Many questions remain unanswered about UWA and the tourism ministry’s move to okay the export of pangolin scales valued at sh11b.
A scandal is simmering in the wilderness. The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities have taken the unusual step of clearing Smith Ewa Maku to export seven tonnes of pangolin scales estimated at $4.2m (sh11b).
A kilogramme of pangolin scales is worth $600 (sh1.6m) on the black market. The pangolin scales are highly demanded for medicines and making of bangles.
China, among other Asian countries, is the biggest destination for the scales. The pangolin scales are sometimes used as a substitute for ivory.
The deal has been described by wildlife conservationists as a blow to Uganda’s pangolin population given that between two and three pangolins have to be killed to harvest a kilogramme of scales.
It means that up to 21,000 pangolins will have to perish, if the six months deal, which ends this month is not halted.
By the end of November 2014, according to export CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of wild flora and fauna), Maku had exported three tonnes of the giant pangolin scales meaning that four tonnes are remaining.
Fear of extinction
The endangered mountain gorillas are also listed under Schedule A, meaning that pangolins have the same protection status as the gorillas.
Schedule A was not repealed when the Wildlife Act was formulated in 1996, meaning that pangolins are still regarded as endangered as mountain gorillas.
The export of seven tonnes of pangolin scales comes at a time when concerns are rising that the pangolins, which are regarded as rare animals (under Appendix2 of CITES) are being pushed into extinction.
The blame is heaped on illegal trade in pangolin scales that has caught fire in recent years.
“The pangolin scales sell like hot cake in China,” said Vincent Opyene, the director of the Natural Resources Conservation Network, adding that illegal trade in pangolin scales is sucking in countries like Uganda, where pangolins were seen as cultural symbols and never traded.
Asked why UWA cleared the deal, top officials at the authority made sweeping statements that backed exportation of the pangolin scales, yet their biggest interest should be conservation of the animals.
“The wildlife Act allows trade in wildlife species and products,” said Jossy Muhangi, the UWA public relations manager, who insisted that UWA’s legal experts held a similar view when he consulted them.
Maku was hand-picked
On March 19, 2014, Maku wrote to Seguya seeking permission to collect game trophies for export.
“My company has not been given a quota for the last four years for game trophies applied for in quota applications. I am once again requesting that you consider making available to me this opportunity.”
He also stated: “I am also requesting you to grant me the collection of old trophies of animals, which have died of natural causes, fi res, deforestation, agriculture and human settlement; processes that occur all the time.”
How it started
On July 4, 2014, the executive director of UWA, Andrew Seguya, wrote to the tourism ministry permanent secretary as part of the clearance for Maku.
He cited the Wildlife Act pointing out, “Mr. Smith Ewa Maku of Smico Skin Crafts Industries Ltd was granted Class D Wildlife Use Right-Trade in wildlife and wildlife products in accordance with section 29 of the Wildlife Act Cap. 200, 2000 to export, among others wildlife trophies.”
In the same letter, Seguya stated, “Maku purchased some trophies of wildlife from UWA stores and was also granted a collection permit of old trophies held by communities across the country. He has now applied for a permit to export some of the trophies (particularly 7,310kg of giant pangolin scales Manis gigantae) collected during this exercise. Attached is an export licence serial number 29353, allowing Maku to export 7,310kg of giant pangolin scales.”
He added: “The purpose of this letter is to request you to issue a CITES export permit for the said pangolin scales.”
Tourism minister Maria Mutagamba suspended Seguya on November 21, 2014, after more than one tonne of ivory mostly confiscated from suspected traffickers, was stolen from UWA’s strong room or armoury.
President Yoweri Museveni ordered the Inspector General of Government to investigate the ivory scam and the fraudulent export of pangolin scales.
Uganda is a member of CITES, which regulates trade in wildlife species.
CITES prohibits trade in species listed under Appendix 1 and also controls trade in species under Appendix 2 of CITES.
The US is proposing to shift pangolins from Appendix 2 to Appendix 1 of the CITES, meaning that pangolins are on the verge of becoming endangered species, if trade in their scales is not stopped.
Even before pangolins are declared endangered species, CITES offers protection to species listed under Appendix 2, where pangolins are currently placed. UWA, on the contrary, has never conducted studies on the population of pangolins.
“Quotas are only given for export of live animals,” said John Makombo, UWA’s director of conservation, adding that Maku was collecting pangolin scales from communities that had accumulated them from the 1960s.
As a way out, an inspection of current stock of pangolin scales belonging to the company should be conducted immediately. This will help to check whether they are old specimens or not.
The Government should consider cancelling the licence, so that the remaining pangolin scales are not exported. The giveaway of pangolin scales with approval from experts who are hired, trained and paid by the Government raises more questions than answers.
The IGG’s team should link up with wildlife crime crack organisations such as the Nairobi based Lusaka Agreement Task Force to get to the bottom of this matter.
The investigation should be expanded to include top officials in the tourism ministry, who cleared the deal so that the pangolin scales case is not swept under the carpet.
Given that Uganda is already black listed by CITES for doing so little to protect elephants from ivory traffickers, who have turned the Pearl of Africa into their sanctuary, how the pangolin case concludes will make or break the country’s image.
Facts on pangolins
Local name: Olugave (Luganda)
Status: Very rare species
Diet: Termite eater
Dwellings: Upland, but not far from water sources such as wetlands, lakes and rivers
Cultural values: Totem for Olugave clan (Buganda)
Threats: Hunters for witchcraft, (love portion), meat, trade in scales
Character: Nocturnal and shy
Pertinent issues about why, how the scales were harvested
Who authorised the killing of all these pangolins, yet they were protected from the colonial era?
“We cannot go on harassing Ugandans who are holding such trophies,” said Makombo, as he defended their decision to clear Maku to trade in pangolin scales.
How did Maku get to know about all the communities holding the old stock of scales, yet UWA does not know them?
In addition, UWA impounded 115kg of pangolin scales in 2012, then 2.5kg in 2013 and 171kg early last year.
How come UWA arrested the people found with all these quantities and impounded the pangolin scales, but made a u-turn when Maku pushed for an export deal for pangolin scales?
How would a reasonable agency, amidst media reports on pangolin poaching, licence export of massive quantities of pangolin scales without proof that the scales were old and the transaction would not escalate poaching?
Did UWA supervise Maku during collection?
Where are the authentic inspection reports by UWA’s personnel who inspected the consignments?
The community conservation co-ordinator at UWA, Kule Musinguzi, said UWA monitored Maku to ensure that fresh pangolins killed recently are not part of the accumulated scales from the 1960s.
But he could not name the officer and also failed to produce UWA’s field verification report on Maku’s pangolin collections.
So, what did UWA expect in a situation where Maku ended up monitoring himself.
It means that UWA and the tourism ministry gave away the animals and did not put any controls to ensure that fresh pangolins are not killed to harvest scales, according to Opyene.
Smith Ewa Maku
Does Smith Ewa Maku come to trade with clean hands? Maku is no stranger to controversy given the cases that implicate him in wildlife smuggling, including live 228 tortoises seized in Nairobi in August, 2006.
UWA had issued an export permit to Maku to export the tortoises, but by the time they were impounded, the licence had expired.
Maku was held at the Kira Road Police Station and during the investigation, he implicated Yekoyada Nuwagaba, a wildlife trader, who is also a presidential adviser.
Nuwagaba was on November 24, 2006, summoned by the Police to assist in the investigations relating to illegal export of live tortoises.
This has been described by the Police as a criminal case under reference number Kira Road CRB5848/2006.
“We are still following up the matter and we want him to assist in investigations relating to the illegal export of live tortoises,”
Alex Iyereget, the officer investigating the case, told New Vision in an interview. Efforts to get a comment from Maku were futile as he did not pick up his calls on both of his two known cellphone numbers for two months.
The disposal of pangolin scales was neither competitive nor beneficial to UWA or the conservation of wildlife.
There was no competitive bidding for the scales in UWA’s stores, part of which were sold to Maku. UWA’s top management also disregarded court procedures by selling 131kg of pangolin scales to Maku part of the exhibit for a case still running in court.
Why did UWA hurry to sell part of what is exhibit for an ongoing case?
According to documents, UWA demanded only $50 for the pangolin scales sold from its stores.
The authority also granted a purchase licence to Maku worth $100 for the scales. UWA experts advised against selling the scales.
One officer reportedly noted that the scales in the stores were being kept as exhibits for a pending court case.