering skills and training on how to manage wildlife scenes of crime to improve investigation, detection and prosecution.
Poaching key species can result in a life sentence, but meagre fines of just 20 million Ugandan shillings ($5,500) do little to deter wildlife trafficking gangs who can reap huge sums from selling ivory or pangolin scales.
The average monthly salary in Uganda is about $180.
“When people are travelling together around the parks, the poachers did not come in,” said Stephen Masaba, UWA director of tourism and business development.
“But when the visitor numbers dropped we saw a lot more poachers.
“People did not have food or work so turned to poaching in the parks. It was basic survival for them.
“It offered them wood to cook with, meat and wildlife to steal and then sell on the black market.
“Some people were more adventurous and went into the parks to steal ivory.
“People would poach anything, from elephants for ivory and buffalo or wild pigs for food.
”Our biggest challenge was protecting the big game in the savannah parks and reserves where game drives take place.
“One of the parks is 3,000 square kilometres, so it is a big area to cover, and some are close to the border with Congo, so it gave people more opportunity to poach.”
In October 2020, visitors to Uganda’s parks were made up largely of East African tourists `and totalled 6,472, by December 2021, that number had recovered to 41,348.
There was further improvement in 2021, with numbers growing to 189,000 foreign visitors and East African tourists.
Tourists return but officials warn against complacency
Despite signs of recovery, challenges remain.
In a terrorist attack in Kampala on November 17, three suicide bombers linked to the Allied Democratic Forces further dented Uganda’s tourism ambitions.
One terrorist detonated his vest outside police headquarters with two more blowing themselves up near parliament, killing four and injuring more than 30, the majority of whom were police.
“Chaos caused by these isolated incidents happen all over the world, but people continue to live here and foreign visitors have been reassured, with more bookings,” Mr Masaba said.
“Any country where there is insecurity will have tourism impacted. But Uganda has learnt its lessons of the past and has a strong domestic security strategy.
“We work closely with wider authorities to secure vulnerable areas, such as in the mountains and game reserves.
“Next year we expect our tourism business to return to pre-pandemic levels.”