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Opinions of Sunday, 3 July 2016

Columnist: Abugri, George Sydney

Ghana wildlife poachers and the Sewura murder trial

Last week, a High Court took the unusual step of ordering the fresh trial of an alleged game poacher accused of shooting a game warden to death after a jury failed to convict him.

In 2013, Sufianu Muniru was charged with the murder of Samuel Sewura, a warden of the Game and Wildlife Division who confronted him for unlawfully entering the Kyabobo National Park in the Volta Region and poaching game.

The prosecution’s case was straightforward: On March 2013, at about 8:00 pm, game warden Samuel Sewura in the company of four other wardens of Game and Wildlife Division of the Forestry Commission went to the Kyabobo National Park at Nkwanta in the Volta Region on patrol duty.

At about 8:30pm, the team heard the sound of a gunshot from a section of the park and went to investigate; they saw no one, but continued patrolling that section of the park till daybreak, when they found a duiker killed by a gunshot and left under a tree. The wardens lay ambush with the expectation that the poacher would show up to pick up the game.

Sure enough, at about 9:00 am, Muniru who was wielding a single barrel gun showed up at the scene carrying the carcasses of two park animals in a hunting bag, and picked up the duiker.

Sewura who was the leader of the team confronted and then attempted to arrest the poacher. That, the prosecution said, was when Muniru shot the game warden at close range, killing him instantly. He then took to his heels and was pursued by the other wardens who eventually arrested him with the gun and game.

In the course of the trial, the prosecution called three witnesses including the investigator to prove its case. While admitting that he went to the forest reserve illegally, Muniru denied shooting the warden dead. He claimed it was one of the wardens on duty with the deceased who had shot his colleague, using his (Muniru’s ) gun.

In summing up the evidence as presented to the court, the trial judge, Justice Patrick Baaye said the prosecution had proved five elements which showed that Mr. Safianu Muniru indeed committed the crime. By a surprising 5-2 majority decision however, the seven-member jury found him not guilty of the killing of the game warden.

The Game and Wildlife Division officer in charge of the Park Manager, Mr. Joseph Binlinla said the jury’s verdict was not only unfair but also likely to demoralize and put fear in wardens who protect the country’s game reserves’.

If there is one organization in Ghana today which the public knows little or nothing about, it is probably the department of Game and Wildlife Division. Out of 10 people chosen at random a few years ago and asked if they knew the location of the Division’s offices in Accra, eight did not know the location of the offices. Two pointed in the vicinity of the Accra Zoo!

The offices of the Divison are located in non-descript dwarfish wooden structures in an obscure corner east of the Riviera Beach Hotel area sandwiched between the Accra District Directorate of the Ghana Education Service and a nursery school.

What is today called the Wildlife Division, one of the three divisions of the Forestry Commission, began as a branch of the Forestry Department responsible for wildlife. In 1965, it was made an agency of the Ministry of Forestry known and named the Department of Game and Wildlife.

Its name was changed to the Wildlife Department after the adoption of the Forestry and Wildlife Policy of 1994. In the intervening years, the Department moved from the Ministry of Forestry to the Ministry of Lands and Mineral Resources, the Ministry of Lands and Forestry and the Forestry Commission.

The Division is responsible for all wildlife reserves in the country; the administration of 16 Wildlife-Protected Areas (WPAs), five coastal Ramsar Sites and the Accra and Kumasi Zoos. It also assists with the running of community-owned wildlife sanctuaries countrywide.

Recreation and ex¬ploitation in the sanctuaries are prohibited because their species have become fragile in terms of numbers. There is one strict nature reserve at Kogyae which is strictly for scientific research.

In addition to wildlife resources in forest reserves which are home to game, there are seven national parks: the Bui, Mole, Digya, Kakum, Nii-Suhien, Bia and Kyabobo national parks. Hunting in them is prohibited. The Mole and Kakum parks have excellent lodging and recreational facilities for tourists. There are six wildlife resource reserves for viewing, research and exploitation.

Although some observers say Ghana's big game is now limited only elephants, game and wildlife officials say Ghana has significant but fast dwindling numbers of lions, hippos, rhinos, buffalos and various spoiled cats like the leopards and cheetahs in Ghana's parks and wildlife reserves.

The killing of warden Sewura has brought up the issue of the operational challenges and constant dangers game wardens in the country’s game and forest reserves are exposed to.

Cases of attacks on game wardens abound in the history of the Division: The Division remains ill-equipped in terms of numbers and equipment and are able to patrol only the restricted areas. Even then, poaching is common in the restricted areas. The statistics of attacks on game wardens by armed poachers are grim.

Here are a few examples recorded over the years: In the Bui Parka a warden pursuing a poacher was once shot in the neck by the poacher. A warden shot in the Mole Park said he carried a bullet in him because surgeons said it was lodged in a vital organ and that the bullet were better left where it was and he lived with it for the rest of his life.

In one spectacular case, a poacher shot a warden in the Bui Park and fled across the border into Cote D'lvoire.

There have been cases of wardens drowning under highly suspicious circumstances in the Digya Park. The police have never suspected any foul play. In some remote areas, wardens are sometimes transported in canoes by poaching fishermen who are good swimmers. It is suspected that fishermen in each case, turned their canoe over and swam to safety leaving the wardens to drown!

Game wardens have often said their suspicions which are based on their own investigations may be difficult to prove but they are strong.

How co-operative have the law enforce¬ment agencies and the courts been in dealing with poach¬ers who have attacked wardens? Not too cooperative some officials of the Division say citing cases like the Sewura case:

The courts have in the opinion of some of officials of the Division been quite lenient with poachers who attacked wardens. Poachers tried by courts in wildlife arears have often been left off with paltry fines.

What is the reason for the perceived low level of police co-operation with game wardens in wildlife protection? “I cannot rule out the possibility of poachers offering inducements to law enforcement agents to pursue investigation into complains of poacher attacks on wardens with restrained vigour.” says iddrisu Musah a retired game warden.

The problem of the vulnerability of game wardens to attacks by poachers can be minimized with the support of local communities: Musah believes that local communities will drive off poachers if they understand the benefits they and the nation will derive from protecting game and wildlife.