KAMPALA, Nov 18 (Reuters) - Uganda said on Tuesday it had launched an investigation into the theft of more than a tonne of ivory from the vaults of its state-run wildlife protection agency and had suspended five staff members.
Uganda and other sub-Saharan African countries are struggling to curb widespread poaching of elephant tusks by well-armed criminal gangs for shipment to Asia, where they fetch thousands of dollars per kilo for use in ornaments and medicine.
Raymond Engena, acting executive director of the state-run Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), said three of the suspended staff had kept keys to the stores where some 1,335 kg of ivory were discovered to have gone missing about two weeks ago.
The remaining two were security guards at the premises.
"It's our intelligence unit and audit that discovered a large amount of ivory was missing," he told Reuters.
"We have asked security agencies to investigate. As investigations go on, we have told these five people to step aside."
Engena said some of the stolen ivory tusks had previously been confiscated from traffickers at various sites in Uganda. UWA had also collected some of the ivory from elephants dying of old age, he added.
Seizures of contraband ivory have increased in Uganda in recent years as criminals collude with corrupt police to smuggle tusks from neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, where poaching is rampant and state authority is weak.
Police spokesman Fred Enanga said police were conducting the investigation jointly with Uganda's anti-corruption watchdog.
"We have recorded statements from a number of officials and have collected documents ... Investigations are at a preliminary stage," he added.
More than 20,000 African elephants were killed for their ivory in 2013, driven by demand in China and Thailand, and some local populations face an immediate threat of extinction, a U.N.-linked wildlife conservation agency said in June.
Africa has an estimated 500,000 elephants left. Poaching is most acute in central Africa, which experts say has lost at least 60 percent of its elephants in the past decade. (Reporting by Elias Biryabarema; Editing by George Obulutsa and Gareth Jones)