The Uganda Peoples Defence Forces has denied allegations that one of its helicopters may have been involved in elephant poaching in the Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Garamba National Park officials investigated a poaching incident in which 22 elephants were killed in March in one of the biggest elephant poaching incidents the park has witnessed in recent history.
Park investigators say the poaching could have taken place around March 15 but the elephant carcasses were found on March 18 this year. Several weeks later, a military green helicopter with the registration number AF 605, was photographed flying “suspiciously low” over the park. Park authorities and UN Mission officials in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) later traced the aircraft to Uganda.
UPDF Spokesperson Col. Felix Kulayigye, however, dismissed the allegations linking the UPDF to the incident as ‘nonsense’. “The UPDF completely left the DRC in December 2011. We have no business there and we have never gone back there. Let them provide the evidence. This is a clear attempt to undermine the achievement of this great army,” Col. Kulayigye told Sunday Monitor in an interview.
Garamba Park authorities say it is the only aircraft that ventured “suspiciously around the park.”
UPDF Air force Chief of Staff Brig. Moses Rwakitarate confirmed to this newspaper that the helicopter with the registration number AF 605 belongs to the UPDF but dismissed allegations it could have been involved in the poaching incident. “That aircraft is a troop carrier and yes, it passed over Garamba many times on its way to and from our Nzara Airbase. The UPDF can never involve itself in such dirt and illegal activities,” Brig Rwakitarate said.
A Park official investigating the poaching told this newspaper: “A military, troop-carrying helicopter was spotted flying at low level within the park on two occasions - on April 6 and April 10.
On the second occasion, a park ground patrol photographed the helicopter, which was flying slowly from west to east within the park. From the photographs the helicopter has been identified as a Russian manufactured Mi-17 troop-carrying helicopter,” the source added. The source provided photographs of the helicopter, AF 605, which they said had been taken in Garamba National Park. Sunday Monitor could not independently confirm where the photos were taken from.
In an interview with this newspaper, the park’s manager, Mr Luis Arranz, said: “We are continuing our investigation into this professional poaching attack and are offering a substantial reward for concrete information leading to the identification of the perpetrators.”
He said they would stop at nothing to catch the perpetrators.
“Garamba’s elephants represent one of the largest remaining Central African elephant populations and we are determined to do everything we can to bring the poachers to account and ensure that the park’s remaining elephants are protected.”
Park authorities say forensic evidence now shows that a helicopter was involved in the incident. At least 15 of the 22 elephants were shot with “a single shot to the top of the head” - evidence of professional marksmen firing from a helicopter.
“In order for the elephants to have been killed with a single shot to the top of the head, the shots needed to have been fired from a helicopter hovering overhead – this could not have been achieved by an aircraft in motion,” park officials told this newspaper. “Only a helicopter could have landed adjacent to the elephants – human tracks show that there were a number of people around the elephant carcasses, but the tracks vanish, so they must have flown in and out,” Park officials added.
Forensic evidence also confirmed that AK-47 assault rifles were used in the attack.
During the weeks that followed, park personnel conducted intensive air and ground patrols to investigate the incident.
Investigators noted that the pilot on both occasions was white. Congo military authorities have since told park officials that AF 605 was not authorised to fly into the DRC. The Nzara airbase is located in South Sudan, near the DRC border. It is the base from which all aerial anti-Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) activities by the UPDF are conducted. “There are many groups and individuals in the DRC operating numerous aircrafts. There are so many guns in the DRC. Poachers at this scale could hire anyone for such an operation. The UPDF is not involved,” Brig. Rwakitarate said.
He told Sunday Monitor that AF-605 flew over Garamba on April 6 and 10, 2012.
“The helicopter however did not leave Uganda in March,” Brig. Rwakitarate added.
Rebels of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army have previously also been cited in poaching in Garamba as well as Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda but they do not have helicopters and are, therefore, unlikely to have played any role in the Garamba elephant massacre.
A senior UN Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) officer not authorised to comment on this matter told Sunday Monitor that there had been “no official reports of sightings of the UPDF in the DRC. The UPDF withdrew from the DRC in November and December 2011. I am not aware of MONUSCO or the FARDC receiving any information of the UPDF re-entering DRC territory. It should be noted that both the UPDF and MONUSCO both use MI-17 helicopters.”
Although park personnel only discovered the elephant carcasses on May 18, a collared elephant with an electronic tag stopped moving on May 15, indicating the date of the attack, the source revealed.
The 22 elephants included 18 adults and four calves. The elephants were found scattered in groups in the middle of the park and had been encircled before being shot as the carcasses were found grouped together.
News of the incident first surfaced on April 25, when a UK-based web publication reported that poachers, using helicopters, had killed a herd of 22 elephants and removed their tusks and genitals.
It also quoted the head of international cooperation for the Congolese state conservation agency (ICCN), Mr Tshibasu Muamba, confirming the incident. This newspaper is also privy to correspondence between nature conservationists in the Garamba area showing frustration over the poaching incident.
One such communication shows that after failing to find a solution to the killings, it was resolved to warn the UPDF of the potential damage the affair could cause if the findings were leaked. The identities of these conservationists have been withheld for their own security.
While the exact role of the UPDF in the poaching remains murky, there is evidence to show that well-connected and sophisticated poaching gangs are operating in and through Uganda. Some 36 elephant tusks were impounded at Entebbe Airport in June. Wildlife officials are working with forensic investigators to find out if they came from the elephants killed in the Garamba incident, 18 of which were adults with two tusks each.
The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and the Ministry of Tourism this week held a press conference to deny allegations that the UPDF was behind the increasing poaching in Uganda. Mr Stephen Masaba, the acting director for tourism and business services in UWA, said the army was helping the Authority fight poaching but he did not rule out the role of rogue soldiers getting involved in poaching.
“We refute that UPDF is in anyway involved in poaching,” he said. “There could have been some indiscipline case of one or two soldiers but they were punished and it cannot be blamed on a whole institution. UPDF is helping us in protecting the wildlife.” A military expert, who spoke to Sunday Monitor, said it would take high level cooperation to deploy an army helicopter to a rogue operation.
Tourism, which is largely dependent on wildlife conservation, is the country’s second leading foreign exchange earner. It contributes 9 per cent of the country’s GDP and generates $805 million in foreign exchange annually.
However, with increasing commercial poaching in the country tourism earnings could be hit hard. According to John Makombo, Director Conservation at UWA, poaching has become a lucrative business with big business individuals involved in this trade. Internationally, a kilogramme of ivory is sold at $ 50,000; an elephant tusk could weigh up to 40 kilogrammes. “The poaching business pays well, that is why we are finding it very complicated to eliminate the crime from Uganda.” Mr Makombo said.
UWA figures show that at least 25 elephants were killed by poachers in 2011 in Uganda.
“Government is in the process of creating a fully-fledged intelligence unit under UWA to further strengthen information gathering and analysis to enable effective hunting down and crashing of the illicit wildlife trade network,” Ms Maria Mutagamba, the minister of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities, said last week.
The Uganda wildlife policy and Act are currently under review to further refocus the conservation sector and provide for deterrent penalties to perpetrators of illegal wildlife trade, poaching and trafficking.
Additional reporting by Dear Jeanne