Home Environment How Uganda Wildlife Authority became a paramilitary organisation

How Uganda Wildlife Authority became a paramilitary organisation

UWA was particularly compelled to work like a paramilitary organisation because of the consolidation of the NRA regime’s security and expansion of its authority in the 1990s that led to the proliferation of armed rebellions in Uganda that called for simultaneous counter-insurgency campaigns

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Uganda in particular provides park rangers with paramilitary training and sophisticated weaponry – sometimes with the help of international conservation organisations and foreign militaries.
Uganda in particular provides park rangers with paramilitary training and sophisticated weaponry – sometimes with the help of international conservation organisations and foreign militaries.

Sometime in 2019, a cohort of 30 new rangers arrived at the Mount Elgon National Park training outpost in eastern Uganda to await permanent assignments. As soon as they took up their assignments, residents noticed that there were stricter park rules, increased arrests and violent punishments.

Within only two weeks of taking up their assignments, the new rangers arrested a group of residents who were found collecting firewood from within the boundaries of the protected area – even though this was in accordance with a community conservation programme that provided neighbouring communities limited access to park’s resources.

Following the arrests, the rangers abused detainees in their custody, tortured an elderly person – and even almost pushed others off a cliff. Unconfirmed community reports later indicated that about 30 people were beaten by the rangers, forced to carry firewood for several kilometres, and then held under informal arrest for hours at the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) outpost before being finally released.

Such violent acts committed by rangers in the service of conservation are the main focus of a new study by researchers Christopher Day, William Moreto and Riley Ravary.

“…as rangers interpret and enforce wildlife laws, they feel justified in using military tactics to reinforce UWA control over Mount Elgon National Park as a strategy of local governance,” the researchers write in Ranger/soldier: Patterns of militarising conservation in Uganda, which was recently published in the Journal of Eastern African Studies.

The findings of the study highlight problems in “militarised” conservation areas as governments around the world seek to increase protected areas and fight climate change and biodiversity loss.

In Uganda, and indeed the wider African continent, wildlife populations and valuable environmental resources have over the years been increasingly under threat from a range of actors: ordinary hunters who illegally hunt wildlife for the pot, heavily-equipped poachers targeting global illegal wildlife markets, as well as militia groups that use resources in protected areas to sustain their operations.

Wildlife populations and valuable environmental resources have over the years been increasingly under threat
Wildlife populations and valuable environmental resources have over the years been increasingly under threat

This, in part, has compelled some countries like Uganda to respond by increasingly militarising their wildlife authorities. Uganda in particular provides park rangers with paramilitary training and sophisticated weaponry – sometimes with the help of international conservation organisations and foreign militaries.

But while the militarisation of protected areas maybe intended for the noble cause of protecting wildlife and biodiversity, it’s said to be resulting in unintended negative consequences associated with the coercive roles of rangers in conservation – especially when the social, political, and organisational contexts in which park rangers operate are sidestepped.  

For instance,President Museveni’s National Resistance Movement’s (NRM) impetus to guarantee its hegemony and its persistence has given rise to a distinct range of coup-proofing strategies such as militarising the conservation sector, the new study says.

“As such, Museveni’s NRM has developed an ‘integrated’ mode of civil–military relations that requires a purposeful fusion of political and military power, which essentially serves as a set of armed wings of a political organisation engaged in state building and self-maintenance,” the study says.

The authors of the study argue that, the NRM’s deployment of an array of parallel security and intelligence agencies not only serves to counterbalance one another, but also helps the government to keep close watch on society.

“These dynamics extend even to the wildlife sector, where park rangers are considered auxiliaries of the national army and therefore among the palette of armed state actors considered relevant not just for conservation, but also for regime security,” the researchers write.

Militarisation history

The Uganda Wildlife Authority was formed in 1996 following the amalgamation of the Game Department and Uganda National Parks. The former was created by British colonialists in 1925 to control wildlife use and manage human-wildlife conflict in game reserves while the latter was created in 1952 to manage conservation of the country’s first national parks.

According to the new study, a key observation is that the militarisation of UWA’s rangers is not new. Even a century ago, the Uganda Game Department was militarised operationally and symbolically, with colonial officers with military backgrounds at its helm.

But unlike UWA – which is more of a “paramilitary organisation maintained through military training of recruits, and through a rank-and-file organizational structure” – the Game Department’s main pursuits were wildlife control, the regulation of hunting, and the creation of game reserves.

UWA was particularly compelled to work like a paramilitary organisation because of the consolidation of the NRA regime’s security and expansion of its authority in the 1990s that led to the proliferation of armed rebellions in Uganda that called for simultaneous counter-insurgency campaigns.

“These intersecting conflicts drew in wildlife authorities, as rangers encountered rebels using protected areas for resources and sanctuaries – specifically the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Murchison Falls and the Allied Democratic Front (ADF) in Queen Elizabeth and Ruwenzori National Parks,” the new study says.

Rebels using protected areas for resources and sanctuaries – specifically the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Murchison Falls National Park
Rebels using protected areas for resources and sanctuaries – specifically the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Murchison Falls National Park

Isolated from most combat operations, rangers augmented the Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) by helping them to navigate the murky terrains of national parks.

Another reason for militarising Uganda’s conservation sector was the fact that most of Uganda’s protected areas are in borderlands and therefore provide potential vectors for regional security threats – which is “no surprise that any regime would co-opt wildlife authorities to both coup-proof and to broadcast power.”

The turning point

UWA’s turning point came in 1999 when the organisation was faced with one of its most acute security crisis in history: a Rwandan militia outfit abducted and killed a group of foreign tourists in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, sparking international outrage.

In 1999, tourist were killed by a Rwandan militia in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

The researchers argue that this was an emblematic episode of the intersection between the government’s security imperatives and the country’s conservation challenges as they both played out in a porous and unstable border region.

They write: “It accelerated the militarisation of conservation in Uganda, leading to the creation of the Special Integrated Force for Wildlife Tourism (SWIFT) teams in 2002 to help develop UWA’s capacity to match threats and to adapt to changing threat dynamics in protected areas.”

Since then, the culture of militarisation has been evident throughout UWA’s administration. Today, even UWA’s ranger training focuses heavily on the acquisition of military skills rather than environmental administration skills, the study found.

Before becoming UWA rangers, new recruits complete a six-month military training by the UPDF followed by only one month of conservation training.

The researchers aver that this explains why UWA rangers and UPDF soldiers dress alike in green camouflage military fatigues, have comparable tactics, and always collaborate whenever they’re interacting with community members.

Because of the paramilitary nature of UWA’s work, the organisation’s operations are typically like those of the army – from “top to the bottom” – and it’s often difficult for local residents to distinguish between UWA rangers from UPDF SWIFT soldiers.

The researchers quote one ranger from Lake Mburo National Park as succinctly stating: “As it (UWA) is a paramilitary organisation, it’s always orders from above.” Another respondent reportedly told the researchers how the top-down nature of UWA “is limiting us from doing our work seriously.”

Some rangers told the researchers that sometimes some UPDF soldiers get involved in inappropriate and even illegal activities such as poaching.

The researchers quote one ranger as saying: “Some of them had been in the warzones where previously they were engaged in elephant poaching. So, when they access some of these places where these animals are, they still go back to their former habits.”

In addition, stories of UPDF soldiers involved excessive alcohol consumption and physical altercations within community members are also common. For instance, one of the authors of this study claims to have heard gunshots in a nearby canteen – which turned out to have been fired in the air by a UPDF soldier during an altercation with a community member.

Distrust among community members

Such altercations have driven community members to develop distrust towards protected areas’ staff, including rangers. The researchers quote one of the rangers admitting: “We have that bad image of fear. I know that they (the community) don’t have much trust in us.”

And UWA policies that discourage interaction between rangers and community members for fear that such relationships could only lead to corruption of rangers rather than peace and collaboration further entrench the soldier-enemy dynamic, the study says.

This soldier-enemy dynamic played out when an UWA-led community meeting was convened to address the conflict that arose when rangers arrested a group of residents who were found collecting firewood from Mount Elgon National Park.

One ranger is said to have began by dismissing the allegations as rumours and negative propaganda against UWA.

The study says: “When a woman was called upon by this ranger to give her account of ‘torture propaganda’ against UWA, she detailed multiple accounts of physical abuse against herself and other residents, referring to the rangers as UWA soldiers, who told her ‘they wished she were dead so their work would be done.’”

At the end of the fruitless meeting, residents became frustrated – so much that one young man warned rangers that there would be community-wide retaliation if violence against residents didn’t stop.

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