In the first conviction of its kind, a court in Uganda has jailed a poacher for six years after he admitted killing one of the country’s best-known silverback mountain gorillas in a national park.
Felix Byamukama, from Murole in the south-west district of Kisoro, pleaded guilty to illegal entry into a protected area and killing the gorilla named Rakifi and a duiker antelope. Byamukama had said earlier that he killed the animal in self-defence after he was attacked. It is the first time Uganda, home to 50% of the world’s mountain gorillas, has jailed someone for such an offence and the sentence has been widely welcomed by wildlife groups.
The Kisoro chief magistrate, Julius Borere, on Wednesday handed down concurrent sentences of six, five and five years for killing the gorilla, the duiker and for being in possession of bush pig and duiker meat.
Byamukama was arrested on 4 June with three others for the death of Rafiki in Bwindi Impenetrable national park.
He was found in possession of a spear and rope snares.
The three others, Evarist Bampabenda, Valence Museveni and Yonasi Mubangizi, denied the charges and were remanded to Kisoro prison, awaiting trial.
The gorilla was reported missing on 1 June and its body was found the following day by a search team in the Hakato area.
In a press statement, Sam Mwandha, executive director for the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), welcomed the landmark ruling.
“We are relieved that Rafiki has received justice and this should serve as an example to other people who kill wildlife,” said Mwandha.
“If one person kills wildlife, we all lose; therefore, we request every person to support our efforts of conserving wildlife for the present and future generations.”
Paul Lubega, a tour operator, tweeted: “This guy deserved a life imprisonment.”
At the time of his death, the gorilla, believed to be around 25 years old, was the leader of a family of 17 members that included eight adult females, two juveniles and three infants.
“The new law [Uganda Wildlife Act 2019] is tough, and anyone involved in illegal wildlife activities will face the wrath of the law,” said Mwandha.
The act, signed into law by President Yoweri Museveni on 1 July last year, is stricter than its predecessor and provides penalties for offences relating to wildlife including poaching and illegal extraction of resources from protected areas.
“The idea behind the law was that stern penalties would deter wildlife crimes. This is especially important now that Covid-19 has severely affected the livelihoods of people around protected areas who used to benefit from tourism,” Edmond Twinobusingye, environmental practitioner and conservation biologist, told the Guardian.
“We run a risk of these people turning to the poaching of wildlife and illegal extraction of resources from protected areas to support their livelihoods.”
UWA said there has been an increase in wildlife poaching and more than 300 incidents were recorded in parks following months of closure during the nationwide Covid-19 shutdown imposed in March.
With Covid-19 cases on the rise in Uganda and neighbouring countries, Twinobusingye said it was vital that humans keep away from primates to avoid cross transmission of the virus and other zoonoses to them.
“If gorillas were to contract Covid-19, it would be a disaster for local economies and the revenues from tourism, since gorilla tracking is one of the most sought-out activities in Uganda’s parks,” he said.
Mountain gorillas are Uganda’s major tourist attraction.
“We need more involvement of communities in wildlife conservation activities and there is need to support communities around protected areas to diversify their income-generating activities now that tourism is on a low. This will provide options other than relying on illegal extraction of resources from protected areas,” said Twinobusingye.