*WARNING: CONTAINS GRAPHIC IMAGES OF POACHING*
Poaching. Possibly the trickiest subject in Uganda right now.
Some politicians are ignoring it by denying it's really anything to worry about; the army are being accused of doing it (in the Congo - not the first time they've fielded accusations of pillaging our neighbours); conservation organisations and tourism operators are getting all hot under the collar about it. I mean, it hardly makes for a feelgood safari if you come back with pictures of a three-legged lion (who is nicknamed Clarence by the way - thanks to Paraa Safari Lodge for the picture).
Clarence is now 'doing okay' after veterinary intervention to treat the leg that needed amputating after getting caught in a snare. But he still depends on the close supervision of the Uganda Wildlife Authority and visiting tourists, who in their very presence deter poachers from the park, to survive. This lioness, found near Tangi Gate in the northwestern corner of Murchison, fared less well in her encounter with a snare.
And the elephants that are snapped by so many visitors with half a trunk - or less - are depressingly many. Imagine if you investigated every new thing with the same 'limb' you ate and drank with. Lose that to a snare and life is a lot more complicated. Noone seems to know if the second ellie pictured, with such extreme trunk damage, is still alive.
Thirty years ago, Uganda was in the midst of a bush war - and poaching was rife. Wildlife didn't just get eaten by hungry armies and civilians, it even became extinct (or damn near so). The Northern White Rhino was poached to extinction - it's only Southern Whites we have in the country today - and then only thanks to the sterling efforts and commitment from Rhino Fund Uganda and Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary with their breeding and rehabilitation programme. And in the early 1980s, the elephant population in Murchison reportedly dropped to as low as 50.
Since then, numbers have thrived in an upward trend that spans three decades. Which is what certain politicians are quoting. So you will still see plenty of animals out and about in the national parks. But in the last two to three years, so-called 'normal' levels of subsistence poaching (when a man hunts enough to just feed himself and immediate dependents) have been subsumed by a veritable tsunami of wildlife crime which is undoubtedly now commercial in its nature.
More than 40 restaurants in Kampala are reportedly selling bush meat. At certain road junctions, certain code words will apparently bring you hippo or buffalo meat. A bag of dried bushmeat will sell for less than twenty bucks on the roadside - and contain the meat from up to 5 antelope carcasses. A man can make 1.5 millions shillings from selling a buffalo or hippo carcass - around $600 - a fair old income a country where labour is the cheapest thing you can buy. Food prices have probably exacerbated the increase in poaching for the bushmeat trade, but there are also bigger prizes. The growth in China's middle class, with their increased purchasing power burning a hole in their pocket for 'luxury' goods and status symbols, has led to increased demand for ivory all over the African continent. Ivory trinkets are famously carved from elephants' tusks but they also use Hippo teeth as well. Poaching gangs choose remote areas of national parks to operate in and shoot elephants. When the elephants collapse, after a terrifying chase throughout which they were severely wounded, the poachers use a chainsaw to cut off their head. One assumes the animal is dead first - but who knows?
And what's the penalty if you're caught poaching any animal and it's your first offence? A mere 30,000 shillings (around $13).
It feels like Uganda is at a turning point for conservation. If, as a nation, government and tourism industry, it stands up and tackles the problem of poaching, it won't take long for the wildlife to restore its populations and continue it's upward growth from the 'bad old days'. If we don't stand up, the bad old days will become rapidly turn into today and before we know it we'll be looking at empty rainforests and deserted savannah, wondering where all the animals went.
So, what to do?
Campaigns from international conservation organisations are trying to tackle the root cause of the ivory trade - the demand for this luxury product without any apparent knowledge of the brutal way in which it is obtained. Wild Aid's recent effort in sending Yao Ming to East Africa is particularly notable for it's take on 'If the buying stops, the killing stops too', using a Chinese celebrity to drive that message home where it's needed most.
On a more local level, there are murmurs of change in policy and a call for stronger, more meaningful penalties - but politicians need to be galvanised to advocate far-reaching and effective legislation change. In the meantime, some are doing very good impressions of ostriches.
There also needs to be a change in public perception. Culturally, when faced with a long public holiday weekend, most Ugandans would rather hit the clubs or hit the beach than go on safari. Uganda friends and colleagues of mine who work in tourism have often discovered the natural wealth of their country's wildlife and wild spaces through their work. It's great to watch them falling in love with their own country in this regard - but the bittersweet flipside is that, for the vast majority, the rest of Uganda is indifferent to their wildlife heritage.
The wildlife authority are playing their part well in both managing the parks and introducing new measures to curb the current rise in poaching, but are ultimately hobbled by under-funding and a lack of capacity to tackle all the practical solutions that can also be applied 'on the ground'. Quite simply, they cannot be everywhere at once, and the poachers will always look for the weak spot. I've been on recent game drives and seen suspicious boats 'landing' on the park shores at Murchison, full of men who rely on claiming to be fishermen who 'just had a problem with their boat' upon discovery, but their empty (or non-existent) nets tell a different story - they've come to set snares.
So the missing link, currently, in wildlife management, is being provided from conservation organisations and NGOs in the form of financial and practical support to the wildlife authority in identifying and completing vital projects. They can often raise the funds necessary to build a ranger post right where it's needed...a first line of defence against attempted entries into the park by poachers... or campaign for pratical sustainable solutions for neglected areas and border communities - the latter probably being the most important audience for change.
One such organisation that I happen to personally know well (through work - we make a small donation to them for every safari booked) is Uganda Conservation Foundation. If you're interested in helping address the problem at a practical level, check out their site. More than 90% of the money donated goes directly to projects in the field - they maintain extremely low overheads - so no massive fleet of white landcruisers there...
(If they do get their hands on a landcruiser, they generally paint in a certain shade of green and donate it to the park staff to go about their duties more efficiently).
The battle to beat poaching in Africa will need to be fought at every level - and it won't be won or lost by one entity. There are hundreds of small conservation outfits like UCF getting tangible results on the ground across the continent, and in tandem with support from the highest levels of Africa's policy-makers and tourism sectors, we may just beat the bastards.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this post are, as elsewhere in this blog, my personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of any individuals or organisations or companies associated with me or mentioned above. But naturally I make complete sense, and they should all do as I say.