Poacher’s traps kill people too – By Anne-Marie Weeden, Uganda Conservation Foundation
Working in a conservation organization, it may sometimes seem like all we care about are animals and wildlife. However, there is always a human side to the story, whether it’s the communities we work with on enterprise and human wildlife conflict projects, or the challenges faced by the wildlife rangers themselves. One such challenge is the perennial risk of getting caught in one of the vicious ‘wheel traps’ (so-called because they are made from old leaf springs, redundant car parts and, when “set”, reveal circular steel jaws inset with brutal, sharpened teeth that resemble an old-fashioned wheel), which are hidden in the bush by poachers. Once triggered by an unsuspecting foot, their powerful springs force the jaws of the trap to close with a vicious snap around any animal that steps on its base plate – be that man or beast – and getting them open again to release a victim is impossible with anything less than three or four men. Working in such remote locations, getting caught in a trap can be just as much a death sentence for rangers as it is for the wildlife they protect.
In the last three years, the rangers at Murchison Falls National Park have collected over 700 of these deadly contraptions. They can be seen pictured here, laid out for inspection by Alison Blackburne, the British High Commissioner for Uganda, when she visited UWA’s Paraa park headquarters to open the new Weapons Security & Anti Trafficking Centre, built by Uganda Conservation Foundation for UWA. This new unit includes facilities for safe storage of weapons, snares, spears, traps and other poaching evidence and paraphernalia, and crucially also encompasses a decommissioning workshop for their ultimate destruction. The supplied power tools and workshop facilities allow UWA rangers to cut the traps. It’s slow and arduous work, but when complete it puts the offending items out of circulation forever, prevents leakage back into the poaching communities and aids recycling.
Before the decommissioning workshop was officially handed over, and destruction could begin, we had wanted to highlight the great work done by the rangers of Murchison in recovering these lethal devices from the park. Demonstrating the scale of the problem by laying them out in serried ranks in front of the new unit was a sobering experience. One of the 753 traps still contained a man’s boot, a poignant reminder of the damage they can also cause to law enforcement rangers. A number of wheel traps still have severed animal’s legs in them.
Within the last month, a UWA ranger, Richard Okaka, was on patrol and had come across a poacher. As he gave chase, the poacher fled into the bush. It was only when it was too late that he realized the poacher was deliberately leading him into an area filled with traps; his leg was caught and he was in absolute agony. His colleagues tried desperately to open the jaws of the trap but to no avail. One started to use a hacksaw to saw off one of the trap parts and free their colleague’s leg. The pain was so bad that Richard begged them to simply saw off his leg. He is currently convalescing at home, legs both thankfully still intact, but if it were not for the colleague with the hacksaw (and their refusal to go for the “easy” option and amputate) it may have been a very different story. He will carry the deep physical and mental scars for life. The areas where these rangers work are so remote – and so far from comprehensive medical care and back-up support – that the alternative of death is an all-too-real possibility.
UCF are supporting UWA in their campaign to ramp up legislation on these deadly devices, a point emphasized by the UWA ED during his speech. Collectively, we want them to be reclassified by Parliament as lethal weapons – like an unlicensed gun – so that the manufacture, possession, transport, supply and trade in these barbaric contraptions can be prosecuted and punished with long custodial sentences and heavy fines, the same as for their actual use. After all, these traps are not part of the subsistence-poaching scene. They are manufactured in their hundreds, responsible not only for the wholesale damage and slaughter of Uganda’s precious wildlife, damaging our natural heritage and national economy in equal measure, but also capable of killing and injuring the very people tasked to protect it.
The UWA Weapons Security & Anti Trafficking Centre is part of a 1 billion Uganda Shilling investment by the UK government, conducted in partnership with UCF. The project includes the centre in Murchison Falls, an identical facility in Queen Elizabeth Conservation Area, and training in evidence collection and analysis for UWA and Natural Resource Conservation Network. The British High Commissioner has now formally opened the new centre in Murchison, accompanied by, inter alia, Lt Gen Ivan Koreta, in his role as Vice Chair of the UCF Board of Directors, and Dr Andrew Seguya, the Executive Director of UWA.
The new unit provides UWA with secure storage for weapons and exhibits, including the snares, traps and spears recovered daily by their anti-poaching patrols. Poachers and wildlife traffickers use these to illegally hunt and kill endangered wildlife species, in order to trade them for bushmeat or ivory. The decommissioning workshop, by cutting items up, also makes disposal and recycling of them more efficient, as much of the scrap can be taken to the steel mills for smelting and reuse. And those materials that the steel mills turn away – which includes the snare wires – can be set in the very foundations of our construction projects. Indeed, the concrete floor of this new facility contains several hundred snares – confined forever beneath the feet of the rangers destroying many thousands more! They are also in the foundations of the new UWA/UCF Vet & Analytics Lab, and the latest Ranger Post and Marine Ranger Station at Kabim, and will continue to be buried in the foundations of any new project, as long as we need to dispose of them.
Thanks to an innovative idea from Pete Baldwin, an Honorary Life Warden of the park and one of the organizers of the annual Murchison Falls Invitational Fishing Tournament, some of the snares and traps will also be used in in conjunction with UWA and local artists and sculptors in a life-size elephant statue to be situated at the gate to Murchison Falls National Park.
Building on this creative approach to recycling, we hope to raise funds for a future, community-based enterprise project, where smaller sculptures can be made by community groups and sold to the souvenir trade, thereby providing an alternative income to poaching and one which is linked to the benefits of wildlife tourism. Addressing the disconnect between local communities and the wildlife they live cheek by jowl with, is going to be a key part of the struggle.
Lt Gen Koreta addressed the ED and the High Commissioner, as well as the many UWA wildlife rangers gathered at the ceremony, on behalf of UCF. “After inspecting this facility I have found it to be very secure. From my own experience, there is nothing more important than ensuring that weapons are kept safely, and that your men are protected. For UWA, this is part of a wider challenge of securing the wildlife and the tourism potential of Uganda”, Koreta said.
The British High Commissioner responded, highlighting the hard work of the UWA in protecting Uganda’s natural heritage. “It is our hope that by supporting projects like this, your children and grand-children may live to see and benefit from the rich biodiversity of this country”.
The new facility not only helps UWA to tackle the illegal trade in bushmeat and ivory, (and by association, helps to stabilize the region as wildlife trafficking is heavily linked to armed conflict, with insurgent groups known to finance their activities using wildlife crime), but has also highlighted the importance, once again, of supporting the rangers who work so hard to secure the parks. Without them, the battle would almost certainly be lost.
To support these brave men and women in green, UCF is currently working alongside local technical specialists, Engineering Solutions, to develop an “escape kit” to help rangers unfortunate enough to get caught in traps. This lightweight, spring compressing kit will be a cheap-to-make, simple, clip-together item weighing less than a couple of kilogrammes, one of which can be carried by each patrol and simply and quickly used to re-compress the main activation spring after it has sprung, to the point where the spiked wheel rings can be opened and the trapped person (or indeed animal) released. It is being particularly designed to be able to be used by the person caught in the trap, should he or she be unfortunate enough to be alone when ensnared. We will let you know how this all goes in due course and how you can maybe help with its roll-out into the field after testing and acceptance trials are completed. In the meantime, we’re looking forward to perfecting an innovative, low-cost solution that will improve ranger morale and genuinely save lives, so that they can be empowered to continue their tireless work on the frontline of poaching in Uganda.