A Ugandan court on Thursday sentenced a man to 11 years in prison for offences including the killing of a beloved mountain gorilla in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
The Silverback gorilla, named Rafiki — which means “friend” in Swahili — was believed to be around 25 years old. He was found dead last month from a spear wound.
Felix Byamukama, a resident of a nearby village, was arrested and admitted to killing the gorilla, saying it was in self-defence, according to the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA).
The authority said Byamukama was given an 11-year jail term for killing Rafiki “and other wildlife” in the park.
Byamukama had pleaded guilty on three charges including illegally entering the protected area and killing a duiker and a bush pig.
UWA executive director Sam Mwandha said: “We are relieved that Rafiki has received justice and this should serve as an example to other people who kill wildlife.”
Rafiki headed a family of 17 gorillas, the first to become habituated to humans in the national park, allowing tourists to hike through the forest to see them. Their life expectancy in the wild is about 35 years.
The wildlife authority described the killing of Rafiki as a “great blow” after intensive conservation efforts saw the mountain gorilla’s Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) category upgraded from “critically endangered” to “endangered” in 2022.
The population of the gorillas grew from around 680 individuals in 2008 to over 1,000.
The mountain gorilla’s habitat is restricted to protected areas covering nearly 800 square kilometres (300 square miles) in two locations — the Virunga Massif and Bwindi-Sarambwe — which stretch across the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda.
Rafiki’s murder came as poaching incidents were on the rise in Uganda, which had imposed a strict lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic, and with tourists yet to return.
“We have noticed a rise in incidents of poaching in our national parks following the closure of our tourism hubs because of COVID-19,” the UWA’s Mwandha told AFP.
“What we are investigating is who is behind the cases of poaching. Due to lockdown have the communities near the parks turned against the wildlife as a source of livelihood? Is it a criminal network behind the rise in poaching? Is the absence of tourism in parks facilitating poaching?
“Wherever the answer lies, incidents of poaching are a cause for worry and we have intensified patrols in parks,” he added.