Arrests made in Uganda mountain gorilla death
The male gorilla was discovered dead by Uganda Wildlife Authority trackers on June 17. Officials say the gorilla was speared through the neck and shoulder by the suspects who encountered it in the park while illegally poaching antelopes. Authorities believe an altercation may have occurred between the gorilla and the poachers’ hunting dogs.
Wildlife authorities say the men were apprehended in a nearby town after police sniffer dogs tracked their scent from the scene. Evidence collected in the suspects’ homes further implicates them in the incident, officials say. Injured hunting dogs spotted by trackers near the gorilla’s body were also discovered in the homes of the suspects.
"The news coming out of Bwindi is very discouraging. This small population of just over 300 gorillas has remained largely untouched for more than 15 years,” said David Greer, WWF’s African Great Ape Programme coordinator. "With such a small population where long-term viability is always a concern, any losses are critical and must be met with swift deterrent measures."
The gorilla killed was part of a small group that has been habituated to the presence of humans for tourism and research. Although habituated, wild gorillas can still come into conflict with humans when they feel threatened.
"These gorillas are important contributors to the Uganda tourism industry and I suspect that present anti-poaching strategies will be revisited and vigilance will be significantly increased," Greer said. Each habituated mountain gorilla is estimated to generate $1 million per year in tourist dollars for the Ugandan economy.
There are only 786 mountain gorillas remaining in Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo, according to the most recent census numbers.
In the area where the incident occurred, officials from the Ugandan Wildlife Authority (UWA) have been working with district governments, local leaders and community members to combat poaching and other illegal activities.
“While there are several programs to share revenue from mountain gorilla tourism with communities around protected areas, we still have poaching for small antelopes happening in the park,” said Stephen Asuma from the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP), a coalition of WWF, Fauna & Flora International and the African Wildlife Foundation.
WWF supports the work of IGCP in the communities around Bwindi and other mountain gorilla habitats to reduce conflict between wildlife and people.
Law enforcement and government protection tends to be more robust for mountain gorillas than for their western lowland gorilla cousins, who are also critically endangered and suffering rapid declines from poaching. Gorilla meat has become popular among wealthy elites in Central African cities.
"While poachers that kill even one legally protected animal are often held to account in mountain gorilla range, poachers in Central African countries can often bribe their way to freedom after killing entire gorilla families," Greer says.
"Unfortunately, poaching deaths continue to plague Central African countries to the west of Uganda where the more numerous western gorillas reside. Daily killings in Cameroon, Gabon, Congo and Central African Republic are not the exception, but the standard."
To deter poaching, Greer says, Central African governments must apply their existing wildlife laws, ensure robust prosecutions of offenders, and impose severe punishments.
WWF is working with gorilla range governments to increase the number of wildlife rangers to protect against poachers. The organization also supports greater law enforcement cooperation between countries to disrupt illegal wildlife trade.
UPDATE August 9, 2011: The Uganda Wildlife Authority today expressed its dismay that the suspects in this case have been released after paying paltry fines ranging from $19 to $38. In her ruling, the presiding magistrate said that there was insufficient evidence to link the men to the killing of the critically endangered gorilla.