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Ugandan wildlife faces extinction by poachers

The lush green equatorial parks of Uganda on the upper reaches of the Nile River could soon be barren of the wild animals that in 1972 brought tourism to third place on the list of Uganda's foreign-currency earners.

Incessant killing of animals over the past eight years has hit the white rhino, now believed to be extinct in Uganda, the mountain gorilla, the last of which is understood to have been shot dead last year, and the elephant whose population has been massacred in recent years by poachers greedy for ivory and meat.

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A senior official in the Ugandan National Parks Service said this week the elephants in Uganda are now facing "genocide." Of 35,000 elephants living wild in Uganda in 1973, less than 1,500 are still alive today and, says Dr. Eric Edroma, that number is diminishing fast through uncontrolled poaching.

Officials and what few visitors have gone to Kabalega Falls Park on the Victoria Nile, report elephant carcasses spread over wide areas. Poacher's camps are pitched nearby in open defiance of a Uganda-wide hunting ban imposed last year.

Those poachers who are caught are gunned down by park rangers in pitched battles. Often the rangers themselves are the victims of men armed, since the fall of Idi Amin last year, with sophisticated automatic weapons.

On June 25, world elephant expert Dr. Iain Douglas Hamilton, financed in part by the World Wildlife Fund, will begin three weeks of anti-poaching flights in his light Cessna aircraft at Kabalega Falls, formerly Murchison Falls.

Elephants at Kabalega numbered 15,000 in 1972. An aerial survey conducted by the Uganda parks last month was able to count just 850 in an area that once teemed with wild animals herding along the banks of the Nile.

Mr. Douglas Hamilton achieved worldwide acclaim in the 1970s for his work on elephant life in Tanzania's Lake Manyara National Park near the famous Serengeti Plain. His book "Among the Elephants" was the result of five years study.

An inveterate flier, Mr. Douglas Hamilton now has undertaken to assist under-equipped Ugandan parks staff to locate poachers' camps from the air. The costly operation is being paid for by the Uganda government, the World Wildlife Fund, and by Mr. Douglas Hamilton himself.

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"If we do not move fast we will not be able to reverse this trend in which so many elephants are dying," Mr. Douglas Hamilton told me from his Nairobi, Kenya, home this week. "But the cost is tremendous and the Ugandan authorities need all the help they can get."

According to Dr. Edroma's report, the last seven years have been "bad for the elephant," with poaching first by Idi Amin's undisciplined soldiery, then by liberating Tanzanian troops, and now by people seeking easy cash "at the expense of our invaluable wildlife."

Dr. Edroma has appealed to the Uganda government to take steps to disarm the public, empower local chiefs, to arrest poachers, ban the selling of wildlife meat, and consider poaching a more serious crime than it has up to now.

"The issue of Uganda's wildlife is an issue of grave concern to everyone," he said. "Ugandans are fortunate to belong to a country richly endowed with a variety of wildlife. Unfortunately, this pride is being abused by those who regard the animals as a nuisance or as a source of getting rich quick."

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