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Cold case: Half-hearted prosecution lets ivory traffickers escape in Uganda

  • More than three years since Ugandan authorities seized a shipment of nearly 4 tons of elephant ivory and pangolin scales, no one has been prosecuted for the trafficking attempt.
  • Two Vietnamese nationals were arrested in the bust, but they vanished after being granted bail.
  • Wildlife trade investigators have questioned the commitment of the Ugandan authorities to pursue the case, saying their efforts to find the suspects since then appear half-hearted at best.
  • They add the failure to prosecute this case is a missed opportunity to break up a major trafficking network moving wildlife parts from East and Central Africa to Southeast Asia.

In January 2019, authorities in Uganda intercepted a shipment of nearly 4 tons of elephant ivory and pangolin scales on its way to the capital, Kampala, from the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. What’s happened in the three years since then illustrates weaknesses in the country’s enforcement of laws against wildlife crime.

According to news reports at the time, the Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) arrested two Vietnamese men in possession, and issued wanted notices for 16 others.

“The suspects were given bail, which is legally acceptable,” Julius Nkwasire Mponoka, the assistant commissioner for customs enforcement at the Uganda Revenue Authority (URA), told Mongabay this past 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.

Nguyen Van Thanh and Dinh Van Chung were caught at Entebbe airport, attempting to leave Uganda while out on bail. The Uganda Revenue Authority believes the pair somehow later escaped the country to avoid prosecution. Image courtesy the Uganda Revenue Authority.

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.

This mobile scanner at the Elugu border post was used to inspect the containers the ivory and pangolin scales were concealed in. Image courtesy the Uganda Revenue Authority.

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.

The seized ivory and pangolin scales, believed to have originated in the Democratic Republic of Congo, were packed into hollow logs filled with wax. Image courtesy the Uganda Revenue Authority.

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.

Banner image of an elephant by Sam Balye via Unsplash.