How police sniffer dogs could restrain farm thefts

Michael J. Ssali
One of the most disturbing experiences for the farmer is to wake up one day to find an item he has been looking after and devoted so much energy and money to, stolen.

Well, losing anything valuable is quite straining even to non-farmers but in most cases the ordinary Ugandan farmer loses items he cannot, as a safety measure, easily lock up in a drawer or even really securely fence off. During the night, as everyone else is asleep, someone sneaks into the garden and harvests the very crops that have taken the farmer a lot of trouble to grow and on which his family actually depends for food or cash.

The thieves steal maize, beans, cabbage, coffee, tomatoes, millet, cassava, bananas, anything and everything! Some even steal coffee seedlings or things like potato vines that are already planted in gardens.

Such thefts dominate the lists of crime cases in most rural village LC courts. Farm thefts are also a common cause of mob justice incidences.

In some cases, it is the family’s only cow that could be stolen - a cow that has been the source of money to keep the children in school and to meet other needs. Sometimes the thieves steal several animals at ago causing frustration to the owners. The thieves don’t care at all whether the farmer recently took a bank loan and he was expecting to pay it after selling those very animals. The thieves will even steal a pregnant animal and sell it cheaply to the butchers, something no farmer under normal circumstances would do.

Not all farmers are in position to employ security guards or to purchase fierce dogs to scare away thieves.

The impact of such apparently simple thefts suffered by mainly small land holder farmers on the overall national agricultural production may not yet be measured but it is enormous. Take for example, its effect on coffee production, which is one of our chief foreign exchange earners. We shall use the following real example.

James Nkubito wakes up one morning to realise that thieves visited his coffee plantation and harvested some of his coffee beans. He also notices that the thieves picked even unripe coffee. His wife and grown up children come up with a suggestion to avoid further losses. They suggest that all the remaining coffee in the garden be picked as soon as possible, whether it is ripe or not. If all of it is not harvested, they reason, the thieves will return and steal it. Nkubito agrees and they pick all the coffee.

Nkubito ends up selling poor quality coffee since it’s picked before it was ripe.

Thousands of farmers today undergo the same experience as that of Nkubito, frustrating Uganda Coffee Development Authority’s efforts to improve the overall quality of our coffee. Poor quality coffee attracts only low prices both here and abroad. As a country, we thus end up earning less from the crop.

Police sniffer dogs have often been successfully used to catch farm thieves. But we don’t have enough dogs, according to Inspector George Olila, the Southern Regional Police Dog Master. He said last week that he has only one dog to use in a whole region comprising several districts where he receives an average of three farm theft complaints every day. Many victims in the region are not even aware of the existence of the police sniffer dog while others are discouraged by the long distance to Masaka where it is kept. He said the dog should be introduced to the crime scene quite early before the wind has blown away the personal smell of the thief. “It is difficult to attend to every case but wherever the dog has been used there has been a reduction of such thefts,” he said. He added that it is very expensive for police to train and to feed a sniffer dog and financial constraints make it difficult for the force to keep more dogs.

Wouldn’t it be sensible, one may ask, if some of National Agricultural Advisory Services (Naads) funds were allocated to training and feeding more police sniffer dogs? The battle against hunger and poverty should be a collective effort. Naads needs police to enhance security for farming activities.

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