Four arrested in Uganda suspected of poisoning lions

Lions have been targeted by traffickers drawn to the lucrative market for animal parts in Asia
Lions have been targeted by traffickers drawn to the lucrative market for animal parts in Asia TONY KARUMBA AFP/File
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Kampala (AFP)

Ugandan police on Tuesday seized the mutilated remains of several lions from suspected wildlife traffickers believed responsible for poisoning six big cats in a world-famous national park last week.

Four men arrested late Monday in connection with the poaching incident in Queen Elizabeth National Park led officers to a location where the decapitated heads of four lions and other body parts were stashed.

Bottles of poison, spears, a machete, a hunting net and a two-litre (3.6-pint) canister of lion fat oil were found hidden in the garden of one of the suspects' homes, the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) said in a statement.

"We assure the public that we shall continue to strengthen the protection of lions and other wildlife in Uganda and will pursue this case until justice for the dead lions is served," said UWA's communications manager Bashir Hangi in a statement.

"Our national parks remain safe and attractive to visitors and we still have lions in Queen Elizabeth and other parks."

The UWA announced Saturday that six lions had been found dead in the park with most of their body parts missing and surrounded by dead vultures -- a find that indicated poison was at play.

The grim discovery took to 22 the number of lions killed by suspected poisoning since 2010 in Queen Elizabeth, one of Uganda's best-known national parks, where the big cats are known for their unusual ability to climb trees.

Despite potential life sentences in Uganda for poachers found trading in animal parts, successful prosecutions are rare.

A wildlife crime expert based in East Africa told AFP that senior members of lucrative transnational syndicates often bribe their way out of trouble, leaving only low-level offenders to face court.

Lion bones are often sent to Asia -- in particular Vietnam and China -- where they are used to make wine which consumers believe has magical powers.

"This case is unusual because the heads were removed but in wildlife trafficking, just like any other industry, demand for products keeps developing and changing," the expert said.

Queen Elizabeth shares a border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and its famous Virunga National Park, a habitat for rare mountain gorillas, where armed groups are believed to operate.

Tourism is a top foreign exchange earner in Uganda, contributing almost 10 percent of GDP and 23 percent of total foreign exports, according to the UWA.