A hippopotamus in the marshes of River Nile near Pakwach Bridge
BY RICHARD DRASIMAKU
PAKWACH: Thursday, July 22, 2021
Every month, Jimmy Olore, a self-confessed hippopotamus hunter and his folks from Pujwang village make up to six forays on a three-kilometre journey on the River Nile to Pakwach Bridge in Uganda’s West Nile sub-region.
This is one of the spots in the Murchison Falls National Park (MFNP), identified as Uganda’s leading hippopotamus habitat along with Queen Elizabeth National Park, where schools of hippos bask in the marshes of the river’s shoreline.
On a typical hunting day, the “Aligo” (seasoned Pujwang hunters) go to a clan shrine to seek protection and blessings from the “Abila” (ancestral god). During the ritual, they mix cassava flour in water and smear the potion on themselves.
Anyone who has a misunderstanding with a family member is prohibited from joining the hunting party for fear of becoming a source of misfortune.
Rowing canoes and carrying two people each, the poaching expedition is conducted by groups of at least six hunters at night when game rangers have retreated to their outposts.
After a successful hunt, polygamous poachers are required to sleep away from their wives.
The poachers believe that such rituals protect them against attacks by the wild animals and arrests by game rangers.
The belief in ritual gods is so strong in Pakwach that these audacious poachers use it to evade investigations by intimidating law enforcement personnel who appear to fret at the mention of it.
Olore is serving a police bond term after he was caught while attempting to sell hippopotamus teeth in March 2020.
Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) spies camouflaging as hippo teeth buyers tricked and captured him with three other poachers in a hotel room in Pakwach, where the fake transaction was to take place.
After the arrest, the suspects were whisked to Kibuli criminal investigations directorate headquarters in Kampala for interrogation but the case, registered with police as CRB: 132/2020, has since stalled.
Leonard Massa, the head of the legal unit of the Natural Resource Conservation, UWA’s partner in handling prosecutions, cited suspected poachers not honouring police bond terms as their main reason for the frustration of the cases.
“Some of them are released because they fall sick, others are released because a relative has stood surety or a Member of Parliament has stepped in to demand their release. Once they get home they do not return to the police,” he lamented.
Globally, hippopotamuses are listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of wild fauna and flora (CITIS) as vulnerable. The main causes for this vulnerability are said to be habitat loss and exploitation for commercial trade and bush-meat.
Map showing hotspots of Hippo poachers
Why target Hippos
Hippopotamus are highly territorial mammals, according to Wilson Kagoro, the warden in charge of community conservation in the MFNP.
The animals spend most of the day submerged in the waters and defecate there, leading to growth of planktons, a source of food for fish.
This explains why fishers catch plenty of fish wherever there are hippos. The downside is that the fishers often become victims of circumstance once they veer into the hippos’ territory.
“Their warning sign is that they yawn. When you see a hippo yawning, leave the area,” Kagoro advises.
Most of the fishing is done at night when the hippos have gone grazing on land. But when hippos go terrestrial to feed on the pasture and often in people’s gardens, they leave behind one of their members to guard their marine territory from intruders.
It is such “guard animals” that very frequently attack fishermen, Kagoro says. Such “guard animals” are also perfect targets for poachers.
As the animal charges towards the canoe operators in an attempt to drive them away, the lead poacher strikes with a spear while other marauding hunters strap them with ropes.
An injured hippo dies quickly in the river when water enters into the injuries, claims Olore. In less than 30 minutes, the prey dies and is carried away in the canoe.
The carcass is skinned during the night and the meat chopped into pieces. A piece of the intestine is cut and taken to the shrine to thank the gods.
“The most delicious thing from a hippo is the intestine. After giving the gods their share, we eat the rest ourselves,” he says.
The poachers’ wives cook the food communally – mainly the intestines, head and the feet. Then the families gather for the hot-meal night feast. The rest of the meat is dried for sale to individuals and hotels whose menu includes bush-meat disguised as “otwo” (dry domestic animal meat).
Lawrence Okello, a poacher from Aringo-kech village in Nwoya district claims hotel operators, some coming as far as Gulu City, Kampala and South Africa, pay between sh8,000 (USD$2.18) and sh10,000 (USD$2.73) for a kilogramme (kg) of hippo meat.
An average adult hippo weighs 1,500kg for males and 1,300kg for females, according to https://en.wikipedia.org. This means a potential sale of sh13m (USD$3,656.27) to sh15m (USD$4,218.77) of meat from a single kill.
Makeshift food joints in Pakwach and Wianono in
Meat vendors stalk taxi passengers with small sticks used to dry the meat as a signal that inside the crowded grass thatched huts behind the shops, there is bush-meat for sale.
A bush meat that vendors claim is from poached hippopotamus is cut into pieces for cooking at a make-shift food joint in Wianono in Nwoya district.
A food vendor who only identified herself as Ayeirwoth claimed that her suppliers are the game rangers who confiscate the meat from poachers and sell it to her.
Kagoro, without delving into details, said there could be truth in that claim because in 2017, a ranger was arrested over his alleged involvement in selling hippo teeth.
“He was dismissed from service and prosecuted. We could still be having some ‘rotten tomatoes,’ so, such food vendors should assist us with evidence,” he urged.
In a follow-up email Kagoro added: “No law in Uganda allows poaching and, therefore, it would both be illegal for those involved in poaching and those who sell the exhibits to the communities.”
However, since their apprehension by the police, and having gained temporary freedom from last year’s detention, the poachers have become more discreet, only dealing with those clients they have known for a long time.
The poachers say that when middlemen from Kampala come for trophies, the poachers charge between sh300, 000 (USD$84) and sh400,000 (USD$109.2) per hippo tooth.
From one hippo, four teeth are normally sold and in a month the poachers sell at least 24 teeth in the black market, fetching between sh7.2m (USD2000) and sh9.6m (USD2650).
This brisk business is happening at a time when an official ban by the Ugandan government on trade in hippo teeth enters the seventh year.
Diminishing hippo population
The implication of this bloody activity and illicit trade is that the hippopotamus population in the MFNP has declined.
In 2016, the hippo population was estimated at around 1,683, according to figures provided by Jonathan Omwesigye, the warden in charge of ecological monitoring at the MFNP.
These declarations lend credence to the 2017 findings by the Wildlife trade monitoring network, TRAFFIC, which established an overall drop in the hippo population in all of Uganda’s habitats.
These include habitats like the Semliki River, Lake Victoria and Lake Kyoga.
The UWA, in a comprehensive analysis for MFNP management plan 2012 – 2022, cited widespread poaching during the 1970s and 1980s as the main reason for the drastic decline of the hippo population.
UWA also took cognisance of the very low level of education in the remote neighbourhoods of MFNP and the lack of employment among the youth, which has affected the social life of communities.
“Being idle most of the time, the youth get involved in illegal activities within the park….. Apart from fishing, sale of firewood and grass, there are limited income generating activities within the communities living adjacent to MFNP,” it stated.
“Opportunities for industrialization are limited by poor infrastructure…coupled with poor soil that cannot support crop cultivation, endemic poverty is prevailing among the communities…all of which leave dependence on park resources as the only viable means for survival.”
Community view on hippos
The declining numbers of hippos in the MFNP though matter little to a population in Pakwach and Nwoya districts who are holding out the view that their forefathers killed hippos for generations and the hippos have continued to exist to the present day.
Community members and hard-line poachers cite the traditional Jonam lifestyle, poverty, dangerous encounters with the animals and inadequate assistance from UWA during times of attacks, and crop destruction to explain the persistence of the kills.
“Traditionally hippo hunting is what our people do,” said greyed Valentino Okecha, 70, a resident of Pajau village. He then quickly retreated – to add that he has not seen or known anyone who kills hippos – as he tried to position his family only as a sole sufferer of mayhem from hippos.
His 33-year-old son, Geoffrey Onengarach, had his right leg amputated from Lacor hospital in Gulu in 2018 after being attacked and maimed by a hippo during a fishing expedition.
Geoffrey Onengarach was amputated after hippo attack
The family sold two cows and a piece of land to raise sh2.7m (USD$738.17) for his treatment and he now regrets why he did not go to the river prepared to kill any attacking hippo.
In the neighbouring Wijadwong village directly opposite to Chimanya outpost of UWA the grave of Charles Warom, 20, who died from a hippo attack on July 9, 2019, evokes sad memories to his family and relatives.
Warom, the eldest child in a family of eight, had gone fishing with a friend early that morning when their canoe was pounced on by a hippo near Jupalonya landing site. He fell into the water and was promptly grabbed and killed by the beast.
The family complains that no compensation or assistance has been offered to them by UWA to-date. According to the Uganda Wildlife Act 2019 as amended, compensation is only provided to victims attacked by wildlife from their homes, thus making it tricky for people attacked by hippos on water to claim for compensation.
Kagoro says in some instances, UWA contributes towards the funeral costs by providing food for mourners, but park neighbours say such contributions are rare.
“Hippos come and destroy our crops in the village. They disturb fishermen and there is a problem of direct communication with the wildlife staff,” lamented Robert Ociendi, father to the deceased.
For Olore, hippo killing is an old habit that dies hard. “We learnt how to kill hippos from our fathers who in turn learnt it from our grandfathers. We are not going to stop because we kill hippos in order to survive,” Olore maintained.
The warrior’s wife had a different view though, advising women whose husbands can listen to tell them to stop killing hippos.
“When my husband was still in police custody, I suffered with our seven children. His relatives never helped us and I went with all my children to sell fish by the roadside to buy food,” Helen Janembe said.
But rather than being dissuaded by arrests, poachers are getting emboldened to only change tactics to dodge UWA traps.
Beating UWA traps
To avoid detection by the UWA informants, the serial poachers have limited themselves to dealing with their trusted old customers.
Under the canopy of a Ficus tree behind metallic kiosks in the lorry park of Pakwach town, the opaque illegal trade is transacted in the dark night.
Any newcomer is treated with utmost suspicion that the poachers try all sorts of tactics to fend them off, including hostility and price hikes. And when that doesn’t work, they reject or return the client’s money outright.
Such trickery has allowed the hippo killers to avoid arrest. Indeed, UWA records show that the number of poachers arrested for killing hippos has been reducing in recent years.
Of the total 151 hippo poachers apprehended in three years, 63 (41.72%) were arrested in 2018, 50 (33.12%) in 2019 and only 38 (25.16%) in 2020.
Many of the suspects were found with bones, heads, meat and teeth of hippos. Others were caught with poaching implements such as spears and ropes.
The official explanation of this trend is that community outreach programmes where people are encouraged to shun poaching may be bearing fruits.
Over the years, UWA has run a programme of rewarding people who denounce poaching and surrender their hunting implements with goats and introduced a revenue sharing scheme.
A mound of poaching implements surrendered or captured in the last three years.
As part of the revenue sharing arrangement, a classroom block and library were built at Luga primary school and a latrine at St. Agatha primary school.
The block at Luga primary school in Pakwach.
UWA has also enlisted community mobilisers who sensitize people against the dangers of killing and eating game meat and report incidences of stray animals to rangers.
Edmond Tumita is one of the three community mobilisers in Mukale and Oliajo parishes where the vice of poaching has become less open.
He critiques that the rewards programme is not making a faster impact because hard-core poachers are not embracing it since they view the goats to be too paltry compared to the economics of hippo teeth and meat.
Still, Kagoro reasons that engaging the community and enticing them with incentives remains the best option to stop illegal killing and conserve hippopotamus.
“Arrests are expensive to execute because of manpower gaps,” explained Kagoro. “You spend a lot on fuel to transport the suspects and cases take too long to dispense.”
Reporting for this story was supported by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network