By Ronald Musoke
Conservationists ask Government for policy on disposal of impounded ivory
Since news of the missing ivory from the Uganda Wildlife Authority’s strong room broke in mid-November, there are several questions that have remained unanswered: Why doesn’t the government have a policy on handling ivory confiscated in Uganda? How much ivory has been confiscated by the government over several decades? And for how long will Uganda keep the ivory stockpile?
The recent revelation of the missing ivory estimated to be weighing up to 1.3 tonnes and valued at about Shs 3 billion has also showed the existence of suspicion and mistrust as well as a lack of coordination amongst key government agencies such as UWA, Police, the Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) and court in handling the very much sought after elephant tusks.
For example, when the government committed last year to come up with ivory action plans during the16th CITES COP hosted in Bangkok, conducting regular stock taking of wildlife species, including trophies was one of them.
This according to the now suspended Andrew Seguya, the executive director of UWA, was the reason as to why he ordered the September count of the ivory—the second time the agency has carried out the exercise since 2012.
But when Seguya wrote to Gen. Kale Kayihura, the Inspector General of Police in the middle of 2014 asking him for permission to transfer all the impounded ivory from the stores of the Aviation Police at Entebbe Airport to UWA’s headquarters at Plot 7, Kira Road, Kamwokya, the airport security commandant was uncomfortable about the request.
The commandant wondered why the police should release the impounded ivory when suspects had not been arrested; and secondly, when the confiscated ivory had not been tendered in court as exhibit.
The commandant argued that much as they did not mind UWA keeping the ivory, it would be wrong to take the tusks to another store because they were not sure whether the exhibits would not be compromised.
It is at that point the security organs wondered why Seguya wanted the exhibits at UWA.
“We started raising concerns about the safety of all the impounded ivory. We were wondering whether all the exhibits and trophies that had already been tendered in court and those under UWA’s custody were actually there,” said Asan Kasingye, the Assistant Inspector General of Police and director Interpol and international relations.
Kasingye told The Independent recently that it did not surprise him when a ‘whistle blower’ from UWA released information about missing ivory from UWA’s strong room.
But UWA senior officials have since argued that it was in fact the agency’s intelligence unit “while on routine checkup that discovered some irregularities in the management of the store where impounded ivory is kept.”
According to a statement published on Nov. 14 in the local media, UWA immediately set up an internal investigation team to undertake a preliminary inquiry into the scam, to verify the physical stocks of ivory against the records, and if need be, establish the reasons and circumstances of discrepancy.
The missing 1,335 kilograms of ivory is part of the consignment collected over the last 25 years from both dead Ugandan elephants and impounded ivory from neighbouring countries such as Tanzania.
Seguya says there is no record of confiscated ivory before 1990 since there was no formal handover of ivory records to UWA at its inception in 1996.
Seguya told The Independent on Nov. 24 that the September stock taking was yet to be concluded when details of missing ivory were leaked to the media. He expects official results at the end of November which will swiftly be followed by analysis and required action taken.
How about the recent scandal in his backyard that has seen the suspension of five of his junior staff?
Seguya who was in Australia when news of the missing ivory at UWA first got published says what has been going on in the past two weeks is nothing but ‘politics at play.’
“There are six people in between the executive director’s office and the strong room where ivory is kept. How is it possible that when ivory goes missing, it is the UWA executive director who is liable?” he said while scoffing at suggestions that he too should resign.
Seguya insists it is UWA that confiscated the ivory, and it is UWA that put in place mechanisms for stores management and the same management that instituted the stocktaking exercise.
“To hijack the matter and call for the disbandment of management and UWA as an institution is absurd,” he said.
“Even if the investigation establishes that ivory has been lost from the store through corrupt tendencies of UWA staff, this is not justification to condemn the whole institution and its management.”
“The Executive Director is certainly not the ivory storekeeper and the question should be whether they are taking action, not why they are not stepping down.”
Similar cases in East Africa
UWA’s missing ivory comes just a month after a UK-based conservation agency, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA)—implicated the Tanzanian government and security officials in helping a high-profile Chinese delegation to buy and ship out a huge consignment of Ivory during the visit of China’s president to Tanzania in March, 2013.