Poacher jailed for killing Rafiki the friendly gorilla

Felix Byamukama pleaded guilty to illegal entry into a protected area of Uganda and killing the rare silverback mountain gorilla. He will serve 11 years in prison

A Ugandan man has been sentenced to 11 years with hard labour after being found guilty of killing a rare great ape. Rafiki (meaning “friend” in Swahili) was the leader of the famous Nkuringo gorilla group, which lives in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park of south-western Uganda.

The gorilla was hugely popular with sightseers and is believed to have been roughly 25 years old when he died.

Conservationists fear that the Nkuringo group may now be taken over by a wild silverback that will not want human contact, which could have a big negative impact on tourism.

The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) has however allayed fears, confirming that the group is now led by a black-back from within the family and that the situation is stable.

Hunting in a protected park

Byamukama also pleaded guilty to killing a bush pig and a small antelope, known as a duiker, in the protected park. He was found guilty of being in possession of bush pig and duiker meat.

He confessed to the UWA that, along with three other poachers, he had previously gone into the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park with the intention of hunting smaller animals. He killed Rafiki in self-defence when the gorilla attacked him, he said.

The three other men –  Evarist Bampabenda, Yonasi Mubangizi and Valence Museveni – have denied the charges and remain in custody, awaiting trial.

Rafiki went missing on 1 June and his body was discovered by a search party the following day. Byamukama was tracked by the UWA team to a nearby village. He was found in possession of a spear and snares.

Investigations showed that the gorilla was killed with a sharp object which penetrated his abdomen and internal organs.

A spokesman for the UWA told reporters that Byamukama will serve countless sentences concurrently, remaining up to 11 years in jail. However, this is much shorter than the life sentence it was predicted he could be given, and was possible only because Byamukama was not tried by a special wildlife court.

Mountain attraction

The UWA relies on the popularity of mountain gorillas for a steady revenue stream from tourism. The Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is home to half the world’s population of the gorillas. It covers 32,000 hectares and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But wildlife parks have been closed for the past six months because of the novel coronavirus, and this has increased poaching, the UWA says. Reports by the BBC show that officials and local people have counted more than 300 incidents during the months of the lockdown.

The UWA’s executive director, Sam Mwandha, shared his thoughts on the court’s decision. “We are relieved that Rafiki has received justice and this should serve as an example to other people who kill wildlife,” he said. “If one person kills wildlife, we all lose. Therefore, we request every person to support our efforts [to conserve] wildlife for the present and future generations.”

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies mountain gorillas as an endangered species. The Nkuringo group, in which Rafiki was the dominant male, also included three black-backs (as younger mature males are called), together with eight adult females, two juveniles and three infants.

Nana Abena Boakye-Boateng

* Asaase Radio 99.5 – tune in or log on to broadcasts online.

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