Uganda prides itself in having rich wildlife to showcase locally and to the world. This wildlife is, however, under the threat of poachers and illicit traders who kill animals for body parts from which they make unique crafts sold on open and black markets. Without ardent rangers such as Julius Obwona, who commit to conserving animals at any cost, the animal population is at a danger of extinction. For close to quarter a century, Obwona has combed Murchison Falls National Park, in the northern part of Uganda, to ensure safety of animals. For his efforts, the dedicated ranger was recently recognised by Tusk Wildlife Ranger Award, an international recognition to the men and women who face danger every day in their effort to protect Africa's wildlife.
The humble ranger is grateful that the world is finally recognising the efforts rangers put in to conserve nature in Africa. "It motivates the entire ranger force to take conservation at heart given that they work under difficult conditions. They dedicate their lives in difficult conditions," he said. The award came with a cash prize of £20,000 (Shs95m).
Commenting on the award, Lt General Ivan Koreta the Vice Chairman of the Uganda Conservation Foundation (UCF) Board of Director says Obwona is deserving of the Tusk Conservation Award which will cement his standing as a future leader in fighting wildlife crime.
Becoming a ranger
Obwona joined the then Uganda National Park in 1995 as a ranger recruit. Upon successful completion of the training, he was appointed a private ranger. He underwent training within Murchison Falls National Park. At the time, there was a game department under the Ministry of Tourism and Uganda National Parks as a government parastatal. In 1996, there was a merger of the two to form Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA). Having made up his mind to stay in the industry for the long haul, he decided to adequately skill himself by acquiring the necessary knowledge.
He enrolled and later acquired a certificate in wildlife management from Uganda Wildlife Training institute.
He went on to pursue a diploma in Natural Resource Management from Southern African Wildlife College in South Africa, and subsequently another diploma in law from Law Development Centre in Kampala.
Attainment of knowledge and the love to widen his skill set has taken him places. He has also trained in anti-terrorism and tourist protection from Cairo Police Academy Egypt as well as a course in wildlife crime investigations from International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) in Gaborone, Botswana.
He also holds an intelligence and Investigations from the Police training school Masindi. Advanced investigations from Kenya School of Monetary Studies. Currently, he is pursuing a bachelor's degree of laws at Kampala International University (KIU) on the weekend programme. It requires some sacrifice. He travels for six hours from Murchison Falls to Kampala. He normally travels on Friday night and returns on Sunday night. At the core of it all is the passion to look after animals.
"I love nature generally. I grew up in a community where I saw a lot of destruction on wildlife being hunted communally and this did not go well with me right from childhood. I had to join conservation to protect these defenceless creatures," Obwona explains about his motivation to becoming a conservationist.
Obwona grew up in a village called Diima, in Mutunda Sub- County of Kiryandongo District. As a boy, he witnessed the killings of wildlife. There was a lot wildlife in Diima given its location next to Karuma Wildlife Reserve.
He was irked by the poachers who moved freely about in the village, selling game meat they had harvested from the protected area. Charcoal burning was also rampant. He could not do much to stop the poachers and charcoal burners back then but now he can, using his position as a wildlife ranger. He holds trainings to pass on messages to fellow rangers as guidance on law enforcement to curb the vices.
He also participates in a number of investigations and interviews of suspects of poaching and frequently appears in court to give evidence against the accused persons
Under his guidance, a highly trained team of 600 rangers have been deployed throughout Murchison Falls, a park that once had 14000 elephants, but now has just over 100 individuals. By the end of 2018, Obwona and his team had removed over 24 tonnes of snares from the Murchison Delta reducing the 'three elephants a day' formerly being seen in traps to around three a month. Dozens of AK47's, 100's of rounds of ammunition and 700 poachers' boats have been decommissioned. As a conservation strategy, the ranger also works at grassroots and often works with suspects to sensitise them on values of conservation and tries to convince them to stop poaching.
"I have developed very good relations with the police and sister security organizations and stakeholders to help fight poaching. I also work with the communities," he explains. In the sensitisation efforts with poachers or those suspected of the crime, he takes them through the benefits of tourism citing the trickledown effect it can have on the economy to support citizens.
According to Obwona, there is a remittance of 20 per cent revenue of tourism facilities such as parks to neighbouring communities. Not many of the poachers and members of communities appreciate the efforts, something that continues to irk Obwona and other conservationists.
Being a park ranger is one of the most dangerous jobs. Rangers often work with little backup, in remote territories and face a multitude of dangers.
"The journey one walks in conservation is normally a risky one. For instance a few years ago, you will remember there was insurgency in Northern Uganda where we had the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) so we were at risk of running into armed guerrilla who killed a huge number of animals. Even knowing that one is poorly equipped for such an encounter, a ranger is still required to continue to work. This required dedication, love for nature and patriotism. Sometimes one's life is at risk from the animals they are protecting," Obwona says.
Conservation work is demanding which leaves little time for the ranger to attend to family issues. But the sacrifice has earned him recognition. Apart from the award, Obwona who started out as a ranger has enjoyed multiple promotions through his career. Between 1999 and 2003, he worked as head of intelligence and investigations in the park.
"It was very challenging given the presence of the LRA. I ensured I gathered good information that we used for law enforcement. One of such investigations involved killing of seven elephants in 2003 in the Tangi Valley within Murchison Falls in a single day. I hunted down the culprits who were arrested and prosecuted."
That earned him another promotion, to the position of assistant warden and slightly after, full warden in charge of Ajai wildlife Reserve. He was moved to East Madi and taken back to Murchison Falls National Park to head the law enforcement department.
With colleagues, they increased efforts to tackle the rampant elephant poaching as well as that of other animals in the park. Working closely with the police and judiciary the teamrecovered a number of poaching implements and sought for the proper prosecution and punishment of wildlife crime offenders. He works with a number of organisations interested wildlife conservation such as the Uganda Conservation Foundation (UCF) which has supported the law enforcement establishment and operation.
"As a country, we need strong laws that are deterrent enough to stop the destruction on wildlife resources that continue to contribute towards our economy. Aggressive marketing of the country to increase visitation in our protected areas would be ideal. We need to address human wildlife conflicts to get buy-in from the communities."
Obwona also suggests need for improvement of infrastructures in terms of having Uganda's border points equipped with scanners to help detect wildlife contrabands in addition to aggressive sensitisation. He also recommends better equipment be provided to wildlife rangers. His effort has not gone unnoticed.
ABOUT THE AWARDS
The Tusk Conservation Awards, in partnership with Investec Asset Management, celebrate extraordinary people, whose work and lives might otherwise go unnoticed outside their fields. The Duke of Cambridge, who is the Royal Patron of Tusk, Prince William, says the awards play a huge part in preserving Africa's precious wildlife for its people and adds that the world owes a great gratitude to wildlife rangers such as Obwona.