The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) has urged media organizations to exercise caution when reporting on allegations of fraud within the Chimpanzee and Gorilla booking system to prevent harm to the tourism sector and the country’s reputation.
This request comes in the wake of recent revelations by Col. (Rtd) Tom Butime, the Minister of Tourism, Wildlife, and Antiquities, who acknowledged that UWA’s internal audit investigations uncovered potential illegal sales of gorilla and chimpanzee tracking permits involving some staff members. This illicit activity resulted in a financial loss of at least 500 million Shillings between June and August 2023.
Dr. Sam Mwandha, UWA’s Executive Director, expresses concern about the continuous negative publicity, particularly when it involves international sources. While he acknowledges the media’s role as a societal watchdog, he emphasizes that such negative coverage is detrimental to Uganda’s image.
Dr. Mwandha notes that the Authority plans to assess the impact of this emerging negative publicity in three months’ time, which coincides with the peak tourism season spanning from November to January.
Minister Butime also shares his concern about the negative news and fraudulent sales of gorilla and chimpanzee tracking permits. He asserts that individuals implicated in the inquiry will be prosecuted to deter similar actions in the future.
Gorilla and chimpanzee permits are issued by UWA to both local and foreign nationals for tracking activities. In the interim, the Ministry of Tourism reports that UWA has initiated the implementation of a new booking and revenue collection system to prevent further gorilla permit fraud.
In 2014, UWA introduced a cashless system requiring tourists to pay at the head office before obtaining gorilla and chimpanzee tracking permits in the park. However, this system encountered issues and was suspended pending an upgrade.
Subsequent efforts included contracting a Mauritius-based company in 2017, but the proposed system was deemed too expensive and abandoned. UWA then engaged another company to install a new system within six months, but it failed to deliver after eight months, leading to the termination of the contract and an ongoing legal battle.
Global COVID-19 pandemic setbacks in 2020 prompted UWA to outsource another company, which also faced procurement delays. Consequently, a new company was contracted in May to develop a new system, pending integration with the financial system.
It’s worth noting that the cost of a single gorilla trekking permit in Uganda is US $700, approximately 2.6 million Shillings per person. However, the prices of mountain gorilla permits vary by country, with Rwanda having the most expensive permits at US$1,500 (approximately 5.5 million Shillings) and the Democratic Republic of Congo offering the cheapest permits at US$400, equivalent to 1.4 million Shillings.
Uganda is renowned as the “Pearl of Africa” due to its significant population of approximately 459 mountain gorillas, which represents half of the world’s total number of these endangered species. Gorilla tracking in Uganda is conducted in two destinations: Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park.