Botswana needs a home grown elephant management plan


As of last month, Botswana was being heaped with praise by the international media, NGOs, governments in the West. Botswana was called a country dedicated to protecting elephants – indeed all trophy hunting of the species had been halted and a controversial “shoot to kill” policy implemented to deter poachers. Botswana was widely called the “last haven” for Africa’s declining elephant populations, as population counts revealed that Botswana is home to over 130,000 elephants – far more than any other nation in Africa.
But then, last week, Botswana’s reputation as a “protector” of elephants came into dispute. Mike Chase, leader of an NGO called Elephants Without Borders, announced that on one of his recent flights (contracted by the Botswana government) he found 87 elephant carcasses in a “tourist concession” in northern Botswana. In the blink of an eye, Botswana, long hailed as a “haven for elephants” was now being called a “haven for poachers”. Hero to zero in a few days?
The Botswana government responded with an official statement that their “contractor” was wrong – many of those 87 carcasses were already known, and that “most” of them had not been poached according to Permanent Secretary Thato Raphaka.
Chase’s discovery of 87 poached elephants comes at a time of change in Botswana. Former President Ian Khama stood down recently – the usual procedure in Botswana – the vice president takes over before the next election date. Now President Mokgweetsi Masisi made changes, including a widely publicised decision to “disarm” the Department of Wildlife and Tourism rangers.
The social media cottoned on to this, and their cry was that “rangers are sent out to protect wildlife without guns”. Experts who discussed with The Botswana Gazette lament that this is far from the truth. Anti-poaching units in Botswana include the military, the police, and indeed specialized units of the Department of Wildlife. There is no diminution of armed anti-poaching activity in Botswana.
Botswana’s many elephants are of course a target for commercial poachers. Those cartels have already destroyed elephant populations in Tanzania – allegedly 70,000 elephants killed in the last seven years. Also elephant populations in Mozambique – allegedly 10,000 killed in the last four years, according to figures provided by CITES.
Despite “progress”being declared when China recently shut down their internal ivory trade, elephant poachers can still find outlets for their illegal wares in Hong Kong and Japan. And in the USA and the EU, where ivory trade persists despite claims that “stern” measures are being taken. Words are not translating into actions, and it is very likely that China is still an end destination for much illegal ivory.
Botswana, therefore, was always going to be targeted by poachers.
“Harbouring” 130,000 elephants in Botswana comes at a cost. What western organizations like to call “gentle giants” are far from gentle for rural people. Elephants destroy crops and fences and water supplies. They kill people and their livelihoods. Botswana is supposed to have a wildlife damage compensation scheme in place, but it is creaky, overly bureaucratic and largely ineffectual. No wonder many citizens in Botswana are questioning the need for their country to be a “safe haven” for elephants. Nice for the international community but not so nice for the local community.
Research shows that some twenty years ago, a man by the name of Doug Crowe came to the end of his term as research director at the Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks. In his “farewell” speech, he challenged the Botswana government to take a clear stand on wildlife management priorities. He said there were various options for elephants – at that time the “carrying capacity” was judged to be about 60,000 animals. He said the government should ‘take interventions or accept the “que sera sera” (what will be will be) attitude then prevalent.’
To be fair, the Botswana government has since attempted to deal with their overpopulation of elephants. But indirectly. The government was advised to release the “pressure valve” and enter into agreements with neighbouring countries to establish elephant migration corridors to Namibia, Angola, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Indeed, Botswana was key in establishing the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Park (KAZA). But as with many grandiose and donor-driven schemes, this transfrontier initiative has been largely ineffectual. Not least because the nations involved have radically different elephant conservation plans. For example, one supposed migration “corridor” for Botswana elephants is across the Caprivi Strip in Namibia where trophy hunters abound.
In fact, Botswana would not be overpopulated with elephants if neighbouring range states had taken elephant conservation seriously. Botswana should not now be blamed for elephant deaths when neighbouring countries have done little to protect their elephants. Elephants congregate in Botswana not because they like the local climate – but because that is where they feel safe.
Botswana needs to establish her own elephant management program, even in the absence of realistic actions by neighbouring countries. Botswana will need to tread the difficult course of protecting the last great elephant population in Africa while listening to the concerns of her rural citizens and the clamouring of vested interest groups.
To strike that balance, Botswana is faced with challenging decisions. The government needs to adopt an open and transparent policy forward. The government should acknowledge that poaching is common to all African elephant range states and that Botswana is no exception. 87 elephants poached? No big deal compared to 70,000 poached in Tanzania. The government should not be pressured by the international press or social media, but rather acknowledge that elephant conservation in modern day Africa is a difficult and divisive task.
Transparency in reaching a new wildlife conservation formula under a new president should be a basic requirement. Cooler heads must prevail in Botswana, and not be influenced by vested interests, sensationalism or inappropriate accusations that could lead to unacceptable compromises
CITES has a well-funded program, mostly via the EU, called MIKE. Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants. MIKE sites are scattered across Africa, and one of those sites is in Chobe in Botswana, where Mike Chase found the dead elephants. Here are the figures that show that poaching has been ongoing over the years despite the “shoot to kill” policy :

2003 – 59
2004 – 73
2005 – 153
2006 – 111
2007 – 101
2008 – 113
2009 – 120
2010 – 37
2011 – 42
2012 – 351
2013 – 156
2014 – 239
2015 – 197
2016 – 121
2017 – 107
DR PIETER KATT is a Trustee at Lion Aid, a conservation organisation and Former Research fellow at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He Studied Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Johns Hopkins University