A poacher who confessed to killing a rare silverback gorilla in Uganda in June was sentenced to 11 years in prison on Thursday, on charges of illegally entering a protected area and killing a gorilla, among other charges, authorities said.
The silverback, known as Rafiki, was the leader of a group of more than a dozen gorillas known as the Nkuringo troop, which has been popular with visitors to Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park for decades. The nearly 80,000 acre UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to nearly half of the world’s mountain gorillas and has long drawn tourists from around the world hoping to catch a glimpse of the rare species.
“We are relieved that Rafiki has received justice and this should serve as an example to other people who kill wildlife,” Sam Mwandha, Uganda Wildlife Authority’s executive director, said in a statement released Thursday. “If one person kills wildlife, we all lose.”
Rafiki was believed to be about 25 years old when he went missing on June 1. His body was found the next day and four poachers were arrested a short time later.
Byamukama Felix, one of the poachers, confessed to killing the silverback after entering the national park but said it was in self-defense.
Mr. Felix pleaded guilty to three counts that included illegal entry into the protected area, killing a gorilla and killing a small antelope known as a duiker, the Uganda Wildlife Authority said the statement. Mr. Felix said he had gone hunting with another poacher when they came across the group of gorillas. Rafiki charged, he told the authorities, and he killed the silverback with a spear.
The Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, in southwestern Uganda, is known for its exceptional biodiversity, and is a critical refuge for the mountain gorillas, a species that was once on the verge of extinction.
Anti-poaching and conservation efforts have, in recent years, helped the population grow again. In 2018, the status of the silverback gorilla was changed from critically endangered to endangered by the Union for Conservation of Nature, the authority on the conservation status of the world’s species.
A gorilla hadn’t been killed by a poacher in the park since 2011, according to the International Gorilla Conservation Programme.
But the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on vital tourism in the region has made wildlife conservationists and park authorities wary that poaching could surge.
According to the most recent census, 1,063 mountain gorillas remained in the wild as of 2018, 459 of which lived in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and in the adjacent Sarambwe Reserve in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Nkuringo troop that Rafiki led has been in the park since 1997, according to the Uganda Wildlife Authority, and earlier this month, the authority said the troop had stabilized to 11 members and had a new dominant gorilla, Rwamutwe. Fifteen troops have been habituated for tourism in the park.
And the Ugandan Wildlife Authority also shared some happy news on Thursday: two baby gorillas were born in recent weeks to two different troops in the national park.