How Ugandan women are helping men fight wildlife crimes  

(Last Updated On: 19 July 2023)

Oyam, Kasese I Although poaching and other wildlife crimes still occur in Uganda, in some parts of the country where national parks are located, there are tales of transformation by a group of women who took it as important to help men get out of illegal wildlife trades.

Tourism, especially from wildlife, earns Uganda hundreds of millions of dollars a year. According to the Uganda Wildlife Authority, in 2022, Uganda earned close to US$712.6m (approximately shs2.7t) from the tourism sector from more than 814,500 foreign visitors who were registered in the same year.

But poaching remains one of the biggest problems for Uganda’s wildlife conservation. In the financial year 2020/2021, UWA’s statistics show that 2,310 wildlife crime suspects were arrested with 22,449 different types of poaching gear.

While poaching for elephant ivory remains a major threat in Uganda, agriculture and human-wildlife conflict contribute to the continued reduction in Uganda’s wildlife populations.

Over the years, UWA has intensified measures for wildlife conservation, incorporating community wildlife scouts, many of whom are reformed poachers to help rangers. These scouts are tasked with reducing community-wildlife conflict and reporting cases of wildlife attacks on the communities, among other responsibilities.

Although many of these scouts are men across different wildlife conservation areas, in 2006 12 women temporarily joined the groups from Apala ‘B’ and Bombay villages of Juma parish, Kamdini sub-county, to work in Murchison Falls National Park in northern Uganda.

Most of these women later left their scouting posts during the Covid-19 lockdown due to competing responsibilities at home. However, these women and others have remained pivotal in convincing their husbands and male family members to stop poaching.

Map showing wildlife crimes in East Africa and beyond.

Acan Ketty is one of these women and a former scout. A wife to a former poacher, Solomon Ogwal, she says her husband was almost killed by an elephant two times: first time while he was poaching and next when the elephant entered inside their house. Acan, like other women who have helped reduce wildlife crimes in the area, reveals that Ogwal has now reformed and vowed never to resume poaching.

“I told him don’t go there; it’s deadly there. If you go, authorities are also aggressive and they will both kill you. Solomon left because I talked to him and later registered as a community wildlife scout,” she narrates.

Acan has played a significant role in fighting wildlife crime.

One day, she says an elephant entered inside the house where they were sleeping, but to their luck, they survived. The elephant would later attack and kill her grandfather, Awany Jani.

“He (Solomon) saw a good example from there after the elephant killed our grandfather,” she says.

Acan is excited that the role she played has helped her husband to remain alive, describing him as “an active member of the community wildlife scout” of Apala ‘B’ village, in Kamdini sub-county.

“My wife, like any other women who talked to us, has made it safe for us. Without her, I would be dead by now,” says Ogwal, who was a poacher for nearly 10 years.

Now a scout, he says women must be supported and recognised for their roles in wildlife conservation, and urged other men still roaming inside the park to stay away.

Sharon Barbra Akullu is a resident of Bombay village, Juma parish in Kamdini sub-county, an area within Murchison Falls National Park.

Akullu is another woman who talked with her husband – in her own words – to “stop stealing wild animals because, in case of stealing wild animals, they were losing any opportunity which they would do at home.”

Also one of the 12 former female scouts in the area, she says she sat down with her husband regarding past problems of community-wildlife conflict. “We put our men down; we talked and told mine to come back home and take care of the children.

“For my case, I told him, ‘Poaching is making you abandon your home and your children. These animals can kill you and your children will become orphans; you can even be arrested and detained for long and later you will find that your home is destroyed and so many problems have infiltrated it’,” she adds.

Talking to her husband was a turning point for Akullu, which made him totally leave poaching for agriculture in addition to scouting.

Like Acan, Akullu was a big player who transformed her husband.

In 2019, this group of female former wildlife scouts requested for an electric fence to help scouts in managing animals like elephants from invading the communities. Akullu says they also made the request because some men had abandoned family responsibilities after spending many hours in the park. She says the women were convinced that the men’s workload would be reduced with the installation of the fence.

In 2021, UWA granted the request and installed the electric fence. Since then, the fence has contributed massively to stopping animals like elephants from invading the communities and ravaging gardens and homes, Akullu says.

This electric fence and deep-long trench (below) in Juma parish, Kamdini sub-county have helped to stop elephants from attacking the communities.

A trench dug inside Murchison Falls National Park to control elephants’ movement. Courtesy photo.

In 2020, local authorities in Juma parish, Kamdini Sub-county in Oyam district, say at least five people were injured when wild animals attacked them, and two died.

In Kanungu district, two scouts were killed by wild animals in 2022 and February 2023 during their operations, according to Namusoke Janat, UWA’s community conservation ranger for the Isasha sector.

Women commended for stopping poaching

Like in northern Uganda, some women living near Queen Elizabeth National Park in southwestern Uganda have also helped their family members stop poaching. This includes Scovia Kyakimwa, a 31-year-old resident of Kitabu sub-county in Bukonzo County East in Kasese district.

Living near the park, “wild animals – especially elephants – would stray into our crop gardens and they could destroy banana plantations, yams, cassava, maize, sweet potatoes, sugar canes and fruits including avocado, jackfruits, guavas, mangoes and pawpaw,” she says.

A sister to Isaac Thembo, who was once a renowned poacher, Kyakimwa says she felt disgusted the day her brother survived being killed by an elephant after sneaking into Queen Elizabeth National Park.

“After that scenario, I sat with my brother Isaac and told him how we were going to lose him and how his body would not be found. This was not his first time to do illegal entry to the National Park, but he would deny this whenever I could ask.”

So on that fateful day, April 27, 2018, Kyakimwa said she told her brother, “Thank God for sparing your life, and the next time, you will be smashed by either the wild beasts or even the aggressive authorities because this is prohibited and against the law.”

Because he had tasted the bitterness of the elephant, Thembo listened to her words and abandoned the business, Kyakimwa says. Subsequently, he registered as a community wildlife scout.

Up to date, Isaac is an active scout who has devoted to protecting wildlife and is now encouraging other community members how they can approach the wild animals whenever they invade their crops without instigating harm on either side.

Meanwhile, Furayide Enos, a reformed poacher in Kihii sub-county, says he started poaching at the age of 19 and quit aged 42. He owes his decision to quit to his wife and a later pronouncement by President Museveni who said “poaching must stop.”

“The situation is good and I don’t feel like going back to poaching. I’m now a farmer and trader,” Furayide says.

On women fighting against wildlife crimes, Namusoke of UWA says there are many other cases where women intervene by urging their husbands and other men who poach to stop. At least 20 women have been cited for playing this significant role. This includes 8 women in Kihii sub-county, Kanungu District (southwestern Uganda), and 12 women in Kamdini sub-county, Oyam district (northern Uganda).

“Now, we have reformed male poachers because of women. A woman decides that if my husband does not come back home we are going to divorce, and later men come and sit down and talk,” she says.

In one of the former poachers’ groups in Isasha sector, Bukonue camp in Kanungu district, southwestern Uganda, Namusoke says eight women helped convince men to quit poaching.

“One woman’s husband was arrested after he killed a lion, and this lady ensured he never returned to the park,” she said.

Out of the current 34 male scouts in Juma parish, Oyam District in northern Uganda, 28 said they made decisions to leave poaching because of interventions by their wives and other women. This, they say, happened during group meetings where they talked about challenges, progress and how to approach external support.

According to Namusoke, UWA uses women in mobilizing men because they are mothers. “They know the pain of being widows,” she says, acknowledging women as “participants in wildlife conservation and fighting against illegal practices.”

According to Namusoke, whereas this approach is not yet official, she has worked with a number of women under different organized and funded groups in the areas to preach about the dangers of poaching and other related wildlife crimes. UWA, she says, will look to officially integrate women into their wildlife conservation strategies.

Alternative means of livelihood

Despite women’s mostly positive role, some women have also been involved in aiding poachers, according to Joan Adong, a local leader and speaker of Kamdini sub-county council. For example, as some women would go into Murchison Falls National Park to collect firewood, they would end up aiding poachers to transport their poached items, she says.

However, the sub-county is helping these women get other sources of firewood to encourage them to also leave the park, she says.

“At the moment, what women are doing is to leave the park and concentrate on other activities. Because it is illegal to go there for firewood, we as the sub-county will work with other partners to see that we give them trees for planting so that they can get firewood from it other than going to risk their lives in the park,” Adong says.

Christopher Masaba, the senior warden at Queen Elizabeth National Park, noted that the rates of poaching and other illegal human activities are high in most of the reserves countywide due to poverty and lack of awareness on why it is important to conserve biodiversity.

“If we all cheerfully protect these game reserves and national parks, surely we can all benefit. Uganda’s conservation areas that are gazetted for wildlife cover 10 percent of the country’s land, and these include wetlands, forests, rivers and national parks, among others. This means that it is everyone’s responsibility to conserve and protect them rather than destroying,” he adds.

Selvest Masereka, the assistant warden in charge of problem animal control in Queen Elizabeth, implored the reformed poachers (now scouts) to fully participate in the mitigation of human-wildlife conflict by protecting communities from wildlife attacks, crop damage, property destruction and livestock predation through both traditional and modern approaches.

He also encouraged them to always sensitize the masses on how they can best promote economically viable alternative livelihoods in their communities.

Ex-poachers turned scouts complain of lack of government support 

David Otyeno is the vice chairperson of Juma Parish Community Wildlife Scouts (JPCWS) in Oyam District, northern Uganda. This group, according to Otyeno, has been working with UWA and the sub-county leadership of Aber since 2006. As one of the men encouraged by a woman to quit poaching, Otyeno now wants the government to provide more support to them – including their women.

“As Juma scouts group, we have been helping UWA to chase elephants back to the park from the communities. We worked a lot; unfortunately nothing like a token of appreciation has been given to us,” Otyeno says.

According to him, they were promised gumboots, rain coats, torches, and other items to support wildlife conservation.

The group’s vice chairperson adds that some of his members were injured while conducting wildlife protection activities, and others remain immobile to date. As a group, Otyeno states that they have been talking with those who still poach to stop, urging UWA to fulfill their past promises and roll out projects that will make them forget about the national park.

The group wrote to UWA requesting for support to livelihood activities such as beekeeping, goat rearing and poultry farming. For more than two years now, the wildlife authority has not replied, Otyeno says.

The U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) was the only organization to have supported this group so far, in a beekeeping project that members say still needs more support.

Otyeno stresses that UWA should also provide more support for their women, saying “they talked to us to get out of the park and they continue to advise us.”

Solomon Onap, the LC1 Chairman of Bombay village within Murchison Falls National Park, says the installation of the electric fence by UWA has prevented elephants from ravaging his peoples’ gardens. He requests for additional support to bolster the scouts’ group.

“I would like scouts to continue doing their work because they have greatly helped us; we were not able to harvest our crops before the electric fence. Now, we are thinking that NGOs should support these scouts because they are in a group with all the binding documents. They have the constitution.

“We know elephants are stubborn. They can cross and come to attack us; it’s the same reformed scouts to chase them. So, we are requesting support for this scout group in Juma parish.”

Omara Bonny, chairman LC1 of Apala ‘B,’ is a reformed poacher and scout. His wife played a key role in luring him to quit poaching, he says. Their group, Juma Parish Community Wildlife Scouts, was formed in 2006 and remains active to date.

He says they have worked hard to protect the lives of people and stop elephants from eating crops. About 20 of the scouts volunteered and until now partially worked without pay.

Before they were left alone in 2017, according to Omara, UWA was helping them with gumboots. Some raincoats were also given to them, but they have received no additional tangible support in years, the chairman says. “What we only get is the revenue share that is paid through Kamdini sub-county, and what we are given is meager.”

In 2022, UWA remitted UGX 77 million (about USD $21,000) to Kamdini sub-county as revenue share to support its communities within the park. The LC3 chairman of Kamdini sub-county, Omonya Terrence, acknowledged receipt of the money in 2022.

Since 1995, UWA has been sharing 20 percent of its annual park revenue with communities surrounding national parks across the country. This money is wired to the local government accounts of districts and sub-counties near the parks.

How districts neighboring Murchison Falls National Park share park revenue 

In April 2022, the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities that supervises UWA handed over cheques worth UGX2.93 billion (almost USD $800,000) to Oyam, Nwoya, Buliisa, Pakwach, Kiryandongo and Masindi districts as their 20 percent revenue share.

Oyam got 208.8m out of which (Kamdini received shs77m), Masindi got shs283.4m, Pakwach shs347.5m; Nwoya got shs672.8m, Kiryandongo got shs680.2m and Buliisa received shs736.9m.

This money covered the years 2020, 2021 and 2022 respectively.

Part of the money, according to the Kamdini LC3 chairman, was used to construct a community road leading to a health facility built as a donation by the Chinese company Sinohydro as part of their Community Social Responsibility program for construction of the Karuma Hydropower Dam.

Other funds, Omonya says, were used to buy oxen and ox-ploughs for six groups in Akuridia, Apala ‘B’, Bombay and Onea ‘A’ villages.

However, Apala ‘B LC1 Chairman Omara, on behalf of his fellow scouts, says his scouts did not receive oxen and ox ploughs. “The only support we have received was bee hives and training by the Wildlife Conservation Society,” he says.

From various statements gathered by this publication, there appears to be a lack of clear accountability and openness between the sub-county chairman and Juma Parish Scouts for the revenue sharing funds.

Regardless of the challenges they are facing as scouts, Omara says his wife made him stop any illegal business in the park and he has no intentions to rejoin poaching.

“She made me join the scouts and started mobilizing and advising poachers to join me. We are doing all it takes to ensure we do not destroy any government property in the park, but the government is not acknowledging us,” he says.

Some of the reformed male poachers of Juma parish, Kamdini sub-county.

Omara is appealing to UWA not to stop at giving what he terms the “meager burial contributions” whenever a member of the community is killed by the animals, but to support them as key members of the wildlife conservation team.

However, Twinomugisha Deusdedit, the assistant warden for community conservation at Queen Elizabeth, said that the local scouts are not UWA employees and are therefore not entitled to monetary support.

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“They are for the community, selected by the community and some of them have land to do agriculture besides monitoring wild animals,” he says. “UWA does not directly employ them but looks for partners who can support them, including training.”

The regional communications and constituency manager for Eastern and Southern Africa at the International Union to Conserve Nature (IUCN), Rehema Kahurananga, says the issue of biodiversity conservation cannot be seen as a stand-alone area of practice.

“Preserving our biodiversity cannot be seen as one entity’s responsibility. In addition to that, there is a large opportunity for positive stories about conservation that can also be told – to balance the alarming narratives that tend to be focused on. There is a lot that is happening that can be shared as successes – let’s look for those angles too,” she said.

Also, in his commemorative remarks on World Wildlife Day (WWD) 2023 celebrated under the theme, “Partnerships for Wildlife Conservation” – Director General of IUCN Dr. Bruno Oberle said, “One of the greatest challenges facing the planet today is protecting and, where possible, restoring its biodiversity. Working together is the key to overcoming this challenge.”

This story has been produced in partnership with InfoNile with support from IUCN/TRAFFIC and with funding from JRS Biodiversity Foundation and Earth Journalism Network.

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