Photos Courtesy: J. Ashley Netherton, USAID
By Anne-Marie Weeden (Uganda Conservation Foundation)
One of the challenges facing Uganda Wildlife Authority and other authorities and organisations charged with tackling wildlife crime in Uganda is how to protect, gather and preserve vital evidence from wildlife crime scenes that will help prosecutors achieve convictions and stronger penalties in the courts for poachers and traffickers of illegal wildlife products.
Wildlife crime scenes can range from poaching kill sites deep within the confines of a national park, to warehouses where illicit products may be stored, or urban locations where trading and trafficking is taking place. Specialist skills are required to preserve these crime scenes, photograph and map them, gather key bits of evidence and preserve or process them in a way which allows the information to be used in the ensuing investigation or courtroom trial.
Uganda Conservation Foundation (UCF) has recently partnered with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to help build the capacity of Ugandan authorities to protect the country’s natural heritage and to combat illicit trafficking that threatens both Uganda’s abundant wildlife and security.
In late 2016, the first phase of this project took place as law enforcement and forensic science experts from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – a division of the U.S. Department of the Interior (the lead U.S. agency for public land management) – trained 17 investigators from Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), Uganda Police Force (UPF) and Natural Resource Conservation Network (NRCN), during a week-long workshop near Murchison Falls National Park.
With support from UCF, these experts helped participants develop the skills to conduct wildlife crime scene investigations, including collecting evidence and preserving the chain of custody. Other areas covered by the course included how to secure and map a crime scene, how to operate a camera and photograph crime scene evidence, best practice electronic / digital evidence collection, as well as types and techniques for the collection of genetic evidence, trace evidence (hairs, fibres, paint chips etc), fingerprint evidence, and firearms and tool mark evidence. Participants were also trained in how to safely identify and collect evidence of poisons or toxins at a crime scene, and identify different types of ivory including elephant, hippo, warthog and other species.
Classroom sessions were conducted during the course of the week, with case studies shared, followed by several practical exercises outside the classroom, with “pretend” crime scenes set up to test trainees on what they had learned. Participants enthusiastically put their new skills into practice, showing the trainers they had successfully mastered the skills they needed to become Scene of Crime Officers.
During the course of the workshop, participants were given the opportunity to enjoy a game drive and boat cruise around nearby Murchison Falls National Park. For many of the trainees working in urban areas targeting wildlife traffickers, rather than those who are based in the parks and see wildlife every day, it was the first time they had seen ivory on an elephant. Seeing Uganda’s wildlife in its natural habitat was an inspiring reminder of the importance of their role in combating wildlife crime.
The workshop also fostered cooperation and information exchanges among the participants from UWA, UPF, and NRCN, which will help to advance future investigations and support their partnerships in the fight against wildlife crime in Uganda.
After the workshop, USAID donated 10 wildlife crime scene investigation kits to UWA, UPF and NRCN, to be used by the trained investigators in the field. The kits contain materials necessary for collecting and preserving evidence from wildlife crime scenes, which is crucial for the successful prosecution of wildlife crimes. USAID made this donation through its regional Partnership to End Wildlife Trafficking with the Interior Department’s International Technical Assistance Program (DOI-ITAP).
Wildlife crime is a threat not just to conservation, but to the security and livelihoods of Uganda’s people,” said USAID Mission Director Mark Meassick. “This partnership allows us to share the expertise of U.S. conservation professionals to help enhance Uganda’s wildlife management and enforcement capacities, improve national and international coordination, and share best practices.
The training workshop and donation of the kits are the first steps in a planned program of training and technical assistance in combating wildlife crime to be implemented under the partnership between USAID and DOI-ITAP with UCF and UWA. This support aims to build a cadre of Ugandan wildlife professionals with the specialized knowledge and skills to bring wildlife poachers and traffickers to justice, and to help end practices that threaten both Uganda’s rich biodiversity and security.