Shock at light punishment for killing of mountain gorilla

Widespread dismay has erupted over the recent light sentencing of three men charged with the killing of a mountain gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda in June this year.

The men have been issued with fines ranging between US $18 and $37.

The Uganda Wildlife Authority, (UWA) who originally reported the death of the blackback male mountain gorilla, have released a statement expressing dismay at the sentencing, a sentiment shared by the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP).

Doctors carried out a post mortem on the dead gorilla, called Mizano from the Habinyanja family, finding he had died a brutal death after being speared through the right shoulder. The spear, belonging to poachers in the national park searching for small antelopes caught in previously set snares, pierced the gorilla’s lung, which caused its death.

After police dogs visited the murder scene,  an investigation team comprised of police personnel and UWA rangers searched neighbouring communities until the suspects were identified and arrested from Karambi Trading Centre, with several bloodied pangas and spears confiscated.

During the trial, the magistrate in Kanungu District, Uganda, concluded that there was not enough evidence presented to link the men to the dead mountain gorilla. It was noted that no DNA test was carried out to link the blood found on the confiscated weapons to the mountain gorilla and the results of the necropsy were never presented in court. In short, there was no direct evidence presented linking the men to the death of the mountain gorilla.

The lack of evidence presented has resulted in one man being charged with entering a protected area without authority and possession of illegal devices capable of killing wildlife species, with the penalty a fine totaling 100,000 Ugandan Shillings, approximately US $37. The other two men were charged with trying to escape arrest, each given a fine of 50,000 Ugandan Shillings, approximately US $18.

Eugène Rutagarama, Director of the International Gorilla Conservation Programme commented, “While there is no evidence that the poachers in this case were intending to harm gorillas until their chance encounter with the Habinyanja group in the forest, the fact remains that a mountain gorilla is dead at the hands of people who should not have been in the forest to begin with.

“We are disheartened to hear that the evidence collected by the park authorities and conservation organisations never made it to the court and we are working closely with the Uganda Wildlife Authority to support efforts to forge better connections between wildlife forensics and the legal system in Uganda,” he continued.

The UWA statement clarifies, “although we will not appeal the sentence, we express our shock in the strongest terms and we will be bringing up this issue with the Office of the Chief Justice.” Other efforts at the field level are also being planned, including training for park staff as well as sensitisation of communities, local government and court systems about the value of mountain gorillas to the local and national economy and their fragility as a species.

Fauna & Flora International, together with WWF and AWF are founding members behind the IGCP, whose mission is to conserve mountain gorillas and their forest habitat.