Authorities in Uganda intercepted a shipment of roughly 4 tons of elephant ivory and pangolin scales from the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo on its way to the city, Kampala, in January 2019.
What has happened in the three years since then reveals flaws in the country’s enforcement of wildlife-crime legislation.
The Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) arrested two Vietnamese men in possession and issued wanted notices for 16 others, according to news sources at the time.
“The accused were given bail, which is legally legitimate,” Julius Nkwasire Mponoka, the Uganda Revenue Authority’s assistant commissioner for customs enforcement, told Mongabay in February, “but they disappeared.”
The URA had busted the suspects, Vietnamese nationals Nguyen Van Thanh and Dinh Van Chung, with 3,299 kilograms (7,273 pounds) of ivory and 424 kg (935 lbs) of pangolin scales.
At the beginning of March 2019, URA tweeted that Nguyen and Dinh were caught trying to leave the country.
The revenue authority is evasive as to whether they were granted bail a second time, but they never made another court appearance and the case has stalled.
The Environmental Investigation Agency, with headquarters in London and Washington, D.C., says URA’s failure to prosecute this case is a missed chance to break up a major Vietnamese wildlife trafficking network stretching from East and Central Africa to Southeast Asia.
“The case has revealed gaps in several areas,” said Julian Newman, campaigns director for the EIA, “including the investigation of the case, liaison with other countries such as Vietnam, [and] the issue of bail for defendants, particularly since they were foreign nationals and should have been considered likely to abscond given the seriousness of the case.”
The EIA says Uganda should ask INTERPOL to issue red notices for the arrest of the missing suspects as well as go after the individuals who supported their bail applications. (Under Ugandan law, those individuals are liable to pay a fine or be imprisoned for up to six months if the accused fails to appear in court.)
“The case was seen as worthy of prosecution and every effort should be made to see it through to a conclusion. Those defendants named on the indictment should be arrested and face trial,” Newman told Mongabay.
Uganda’s 2019 Wildlife Act introduced stronger laws and stiffer penalties — life imprisonment is the eye-catching maximum penalty — but there’s been no noticeable improvement in the enforcement of laws against wildlife crime since then.
URA officials point out a remaining flaw in the act: while it is clear with regards to anyone caught in possession of illegal wildlife products, it is silent on prosecution of people who may not directly handle them — allowing higher-level traffickers who plan, finance, and profit from the illegal wildlife trade to evade prosecution.
In February 2020, the Ugandan government established a national wildlife crime coordination task force that included the revenue and wildlife authorities, police, army, and Interpol.
“The goal of the task force of all members is to promote cooperation and coordination among the member institutions where we share information, we conduct joint operations and also help each other to expedite executions that are aimed at combating wildlife crime in the country,” said Ibrahim Bbosa, a spokesperson for the URA.
“The URA has also established an intelligence desk that specifically handles wildlife crime and this has been established within our customs and particularly our enforcement arm,” he added.
But Nkwasire suggested Uganda’s courts and government lack any real will to prosecute wildlife crimes. “Some people will ask you why you want to bring someone to the gallows because of the horn of an elephant? How do you explain that to a Vietnamese judge to send their nationals to Uganda for hanging for a horn of an elephant? It is a hard sell,” he said.
“It is a hurdle to even talk to the judges. We are trying to teach our judges what value a live elephant can bring to the economy — for instance revenue from tourism,” he said.
This article was first published by Mongabay.com on 4 March 2022. Lead Image: An elephant by Sam Balye via Unsplash.
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