The Botswana Defence Force (BDF) was in control of the Chobe area in which a disputed number of elephant carcasses were found recently, setting off global outrage on the perceived rampant poaching in Botswana.
The NGO which reported the poaching, Elephants Without Borders (EWB), blamed the issue on President Mokgweetsi Masisi’s decision in May to withdraw military weapons from the Department of Wildlife and National Parks’ (DWNP) anti-poaching unit.
International media upped the ante by painting a picture suggesting rangers had stood by helplessly as poachers gunned down at least 87 elephants in the Okavango Delta. The government this week issued a statement refuting the claim, insisting about 53 elephant carcasses were spotted. The statement attributed the majority of the deaths to natural causes over several months this year.
This week, senior DWNP officials told Mmegi the area in question was solely under the BDF’s management. The Department’s anti-poaching rangers, the sources said, are actually operating further south in the Kgalagadi area tackling less militarised and sophisticated poaching. A senior official within the Department anonymously spoke to Mmegi as he is not authorised to speak to the media.
“The DWNP is more active in the Kgalagadi area where the poaching is less intense and involves the poaching of predators such as leopards and the like.
The area where that incident happened is under the sole control of the BDF, who are armed. The Directorate on Intelligence and Security are on one side and the BDF on the other and both are armed.
We would not have been present there and so the issue of disarmament being a reason for the poaching does not arise,” the source said.
DWNP insiders also expressed doubt about the numbers reported by EWB, saying it was doubtful poachers would get away with killing 90 elephants without encountering the BDF or being fatally attacked by the elephants themselves, even over a large area.
“An elephant’s behaviour is such that it would not stumble into a mass killing area; they move quickly away from poaching sites and are very aggressive when confronted.
It’s practically impossible to even find 20 adult elephants together and think you could kill them all without fatalities on your side too. Thus, even with 53 carcasses, the deaths would have to be over a certain period of time and not all related to poaching.”
Chase’s “desperate plea” for Masisi’s ear – a local journalist’s perspective
Dr Mike Chase– the Elephant Without Borders (EWB) Director who broke news of the “massacre” – had reportedly been trying to reach out to President Mokgweetsi Masisi for some time. He said he had hand delivered the last of three letters to the Office of the President (OP) on August 21, 2018 in a bid to report his explosive ‘discovery’ that is threatening the country’s tourism but claims he never heard back.
This is in stark contrast with the previous administration during which he had direct contact with former president Ian Khama. Chase’s failed attempts to get the President’s audience led him to reach out to the world media. It appears that Chase believed that by taking his “gruesome find” to the world media would get everyone to focus on the elephant situation in Botswana and boy, did it work!
Chase is currently leading the Botswana Elephant Census in northern Botswana that is sponsored by the Botswana government. In the first two weeks of the survey, he said they discovered an alarming number of poached elephants.
“In the first 10 days we discovered 51 fresh carcasses of poached elephants,” said Chase last month.
In early August this year, Chase published an explosive report titled ‘Ivory Tower’ that he shared with the local media. The report suggested that despite the government’s perceived strict anti-poaching strategies, there is a major poaching frenzy of elephants taking place in Botswana.
He wrote in the report;
“Today (August 3, 2018) we counted 48 elephant carcasses, I’ll repeat that – 48 dead elephants. Carcasses of all age categories – five of which were classified as fresh – that have been killed in the past few days,” said the report.
There was no other verification on Chase’s numbers. The unsubstantiated claims were widely reported by various local newspapers and some leading conservation blogs in the region. But Chase wanted the matter to be addressed by the President.
Chase conveniently chose to court the Western media when President Masisi was on a state visit to China. It is a clear strategy because most of the West is envious of Africa-China’s new relationship and China is seen as bogeyman hungry for Africa’s elephants’ tusks. Former president, Ian Khama shared Chase’s passion for conservation and was very influential during the past administration. In 2014, Khama summarily banned all hunting basing his arguments on some of Chase’s census reports suggesting animal population declines.
The lifting of the hunting ban is currently being discussed and unlike Khama’s administration, the new president has called for consultation and discussion on the issue even after Parliament passed the motion to lift the ban.
Chase is strongly against the hunting and maintains that the elephant population in Botswana is not big.
“The last two elephant surveys (2010 and 2014) by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) and Elephants Without Borders (EWB) revealed an estimate of 130, 000 elephants in northern Botswana. Looking at 20 years of data, our demographic modelling shows the elephant population has been stable for the past 15 years,” said Chase.
So if the elephant numbers have been stable what could be the cause of the sudden increase as claimed by Chase’s recent reports? In 2014, Chase conducted a massive three-year Great Elephant Census (GEC) project funded by billionaire philanthropist Paul Allen. The report from the GEC revealed that Botswana held 37% of the total elephant population followed by Zimbabwe at 23% and Tanzania with 12%. According to the report, of all the countries surveyed, Botswana and Zimbabwe have the highest density of elephants.
Botswana’s tough stance on elephant conservation under Khama, especially with what was labelled as the “knee-jerk reaction” blanket hunting ban in 2014, has compounded the elephant overpopulation situation for Botswana.
Since elephants are intelligent animals with excellent memory, after the ban on hunting most of the elephants in southern Africa migrated to the safe haven that is Botswana. Dozens of herds crossed into Botswana from neighbouring states where they were still being hunted and never went back.
“Elephants are fleeing away from the relentless poaching in our neighbouring countries and they are moving down south in areas populated by people and they are causing lots of damage to farmers’ crops and property,” reported Chase in 2016.
Most of these “shocking discoveries” by Chase come from areas next to the border with Namibia. From his reports it shows that NG11, NG13, NG14, NG15, NG16 and NG18 have become hotspots for poachers. These are mainly quiet areas between the border with Namibia and the villages along the Okavango spillway from Seronga to Gudigwa. It showed that most of the poaching was done by mercenaries from neighbouring countries. For Chase to put blame on the disarming of rangers is unfortunate and irresponsible because he knows the issues far too well.
Rangers were mainly guarding national parks and not the area where most of the reported poaching supposedly happened. Additionally, Botswana is a peaceful country, both for humans and animals. Guns are a rare sight in Botswana – even the police do not carry guns. If a situation requires firepower, the military takes over. During Khama’s administration (former army chief) he armed a unit under the Ministry of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism, led by his brother Tshekedi Khama.
Masisi, however, disarmed the unit and left the anti-poaching responsibilities to the highly trained Botswana Defence Force’s (BDF) Anti Poaching Unit. The fully armed rangers were posing a security risk since they were seen as the Khamas’ personal army designed to protect their interests. Chase is looking to influence the debate on the lifting of the hunting ban. He knows that most of the tourists coming to Botswana are sensitive travellers who are attracted by Botswana’s conservation success. It is saddening because Chase’s report could hurt Botswana’s tourism and the economy as a whole. The people of Botswana are doubly punished for protecting the wildlife, a costly exercise that has caused many human deaths and loss of property.
When news of the indiscriminate slaying of 90 elephants first broke, I dismissed it as a fake story because I found it incredulous from the off! As pandemonium broke out across various social media platforms pitting the world against Botswana, I soon realised how serious the story was. What I found most shocking AND regrettable, however, was the fact that respected international media houses chose to give the story credence by running it before substantiating it and/or ‘balancing’ it.
As a journalist myself, I know the basic rule of responsible reporting dictates that you always get the accounts of opposing parties in the spirit of fair reporting, especially when the subject matter is as contentious and potentially damaging as this story. In the midst of the uproar, Batswana have started to wonder if Trump’s claims of ‘fake news’ are true after all. It’s tragic and truly sad that the credibility of the news channels that reported this story being in doubt will soon blow over with the next scandal, while the damage to Botswana’s reputation will almost certainly be irreparable. What’s worse, Botswana’s thriving tourism (and its economy and people by extension) is very highly likely to suffer a huge dent. After all, mud sticks and no matter what Botswana does or says, a lot of people around the world will believe there’s no smoke without fire. Truly sad.
Source: Mmegionline, Tlhalefang Charles