Sam Mwandha, the Executive Director of Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), is still leading the organization as officials investigate allegations of fraudulent activities linked to the sale of fake gorilla permits.
UWA disclosed that it had suspended 11 employees suspected of involvement in the gorilla permit scheme but opted to keep the chief executive in his role.
The investigation revolves around reports that staff from UWA’s IT department collaborated with colleagues in the Reservation and Finance departments to produce counterfeit gorilla permits, using funds diverted from the authority’s bank accounts, causing a loss of approximately Shs 60 billion.
Bashir Hang, the UWA spokesperson, explained, “Our internal controls and monitoring systems have detected irregularities in the booking system, prompting concerns about the legitimacy of certain transactions and the integrity of the booking process. In response, management has taken swift action, suspending eleven staff members suspected of involvement, to facilitate a thorough investigation.”
However, some officials have called for Mwandha to step aside during the investigation. A junior staff member at UWA, who chose to remain anonymous, stated, “The scandal unfolded under Mwandha’s leadership. It’s common practice for the head of an organization to resign or temporarily step aside during investigations.”
The source added, “This move ensures that investigators have unrestricted access to all relevant offices, reducing the risk of interference.”
Bashir Hang was not available for immediate comment.
It is noteworthy that Mwandha was responsible for replacing the old gorilla payment system with a new one at a cost of Shs 280 million, which reportedly failed to function. Subsequently, Mwandha’s team procured another system from the Kenya Ports Authority for Shs 2 billion to manage park access.
In recent times, several heads of organizations have stepped down to facilitate corruption investigations, including David Livingstone Ebiru, the Executive Director of Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS), who faced allegations of fund misappropriation and misconduct.
Typically, tourists can obtain gorilla permits from Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) headquarters in Kampala, requiring proof of a passport to confirm eligibility. UWA maintains records of all permit purchases.
However, tourists entering parks like Bwindi National Park were found to possess counterfeit permits, allegedly generated by UWA staff. The fact that this went undetected for an extended period suggests potential collusion within UWA, possibly involving senior officials.
This scandal also tarnishes Uganda’s tourism sector, a significant contributor to foreign exchange earnings, generating over $1.8 billion (Shs 6.6 trillion) annually and creating employment opportunities for many young people.
Gorilla trekking permits are highly sought after, often selling out months in advance, especially during peak seasons from December to February and June to October.
For Bwindi National Park, UWA allocates 88 permits, and gorilla trekking is guaranteed once a permit is purchased. While permits were originally distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, since January 2014, UWA issues permits based on four regions within the park: Buhoma, Nkuringo, Ruhija, and Rushaga, with trekking conducted in groups of eight.