Gladys Kamasanyu is a chief magistrate in Uganda and has been instrumental in changing attitudes towards animal rights and wildlife crimes in Africa. As the head of a new wildlife court in Uganda, Kamasanyu has tried over 1,000 wildlife crime cases, convicting more than 600 traffickers, including one man sentenced to life in prison for possession of ivory. She has presided over cases involving the most trafficked mammal in the world, pangolins, and ruled on cases involving rhino horns, elephant ivory, and hippopotamuses’ teeth.
Kamasanyu set up Help African Animals, an organization that trains prosecutors and investigators of wildlife crime and animal rights, to increase awareness of Uganda’s wildlife laws. She has lifted the bar for wildlife adjudication in Uganda, if not the region, and her court might be the only one in the country without a backlog. Two years ago, on UN Wildlife Day, the Ugandan Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities presented Kamasanyu with an award for her contribution to Ugandan conservation.
Kamasanyu's example has sent a strong message to poachers. For years, criminals used Uganda as a conduit for trafficking wildlife products from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan. Now they think twice before committing wildlife crime here. Her stern rulings have led some to suggest that the chief magistrate prefers animals to humans, but she denies that: “I love animals just the way I love life and humanity.”
Born in south-west Uganda, Kamasanyu grew up around animals and owns a nine-year-old chicken called Kisakye (“her mercy”), but she never imagined wildlife would feature in her career plans. In 2021, she threw herself into learning about wildlife, biodiversity, and the environment, studying animal law at the Lewis & Clark law school in Portland. But it was not until she presided over cases, hearing graphic testimonies of how poachers killed animals, that she decided to commit herself to fighting for wildlife “as long as I shall live”.
Kamasanyu speaks out for the animals who cannot speak for themselves. She founded Help African Animals, an organization that trains prosecutors and investigators of wildlife crime and animal rights. “There is a lot of ignorance in our society,” she says. “Many people think animals are [their] property and that they can go to forests and hunt them every day. They think these animals give birth every day and that they will always be there.”
The magistrate regrets that by the time poachers are caught, it is too late for the animal. “I’m frustrated whenever the prosecution fumbles a case and I have to dismiss it,” she says. She is also unhappy that law enforcement agencies continue to miss the big players behind wildlife crime. “We are arresting the smaller players down the line who poach because they have been promised 5,000 shillings [£1] for every animal. But we miss the kingpins who send them.” She points to a 2019 case involving a Vietnamese gang arrested with almost four tonnes of ivory and pangolin scales, who fled the country after securing bail.
Kamasanyu hopes she can make a difference. “People have to understand that animals aren’t property, and that they won’t always be here if we don’t protect them.” Her work has been instrumental in changing attitudes towards animal rights and wildlife crimes in Africa.