Published 27 February 2014


Uganda to return 2.9 tonnes of impounded ivory to ivory trafficking suspects

Uganda, 27th February 2014—A high court judge in Uganda has ordered 2.9 tonnes of seized African Elephant ivory be returned to a Congolese national for onward export, despite the cargo having entered the country fraudulently declared as coffee and the fact that any onward export would clearly be in stark contravention of international regulations under CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). 


Maria Mutagamba, Uganda’s Minister of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities expressed her dismay and shock at the Judge’s ruling in a media statement and called for the criminal prosecution of the owners of the confiscated ivory. The Minister also noted the implications of the case for Uganda as a party to CITES and the damage it would have on tourism development and wildlife conservation in the country.

The cargo of 2.9 tonnes, comprising 832 individual ivory pieces, had been seized and impounded in October 2013 by the Ugandan Revenue Authority (URA) and warrants issued for the arrest of two suspects in connection with the case—a Kenyan national and a Congolese national; both men are still at large. 

Meanwhile, the primary suspect sought a court order to compel the URA to release the ivory, which he claimed was legally in transit with a lawful permit from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and another permit through his agent to move the cargo through Uganda to Mombasa in Kenya. His Lawyers argued the seizure was against the East Africa Customs Act and their client had suffered loss of delivery of the cargo to Mombasa, Kenya for export overseas. 

The suspect did not appear in court, yet Justice Wilson Musalu Musene ruled in his favour and, despite none of the countries concerned permitting international trade in ivory, ordered the shipment be released for onward export. The judge did not question his erroneous claim that CITES does not prohibit dealing in ivory from culled or natural mortalities of elephants. The ruling also ignored agreements between CITES member countries that transit shipments must be accompanied by valid CITES documentation. 

“The Ugandan court ruling is nothing short of a green light to ivory smugglers and could seriously undermine the ability of Uganda’s legal system to impose law and order and deter criminals,” said Steven Broad, Executive Director of TRAFFIC.

Less than two weeks ago, Uganda's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Oryem Henry Okello, attended the high-level conference on illegal wildlife trade in London which adopted the London Declaration. The Declaration commits countries to “strengthen the legal framework and facilitate law enforcement to combat the illegal wildlife trade and assist prosecution and the imposition of penalties that are an effective deterrent”. It also calls on countries to “strengthen the ability to achieve successful prosecutions and deterrent sanctions.” 

“This case clearly undermines the commitment made earlier this month in London,” said Broad. 

Since 2009, Uganda has been implicated in six large-scale ivory seizures totalling nearly 12 tonnes of ivory, according to information from the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS), the ivory monitoring system managed by TRAFFIC on behalf of Parties to CITES. 

In March 2013, Uganda was one of the eight countries identified by CITES as being most heavily implicated in the illegal ivory trade, and was instructed to submit an Ivory Action Plan outlining concrete actions to remedy the situation. Failure to comply with CITES provisons could ultimately result in Uganda facing CITES trade sanctions. 

The Ugandan Wildlife Authority’s Deputy Director of Conservation, Charles Tumwesigye, is reported to have said the UWA will do everything possible to ensure this consignment does not leave Uganda’s borders.

According to Minister Mutagamba’s statement: “lawyers of Uganda Wildlife Authority and Uganda Revenue Authority have already filed a notice of Appeal to challenge the Judgment Application for an interim order to stay execution of the judgment and filing of the appeal will also be immediately done.”

The case is not an isolated one in highlighting judicial failings in Africa that help perpetuate serious wildlife crime. In December 2013, a Kenyan magistrate allowed the primary suspect in the world’s third largest ivory seizure that year (valued at close to USD2 million) to walk out on bail of barely USD2000 and in October 2013, another Kenyan magistrate ordered a Vietnamese woman with five rhino horns weighing 20 kg to pay a fine of only USD235 when the contraband had a much greater black market value. In February 2014, a magistrate in Zimbabwe fined a local man pleading guilty to illegal possession and manufacture of 47 kg of raw and worked ivory products USD500, despite the law calling for mandatory prison sentences in ivory cases. Last month Kenya introduced tough new penalties for wildlife trafficking. 

“Kenya’s change in legislation was a welcomed move and one that other countries in the region might follow, but tough penalties can only be effective if they are fully backed up by a country’s judiciary,” said Broad.