The elephants have always been here, mixing with people and other wildlife and taking chances with raiding crops. But they were perceived as much less of a menace then, reportedly because they were less in number.

Erik Vereyenne

Driving on the road from Seronga past Eretsha, Betsa and Gudigwa to the village of Gunostoga in the northwest of Botswana. The white gravel road is the boundary between the flood plains of NG12 to the south and the dry moph ane veld of NG11 and NG13 in the north. The Namibian border is roughly 80km to the north. To the north from here, along the Caprivi strip, is one of the areas reported to contain the so called strewn carcasses of the many poached elephants.
And there is thus no better area to seek perspective on the BBC article where Elephants without Borders raised the alarm on a large number of elephants being poached in Botswana. The article was circulated by many respected journalists such as John Grobler.
The gravel road connecting the area is here because the people are here. And the people are here because the water and the flood plains are here. And so are the wildlife. It has been like this for many years, long before the areas to the south and east were re-classified as photographic safari areas. Long before local people were stopped from hunting or herding their cattle to the apple leaf sandy ridges to the south.
People were and are still working their fields in the wet season or herding their cattle on the flood plains during the dry season. They are fishing from mekoro and harvesting reeds for building shelters and houses.
The elephants have always been here, mixing with people and other wildlife and taking chances with raiding crops. But they were perceived as much less of a menace then, reportedly because they were less in number. In general people got by without major issues and life at large was peaceful. NG12 was a controlled hunting area, and elephants and other wildlife were hunted in a controlled manner supervised by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks while communities benefitted either directly or indirectly by means of employment, money or meat.
The nearby open international borders posed a poaching threat and with two recent episodes of near total extinction of rhinos by poachers from outside, the Botswana Defence Force was deployed along the international border.
It all changed a few years ago when the hunting of elephants and other wildlife in the area was banned. The ban was put in place after little consultation motivated by blaming dwindling wildlife numbers on overhunting with no tangible evidence of real cause. Hunting concessions were converted to photographic safari concessions.
Photographic tourism was subsequently greatly promoted and protection of elephants and rhinos in Botswana as a safe haven was at the core of the tourism marketing drive. Elephant population numbers were manipulated and inflated to as much as 200 000 to celebrate the conservation success and to lure more people. Tourism as one of the main earners of foreign exchange grew tremendously and surpassed agriculture as part of the GDP, while th 00 elephants. More than 16 000 cattle graze the flood plain between Seronga and Gudigwa only. Small settlements dot the area between the villages all along the road, on the flood plains and into the dry north.
As you drive along the road, signs by conservation NGO indicate the elephant corridors that the elephants use to reach the water on the flood plain. This is to prevent future development but do not safeguard the houses and fields already established in the way of the ever increasing elephant herds.
To some extent, these signs are rather ironical. The short stunted mophane shrubs strewn with skeletons of large trees interspersed with well worn elephant paths and heaps of elephant dung where they cross the road, is stating the obvious.
As the rain filled waterholes in the north are drying up, the elephant herds need to walk south to the flood plains to drink every day, not only intensifying the human conflict, but causing an ever radi ating devastation to the vegetation which is now also starting to affect the large trees on the islands on the flood plains.
They arrive at dusk and leave again at dawn preventing human movement in the dark. Where it used to be only elephant bulls hanging around on the flood plains during the day, some cow herds now do not leave, staying close to villages preventing free movement or people from working their fields or tending their livestock even at daylight. For not only water, but also browse is getting scarce in the north. And the crop raiding during the raining season has escalated and some people have stopped planting.
Close to the road on the flood plain near the village of Gunotsoga lies the carcass of a female elephant, with vultures cleaning the hollows in her skull where her tusks have been removed. This is the matriarch of a small herd. She killed an old man on the road three weeks ago. He left on foot for the village from his settlement at about six in the morning and never reached it. His mutilated body was found next to the road by passers by with the story written in the sand telling a tale of unprovoked fury by the cow. She must have been enraged by a very bad experience with people. She charged at him from nearly 80 meters away, tusking and tossing him several times before re-joining her herd far on the opposite side of the road.
She was shot by an officer of the Department the same day and the tusks removed for safe keeping. The community was furious about the killing of the old man, and two other elephants were apparently killed shortly after by community members in retaliation, the bodies left with the tusks intact.
So back to the article and the pure hate and condemnation it provoked from some circles. Allow me some perspective while remembering the souls of the old man and the matriarch, and so many old men and matriarch in villages all over the north of Botswana. No good will come from their deaths if it based on lies.
Firstly, the anti poaching units were never disarmed. Their military weapons were removed as it is against the law in Botswana and they are already assisted by the Botswana Defence Force which is suitably armed and equipped. The APU’S retained weapons which include semi-automatic weapons. So blaming the poaching on the “de-weaponizing” of the law enforcement agencies is not logical.
The areas in question are areas close to the Namibian border out of the core areas usually covered by the APU’s where a number of Defense Force Units are already deployed. Despite the presence of these units, the so called killing of such large numbers of elephants in a short period of time were not noticed. Some areas involved are prone to anthrax related mortalities. As such the spatial and time scale claims, and the cause of mortality as claimed by the BBC report, are questioned. Furthermore the statement that the scale of poaching recorded by EWB was not witnessed before, seems sensation driven since East Africa lost 30 000 elephants per year (80 per day) not so long ago.
Botswana does not approve of poaching on any scale. Our past track record is proof of that. But Botswana as a safe haven is a marketing stunt. It does not exist and will never exist because no such haven country exists anywhere else in Africa.
With the number of elephants in Botswana, the scale of human elephant conflict, the geographical challenges and the regional onslaught, it is inevitable that we will experience a degree of poaching. And it will most likely increase. But with an annual elephant population increase of 5%, on 154 000 elephants in Botswana, even the BBC reported poaching rate is insignificant and will not threaten elephants as a species in Botswana. To hold Botswana responsible for the conservation of the world African elephant population is unfair.
No international vocalization will reduce the scale of the poaching in Botswana. Poachers do not read newspapers or FB. It is our responsibility and we are not afraid to take it on. That also includes admitting when things are not working.
The previous exclusive conservation policy was sometimes driven outside conservation, overruled common sense based advice, and has now been proved to be disastrous and very expensive to our national budget. Not only the elephants, but also people and other species like the rhinos in the Delta are in jeopardy.
Change is imperative and you need to give us that chance.
We need to shift the emphasis of our poaching mitigation in Botswana away from our ability to arm our APU’s or to ban hunting, or even on the size of the tourism industry. We need to base it on our ability to restore a safe and stable rural political and economical environment combined with pragmatic conservation measures where local communities are part and parcel of the responsibilities and benefits of sustainable conservation.
We also need to redefine co-existence not to fulfill a western conservation doctrine, but to include a workable definition based on sustainability for communities and wildlife.
Culling the elephants is not a solution due to the numbers involved. As such the proposed lifting of the hunting ban will not negatively affect the numbers. The annual elephant trophy hunting quota for Botswana never exceeded 400 animals per year complimented by a small number of citizen hunting licenses. But hunting may provide a fast tract to tangible benefits for communities the hardest hit until a better sustainable solution can be established. And hunting in hot spot areas may induce elephant movement out of the area as experiences in neighbouring range states have illustrated to our detriment.
Additionally we need to shift emphasis of our tourism marketing drives.
For too long we have built our nature base tourism industry on a false illusion of “pristineness” that exclude signs of human existence. It is this illusion that allows for the current hype of emotions based on misleading reporting. The wilderness areas in Africa were never without people and will never be without people. By excluding people, and allowing elephant numbers to get out of hand in Botswana, we are running the risk of loosing more elephants and other wildlife through the conflict, poaching and starvation than through hunting. And I dare not imagine the cruelty that can go with it.
At the same time we should educate tourists to accept that people and livestock are part of the environment and they should be willing to pay for it.
Botswana and our President need support in his conservation approach. He does not deserve the condemnation that followed the BBC article. If any are to be blamed, then the lack of taking responsibility from neighbouring elephant range countries need to be castigated.
It is the right of Batswana to live in a safe environment. It is embedded in our Constitution as is in most countries’ Constitutions. And to impose measures that we can afford. Only when we are feeling safe and secure will we be able to conserve our rich wildlife heritage. And for now we are threatened by our own success.
Give us some room? Change is never without pain. Especially to those who benefitted most in the past.