Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) has initiated an investigation into long-standing fraud allegations that have plagued the organization for years, resulting in losses exceeding $3 million (UGX11.2 billion) related to gorilla permits. At least 16 individuals implicated in this scandal have faced suspensions or arrests.
Sources, speaking anonymously to local press due to the sensitivity of the matter, have revealed that the trouble began when the current management suspended the cashless system introduced in 2014 to prevent fraud and robberies. This move led to the acquisition of two new systems that proved ineffective, prompting the IT team to create an internal booking system.
It was during this period that system operators, in collaboration with others, exploited a vulnerability within the system to divert funds into private accounts. The suspects allegedly configured the system to print up to 100 tickets but only presented one to the booking office while keeping the remaining 99, the proceeds of which they shared among themselves.
The first red flags emerged when the visitor numbers at Mgahinga and Bwindi gorilla tracking did not align with the revenue reported, prompting internal investigations.
Hangi Bashir, the manager of communications at Uganda Wildlife Authority, issued a statement, acknowledging the suspected fraud. He mentioned that 11 staff members, believed to be involved in the fraud, have been suspended pending further investigations.
The authority is committed to a thorough investigation to ascertain the extent of losses caused by the fraud. Bashir emphasized that appropriate actions will be taken against individuals found guilty.
In addition to examining internal staff, the UWA is also scrutinizing tour operators who may have been complicit in the scheme. The involvement of tour operators in the fraud remains unclear, but there are suspicions that they may have exploited complimentary tickets, which were distributed at a lower cost.
A gorilla permit typically sells for $600 (UGX 2.2 million), but sources indicate that those involved in the fraud were selling them for $500 (UGX 1.8 million) while issuing complimentary tickets and pocketing the difference.
The UWA has not yet confirmed if this was part of the fraudulent activity or if tour operators benefited from these complimentary tickets.
Bashir stressed the importance of gorilla tourism revenue for wildlife conservation efforts in Uganda and reiterated the commitment to safeguarding the integrity of the permit booking system to prevent revenue losses.
The Cashless System
The cashless system was introduced by UWA in 2014 to deter fraud and robberies that staff experienced while transporting money from national parks to banks. Prior to its implementation, some staff members were victims of attacks, with some losing their lives. Additionally, funds were often mismanaged during collection.
The cashless system also aimed to enhance the safety of tourists, who frequently carried substantial amounts of money. Despite initial opposition from tour operators, the system was eventually embraced.
However, sources suggest that the efficient cashless system was abandoned in favor of other costly, faulty systems, ultimately leading to the development of an internal system, which, unfortunately, suffered mismanagement as well.