Corruption worsens an already devastating illegal wildlife trade in Uganda

America Abroad
Updated on
Ugandan authorities counting confiscated ivory

In November 2014, five officials of the Uganda Wildlife Authority were suspended after almost 1.5 tons of ivory worth more than $1 million vanished from a government store room. In response, the minister for tourism suspended the Uganda Wildlife Authority’s executive director, Andrew Seguya. But he returned to office just a few months later.

Interpol’s international relations director, Asan Kasingye, who headed the investigation into the theft, blames the incident on widespread corruption. He believes these kinds of incidents wouldn’t be possible without collaboration along many points of the supply chain.

But Kasingye says the people helping the traffickers may not be aware of the true damage they’ve done. “The proceeds of ivory can go into arms trade, can go into terrorism activities,” he says. “[It] can go into making sure that the conflicts within our regions don’t end.”

Uganda has long been plagued by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a group known for its vicious attacks on the Ugandan people. LRA leader Joseph Kony was indicted for war crimes in 2005 but has evaded capture despite US special forces and others looking for him. He’s now reportedly living in hiding in the Central African Republic, but there's strong evidence that he and his army are supporting themselves in large part via the illegal wildlife trade.

Enough Project policy analyst Holly Dranginis says the LRA has been cashing in on ivory for a while now. By some estimates, elephants can be worth up to $40,000 each, and the LRA takes a cut of that. Last spring, nearly 70 elephants were slaughtered in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)’s Garamba National Park in just two months.

Enough Project field researcher Kasper Agger says this ivory was likely transported from Garamba, through the Central African Republic, to South Darfur, where the LRA can sell or trade it for bullets, arms, medical supplies, batteries and satellite phones. Without their own transnational network to get the ivory out of Central Africa, the LRA also sells it to other ivory traders. “These include wealthy businessmen. Some of them might be connected to local government officials, [or] the army,” Agger says.

Confiscated Ivory Bangles
Ivory turned into bangles confiscated in transit through Entebbe International Airport in Uganda.Uganda Wildlife Authority

The ivory is then hidden with other types of trade — legal items like rice, millet, or timber — which is then shipped to Asia, where 90 percent of all the world’s ivory ends up.

Agger says other armed groups are getting in on the action too, including al-Shabaab, the Janjaweed from Sudan, the Seleka rebels in Central African Republic and Boko Haram from Nigeria.

For its part, the Uganda Wildlife Authority employs about 1,300 rangers and other staff to help control the trade crossing its borders. But corruption within the UWA makes things complicated. Its newly-reinstated executive director, Andrew Seguya, admits there may be some former LRA fighters in their ranks. But he denies they are helping the ivory trade thrive within Uganda.

“When we recruit people we do background checks. I am only aware [of] about two or three officers that used to be in the LRA,” he says. “It is also a logistical nightmare for anybody to transport one or two tusks all that way when you could get tusks in the Central African Republic itself. It doesn’t sound to be a credible story.”

Still, there’s little doubt that ivory is making it’s way across Uganda’s fractious borders, and that an already devastating trade is expanding at a frightening pace. To end this practice, Ugandan authorities will have to deal with not only external forces, but also their own officials — who may be taking advantage of widespread, high-level corruption to make a killing from the ivory trade.

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the route by which ivory leaves Garamba for sale or trade.

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