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Ugandan court hands Congolese parrot trafficker seven-year jail sentence

Headshot of an African grey parrot in profile. Image by Tambako the Jaguar via Flickr (CC BY-ND-2.0)

African grey parrot. Image by Tambako the Jaguar via Flickr (CC BY-ND-2.0)

  • A Congolese national has been sentenced to seven years in jail for trafficking African grey parrots.
  • He was arrested in western Uganda in April by a joint operation of the police, the army, and the Uganda Wildlife Authority.
  • The man’s arrest and swift prosecution have been welcomed by conservationists as sending a message that wildlife trafficking will be taken seriously by the authorities.
  • However, conservationists warn that gaps in legislation in both Uganda and neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo continue to facilitate the illegal wildlife trade.

On May 12, a judge in Uganda’s specialized court for wildlife crimes sentenced Bob Mbaya Kabongo to a seven year jail term for smuggling 122 African grey parrots into the country from the Democratic Republic of Congo. His arrest and swift prosecution and sentencing has been welcomed by conservation organizations as well as the Uganda Wildlife Authority.

On Apr. 14, Mbaya was arrested with the African greys (Psittacus erithacus) in Kisoro District, in western Uganda. The Congolese national was arrested in a joint operation conducted by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), the army and the police.

Appearing in court, Mbaya pleaded guilty to importing wildlife into Uganda without a valid license, and unlawful possession of protected species in violation of Uganda’s wildlife act.

Reading out his sentence, Chief Magistrate Gladys Kamasanyu said that “a custodial sentence will send a message to other foreigners that Uganda is not a hub of abusing Wildlife creatures.”

Bashir Hangi, communications manager for UWA, said, “I think what is important is that the law has taken its course, and we have seen justice being dispensed by the judicial officers. Of course we ask for harsher punishments in future, but for now, we thank them and applaud them.”

A gloved hand, reaching into a cardboard box full of seized African grey parrots . Image courtesy World Parrot Trust.
Some of the African grey parrots seized in Kisoro District, Uganda. Image courtesy UWEC.

Conservation organizations beyond Uganda’s borders also welcomed Mbaya’s successful prosecution.

“It is a stern warning to any would-be trafficker that if you think you are going to set your house on fire because you are going to run to a neighbor’s house, the same thing awaits you,” said Adams Cassinga, founder and CEO of ConservCongo, an NGO that works to protect biodiversity in the DRC, said as much as 90% of wildlife products illegally traded in Uganda originated from across the border. He said Mbaya’s arrest and conviction sent a powerful message to wildlife traffickers.

“There is no place for them to hide any more. We are going to search for them, and if they jump [out of] one trap, they will fall into the next, until such a time wildlife trafficking will become a thing of the past.”

Rowan Martin, London-based director of the Africa Conservation Programme of the World Parrot Trust, agreed. “A sentence of this size sets an important precedent and should act as a strong deterrent.”

He said a number of actions need to be taken to better protect threatened species from illegal trafficking, beginning with strengthening legislation in several countries where wild African grey parrots can still be trapped legally. This is the case in DRC, though exporting parrots is prohibited.

“Second,” said Martin, “there is a need for enforcement agencies and judiciaries to focus on dismantling trade networks, with efforts targeted at the exporters and importers who make the lion’s share of the profits from the trade.”

Edith Kabesiime, campaign manager for the NGO World Animal Protection, told Mongabay that she feared the intercepted birds could still end up in people’s homes, as Ugandan regulations still permit people to own African grey parrots and other species as pets.

“While we welcome this court ruling, we must acknowledge that it is only addressing the symptoms. We need to address the demand side of parrot trade by making it legally and socially unacceptable to own wild animals as pets.”

Current protected areas not enough to save parrots from extinction: Study

Banner image: African grey parrot. Image by Tambako the Jaguar via Flickr (CC BY-ND-2.0)

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