By Innocent Atuganyira

BULIISA: In the past, the punishment for illegally entering in the park to hunt or fish was imprisonment, but things have changed. Whereas, Uganda Wildlife Act of 2019 provides for cash fines, imprisonment and forfeiture for any offences related to killing or injuring protected species (Section 71), this has not been the case with the suspects in Murchison Falls National Park and Bugungu Wildlife Reserve as evidenced by the story from the two families we visited in Kilyango village in Buliisa District.

The militarization of the conservation has been the work of the Eurocentric organisations which have tended to treat the neighboring communities of the conservation areas as the problem rather than the partners in conservation. Organisations such as the Uganda Conservation Foundation have fronted militarization as the best option while on their website displaying community engagement as their signature approach to conservation.

Such organisations have trained game rangers in military tactics and also built various ranger posts in the park and have paid locals to report their colleagues to the park authority. Due to the above developments, many families have turned to burying the clothes when their dear ones are killed from the park. Traditionally, clothes are buried when the body of the deceased has not been retrieved by the bereaved family.

The park authority has always hid under section 89 of the Uganda Wildlife Act whenever the relatives of those killed from the park ask for answers, the section states that ” An action shall not lie against the Authority for the recovery of damage caused to a person or property by an animal in a wildlife conservation area” they claim that the person has been killed by the animals even when in some circumstances, some survivors escape with bullet injuries or narrate what befell their colleagues.

The park has implemented “shoot to kill policy” on the offenders, and if killing was the best solution towards poaching, poaching would have ceased, but it continues. Is there no any other better approach to conservation? Whereas the park authority has moved for “shoot to kill”, when the wild animals kill or destroy domestic animals, property or humans, the response from the same is always lukewarm.

The bureaucracy involved in claiming for compensation is very hectic which makes it hard for locals to follow up. In a few incidents, UWA has only given food at the funerals of those killed by the wild animals.

Residents of Kilyango village, Ngwedo Sub County in Buliisa district are forced to bury clothes when their colleagues are swallowed by Murchison Falls National Park. Residents disclose that their fellows are shot dead by game park rangers and it becomes hard to retrieve the corpses since the collectors in most cases, are either shot at or arrested for illegally entering the park.

We visited Upar Wanja, 89 years old who was frail and we found him sleeping coughing repeatedly and accompanied by his wife, Upar narrates that his son, Steven Unegi 52 disappeared in the park five years ago when he went to fish in the park.

Upar Wanja and wife standing beside the cloth grave of their son. Photo by Wilson Kiiza

Before joining the group of hunters, Unegi was a farmer but due to the prolonged drought, he was convinced by the group of hunters to join so that he can get what to feed his family.
Upar adds that after his son accepted to join the crew, they went the first day and came back safely. ‘’When Unegi went back to the park the second time, he didn’t return, I suspect he was shot dead by rangers,’’ he says.

The elder who is living helpless life explains that the other two children {Geoffrey Ongom and Udongo Steven} were arrested for fishing from the park and sentenced to two years imprisonment in Nwoya district. ‘’I was informed on a phone call that my children are in custody, and that they are to spend two years behind the bars,’’ he asserts.

When asked whether he reported the matter to police, Upar disclosed that he didn’t report the matter. ‘’I didn’t report the matter to police or game park officials due to the fear of being arrested,’’ he said.

Upar who is struggling to feed his six grandchildren asked for government intervention adding he is struggling to get bread for the children. ‘’All the responsibilities are on my head, l am aged and unable to look after these children,’’ he noted.

He asked Uganda Wildlife Authority to support him financially and also construct for him a descent house

The grass thatched house belonging to Upar Wanja. Photo by Wilson Kiiza

Pascal Uchiba narrated how their village mate also disappeared in the same national park. ‘’Wilbert Unyera left Nebbi District and came to Buliisa over lack of land for cultivation at his ancestral home, when he came here, he bought a piece of land and started cultivating crops,’’ Uchiba explained.

Uchiba further explained that after failing to yield in agriculture, Unyera was convinced by his friends to join them and start fishing in the Murchison Falls National Game Park. ‘’They went for the first day and came back, when they went back for the second time, they were ambushed by rangers and Unyera was arrested,’’ he explained.

The resident also told Unyera was transferred to Masindi prisons over poaching. ‘’We sold the piece of land Unyera had bought to release him from the bars,’’ he asserted. Uchiba also added that when Unyera was released, they continued with fishing.

Pascal Uchiba explaining how their colleague disappeared in Murchison Falls National Park. Photo by Wilson Kiiza

‘’They went back for hunting, the first day they came back safely, then second time they were ambushed by the rangers, according to the colleagues, they had to run after bullet shootings,’’ Uchiba narrated.

Uchiba further contended that after searching for their colleague in different prisons including Masindi but in vain, they decided to bury clothes. ‘’It’s now two years since we buried the clothes, we never got any information pertaining the disappearance of Unyera and there is no hope of him surfacing again,’’ he asserted.

Pascal Uchiba standing close to the cloth grave. Photo by Wilson Kiiza

Uchiba also told that they suspect Unyera to have been shot dead by game park rangers since they were ambushed and bullets shot. ‘’We didn’t report either to police or Uganda Wildlife Authority since we are afraid of being arrested,’’ he said.

The angry resident also revealed that they don’t get any support from Uganda Wildlife Authority. ‘’Even when wild animals destroy our plantations, they don’t compensate us.

When we inform them that the wild animals have destroyed our plantations, they direct us to kill them, but when you do so, they arrest us,’’ Uchiba added.

He also said they have never been in good terms with Uganda Wildlife Authority, and have never received any support from them despite wild animals destroying their plantations.
Uchiba asked the government to intervene and rescue them.

Albert Ochaya the area chairperson confirmed the issue and said that in most cases residents are afraid of reporting since poaching is illegal in Uganda.

Due to the increasing levels of Lake Albert waters since 2019, over twelve people and seventy cows have been killed by crocodiles in Buliisa district. Godfrey Rwamukanga the LCII chairperson for Northern Ward in Butiaba Sub County explained that they have cried out to Uganda Wildlife Authority for intervention but in vain.

Bernard Barugahara the Buliisa District Commercial Development Officer said that people disappear in the Murchison Falls National Park due to poaching adding that poaching is illegal in Uganda. He also said Uganda Wildlife Authority supports the communities neighboring the national game parks to ensure people don’t encroach to the park for poaching.

He further said they are not sure whether poachers are shot dead by rangers or attacked by wild animals. Barugahara however said they will transverse the villages neighboring the park for community awareness and discourage them from poaching and create harmony between the park and neighbors.

‘’Some people go poaching as a revenge over wild animals destroying their plantations, however, we are planning to transverse the villages neighboring the national game park to sensitize them on how-to live-in harmony with the wild animals and the dangers of poaching,’’ he asserted.

Bernard Barugahara explaining how they will transverse in the villages neighboring the park. Photo by Innocent Atuganyira

Fred Lukumu the District Chairperson Buliisa asked people to desist from poaching since its illegal in Uganda adding that they should get other possible ways of getting money but not through poaching. ‘’Let them get other possible ways of getting money because poaching is illegal in Uganda,’’ he said.

When contacted on phone, Bishir Hangi the Uganda Wildlife Authority Spokesperson said that he has no idea of people disappearing in the game park noting that they are only accountable for the people who access the park through the gate. ‘’Those who illegally enter game park have no space in my office since we are accountable for those registered at the gate,’’ he contended.

Hangi also said that Upar Wanja should follow up at Nwoya to ensure his detained children are released. Many people arrested are not given fair hearing as their relatives are never informed of their arrest, or given legal representation as provided for by the laws of Uganda.

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