In Uganda, a man was just sentenced to prison for 11 years after he confessed to killing a rare silverback gorilla last month in a landmark decision for wildlife.
Felix Byamukama, a poacher from the town of Kisoro, pleaded guilty to stabbing the gorilla to death in a national park, reversing his earlier claim that he’d killed the animal in self-defense after it attacked him. It’s the first time someone in Uganda has been issued a jail sentence for poaching endangered species.
Rangers found the mutilated body of the gorilla, who was called Rafiki after the Swahili word for friend, in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in early June, angering conservationists around the world. Rafiki was the leader of a family of 17 gorillas who lived on the national reserve.
Days later, Byamukama was found in possession of a spear and rope snares and arrested, along with three other poachers. A court convicted him on three counts on Friday for the act, as well as for killing a duiker antelope. The three other poachers denied the charges and were remanded to Kisoro prison, where they are awaiting a trial.
The poaching of mountain gorillas carries harsh penalties as there are only some 1,000 left in the world, and half of that population is in Uganda. Environmental organizations in Uganda celebrated the court’s landmark Friday decision.
“We are relieved that Rafiki has received justice and this should serve as an example to other people who kill wildlife,” said Mwandha Sam Mwandha, executive director of the Uganda Wildlife Authority, in a statement. “If one person kills wildlife, we all lose.”
Mwandha’s right about that. Biodiversity loss poses an existential threat to humanity, and poaching plays a role in it.
But on the other hand, the Uganda Wildlife Authority recently told National Geographic that poaching in the country has doubled in the past month amid the covid-19 pandemic. That’s partially because the shutdown of parks has given poachers easier access, but also in part because a drop in tourism and broad economic fallout from the covid-19 pandemic have led to increased economic insecurity, and poaching is a profitable industry. The group said most poachers are locals who are struggling to feed their families. Plus, the money to fund anti-poaching efforts comes from tourism. It’s an issue playing out in other locations with other charismatic megafauna that are also poaching targets, such as rhinos.
So yes, it’s definitely messed up to kill an endangered gorilla, and it certainly makes sense for conservationists to want to set a precedent to deter other poachers from doing the same. But is jailing people the answer, particularly if those people have few economic options? I’m not sure. It seems like maybe Uganda could use some international aid for anti-poaching work so funding isn’t tied to tourism. Or even better, world leaders could do more to ensure that folks in Uganda aren’t forced into the economic desperation that boosts interest in poaching in the first place. While we’re at it, we could also take steps to stop global habitat destruction by preserving natural resources and curbing the climate crisis. Seems that could go all farther in protecting endangered species than putting people in prison. Just my two cents, but either way, may Rafiki rest in peace!