Despite the widespread decline of elephants across Africa in recent years, one nation has reported a rising population.
Elephants in Uganda have increased by 600 percent, to more than 5,000 individuals, from a low of 700 to 800 in the 1980s, reports a survey in May by the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Great Elephant Census, and the Uganda Wildlife Authority.
Elephants were once plentiful across the East African country, but rampant poaching fueled their decline. The Wildlife Conservation Society cited better protection across Uganda’s ten national parks as a major factor in their recovery.
Despite the increasing numbers, elephants in Uganda still face poaching pressure, particularly in Queen Elizabeth National Park, which now has 2,913 elephants, the report noted. And Uganda has continued to be a stopover for international smugglers, who may take advantage of local corruption.
A controversial court ruling returned three tons of ivory to traffickers in March 2014—a decision made after a judge bought the defendants’ argument that the ivory had been legally imported that may also embolden smugglers.
National Geographic spoke with Oliver Wonekha, Uganda’s ambassador to the United States, about the ways elephants are recovering in the country.
A recent survey suggests that elephants are increasing in Uganda, while they’re decreasing across much of Africa. So what is your country doing differently?
In our recent past we had a lot of political turmoil, and during that time there was a lot of poaching. The wildlife really suffered.
The current government takes wildlife crime very seriously because wildlife is an important part of our tourism industry, which is now our biggest earner of foreign income. Wildlife trafficking is also a security issue, because terrorist groups use it to fund their operations.
What technology are you using to fight poachers?
One of the challenges we have is that we need more equipment, such as cameras, vehicles, and helicopters. The Japanese government recently provided 65 cameras, which we are using to survey national parks. One of my objectives is to convince the U.S. Congress to provide more support for conservation.
Many of the animals migrate across international boundaries, which can make conservation efforts harder. How do you address that?
We are working with our neighbors by sharing information on traffickers and conducting joint ranger patrols across borders.
In 2012 the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) listed Uganda as one of eight countries of primary concern because of the amount of illegal ivory smuggled through the country. How has your government responded?
Parliament is debating legislation that would amend the 2000 Wildlife Act to provide stiffer penalties for those caught trading wildlife products, because it’s clear that current laws don’t provide enough of a deterrent. One plan is to impose a fine equivalent to an animal’s value, around $21,000 for an elephant, and jail time up to 20 years.
The government has also started a new wildlife crime unit. More effort is being put into security at airports and to seize ivory in transit. Cameras are a big help at getting convictions, because in the past people denied the charges. Agencies are working hard to stay ahead of the [smugglers], but the traders are working hard by changing up how they conceal and ship wildlife products.
A Ugandan court ruling made headlines after an ivory trafficker was given three tons of ivory back in March 2014, and in November a ton of ivory was reported missing from a government vault. Do incidents like these suggest there may be some corruption problems in the country?
President Museveni is trying to crack down on corruption. He recently launched a new watchdog agency, the Inspectorate of Government. Another way to fight corruption is by improving cooperation between agencies. We have recently seen more involvement around wildlife crime from the police, customs, and INTERPOL.
Over the past four years, two elephants have been killed in Uganda as a result of conflicts with local people, even though it’s against the law to kill them. Some people also complain that elephants have damaged their property. How do you resolve those issues?
Our human population is growing at 3.2 percent a year, among the highest in the world, so pressure on animals is increasing. When elephants stray out of national parks, they can go into farm fields and gardens, where they can cause a lot of damage. Most of the time people call park rangers, who come and chase the animals back into the parks. But it can still leave people frustrated. Killing elephants is illegal, but there is still tension.
So we are experimenting with digging trenches along park borders, spraying chili oil, which elephants don’t like, and driving elephants off people’s property. We also make sure local communities benefit from the animals by getting a portion of revenues earned from sport hunting [75 percent of fees] and tourism [20 percent of entrance fees]. Over a year, communities get about one billion Uganda shillings ($300,000) from all parks combined, which they use for social projects and to decrease conflicts with wildlife.
Have other animals been at risk?
Gorillas haven’t been targeted much by trafficking, but the international market for body parts has driven poaching of rhinos and big cats, as well as elephants. There is also still a bush meat problem [in which wild animals are hunted for their meat], which we are dealing with in the same way.