Illegal Traders in Ivory Also Deserve Death [opinion]

Andrew Ham Ngobi became the second Ugandan to be executed in China this year for drug trafficking. His execution on June 23 came after Omar Ddamulira was hanged on May 21.

It is reported that 23 more Ugandans face another round of executions, 24 are serving life in jail and 28 await sentencing over the same offence.

Given the kind of favour that Chinese investors get from Uganda government, with CNOOC, for example, securing its production license ahead of many oil companies, you would have expected diplomacy to be at the centre stage to save our fellow Ugandans in China.

Instead, China has demonstrated that it cannot compromise on anything that seeks to hurt their fast-growing economy. Uganda’s biggest threat currently is the illegal trader in wildlife products, more especially ivory – affecting the population of wildlife, which the country depends on for its fast-growing tourism industry.

Tourism is currently the top foreign exchange earner, bringing in about $1bn annually, and has been prioritized as one of the top four primary growth sectors for the country in the national development plan. Interestingly though, China is the leading consumer of ivory – with some of its citizens helping to lay waste to the Uganda’s elephants, largely without fear of retribution.

Hours I spent at the aviation police in Entebbe recently were enough for me to understand why traffickers of wildlife products find Uganda a safe haven. Security had nabbed two Chinese and two Guineans with ivory measuring 116kg. It is often not common that ivory traffickers are nabbed at Entebbe airport. Usually, they are smart enough that it is only the ivory that is usually netted.

With such a rare occasion, I had expected police to handle it as a special case that would interest every Ugandan. This is because it came in a week when Uganda Revenue Authority had made its biggest ivory catch ever when it raided a customs warehouse in Kazinga, Wakiso district, and seized contraband of ivory destined for China, worth Shs 6.2bn.

The undeclared merchandise, according to officials, comprised of 832 pieces of elephant tusks, which translates into 416 elephants killed. To my shock, however, police treated the traffickers like petty thieves. In fact, when one police CID discovered that Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) was making it hard for them to secure bail, he began shouting: “Whoever has issues with them getting bail should take them to their place. Our cells are full.”

Nanjing tour and travel, whose car was parked at the police station, had hired a lawyer for them. Before we knew it, the traffickers had secured bail. That is how simple it is to get off the hook in Uganda. And it is the same story in court. Our weak laws leave it to the discretion of the judge to decide the penalty – with the fines going as low as Shs 600,000. Others actually go for free.

That is why a Kenyan businessman, Owino Odhiambo, had the guts to take government to court claiming the ivory container, which he urgued was in transit to Kenya, and that the ivory wasn’t bought in Uganda. And he actually won this case. Current estimates put the figure at 36,000 elephants killed annually globally which equates to one elephant dying every 15 minutes.

But it’s not just elephants that are the victims of this catastrophe. Plants and other animals unique to the African wilderness are dependent on elephants for survival, from spreading seeds to sculpting habitats that are essential to the long-term survival. The extinction of wild elephants will have severe repercussions on the entire ecosystem.

There is an ongoing process to amend the 1996 Wildlife Act to come up with more punitive penalties for traffickers of wildlife products. And my proposal is that these guys deserve a death sentence, but since that is no longer acceptable, at least a life sentence.

Why? Scientific studies have proven that elephants share the same emotions as humans, with a g sense of family and the same sense of death. Like humans, they mourn the loss of loved ones. Each has an individual personality just like us.

In many ways, they are better than us, and they have attributes that we humans lack, such as the ability to communicate over distance, using low-range sound hidden to human ears. Yet for all the worldly reverence for elephants, they are today being hunted and killed at a catastrophic rate, for something as simple as a tooth.

The author is a journalist at The Observer.

Source : The Observer

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