Apart from routes through Zimbabwe, Zambian poaching gangs angling for access to lucrative and secluded poaching zones in protected safari concessions in the Chobe National Park and the Okavango Delta breach the Botswana border from Namibia.
Like Kelvin Katongo’s group which uses help from its fellow Tonga tribesman on the Zimbabwean side to navigate through the country to Botswana, poaching gangs that infiltrate from Namibia are secured by the loyalty and complicity of their tribesmen across the Zambezi.
After learning that most Zambian poachers use Namibia as a launch-pad for raids into supposedly protected areas in northern Botswana, The Botswana Gazette visited Sesheke, the border town between the Western Province of Zambia and the Zambezi Region (formerly Caprivi Strip) in Namibia.
Apart from the busy legal border crossing, hundreds of dug-out canoes work day and night further downstream, transporting everything from people to illicit cargoes like smuggled cigarettes, beer, stolen goods, loads of fish, game meat and ivory, both ways across the river.
It is here that dug-out operator Aleck Mongwa has worked his entire life, sometimes sleeping in a canoe floating on the riverbank to avoid missing out on the vast night-time business opportunities offered by the Zambezi River.
“They come anytime. It could be villagers going to a bereavement across in Namibia. It could be poachers returning with ivory from hunting expeditions in Botswana or Namibia. It could be poachers taking weapons, supplies and men across to hunt. We even help refugees from wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia or Sudan to cross into Botswana or Namibia.
“Call it crime, but this is our business and we do not care about the law as long as our fees get paid. Like fishing and hunting, canoeing is a way of life that makes us money. For centuries before this river was turned into the barrier to separate us, our people traded, worked and moved across it freely. So people will always help each other to cross the Zambezi, without asking questions,” he told The Botswana Gazette.
After two days of failed efforts, Mongwa finally arranged a meeting with self-confessed poacher Christopher Kasempa (not his real name). He is a former officer in the Zambian National Service, a para-military support unit for the army, police and prison services.
Due to their bulky cargo of arms, ammunition, axes, blankets and loads of food supplies, the poaching gangs use dug-out to cross the Zambezi into Namibia. On the other side, they trek through the bush to meet up transport that is provided by Namibian accomplices.
“The trucks take the men and supplies across Namibia to selected villages along the Linyanti River. From there, we hire dug-out canoes to take the men and cargo across the river. During the dry season, one can walk across the river into Chobe National Park.
“There are many hunting grounds to choose from to strike, but the best are found in the Savuti area (north-western Chobe). Most Savuti elephants forage in the Linyanti Swamp, meeting friendly tourists by day. We shoot as they disperse at nightfall. To avoid detection, we cover the de-horned carcasses with bushes. Couriers work round the clock, taking the tusks back into Namibia until the end of the expedition,” he said.
Poachers who fear Botswana Defence Force (BDF) patrols inside the ChobeNational Park can still shoot elephants from the Savuti Corner each time they cross into the Mamili National Park, which lies on the opposite bank in Namibia.
Inside Botswana, Zambian poachers also prefer to hunt among the huge elephant populations that congregate at the confluence of the Linyanti and Kwando Rivers.
Botswana – a victim of its own success?
Despite its world-acclaimed status as a beacon of wildlife conservation and the controversial shoot-to-kill policy, hardened Zambian poaching syndicates have taken advantage of Botswana’s own laxity arising from the belief that it has succeded in quelling the poaching.
According to Kasempa, it was a change in tactics in the disposal of poaching carcasses which fooled Botswana into believing less elephants were being killed by poachers.
“The ground-based BDF anti-poaching units have been there since 1987 and Zambian poachers have long learnt how to dodge security patrols in Chobe. But since 2014, regular air patrols have enhanced early detection of carcasses killed overnight, leading to successful hot-pursuits and preventive deployments of forces in hot-spots.
To beat the aerial carcass searches, poachers now cover carcasses with tree branches, grass or other available foliage. It is much easier in the swamps where mud pools can swallow an elephant whole. We just attach weights to prevent it from floating,” Kasempa said.
As foreigners, the success of Zambian poachers depends heavily on help from Batswana who are looking for joint venture partnerships or locals who are paid to track elephants, inform on police and army movements, or dispose of carcasses to cover the tracks of the syndicates.
In February this year, the Botswana Police Service arrested five suspected poachers and recovered 11 elephant tusks, a hunting rifle, two pistols and 82 rounds of live ammunition from a home in Gumare village, Tsau communal lands near Maun.
The suspects included Zambian nationals Cletus Kamwale and Samson Chaima (both from Livingstone) and Stephen Mukwemba from Lusaka. The Batswana accomplices were identified as Onthusitse Mothusiemang and Kelebogile Tonkole.
Police said apart from involvement in poaching, the two had provided the Zambians with a place to stay and stash their ivory and weapons between poaching runs.
Evidence of further foreign syndicate collusion to hunt in Botswana came up in September 2017 during the trial of Namibian nationals Sydney Malosi, Joseph Muvambango, Rubatwa Longwe and Zambian national Kamiru Musehi in Katima Mulilo, Namibia.
The four were arrested for the illegal possession of eight elephant tusks, a .375 hunting rifle, ammunition and one antelope carcass. Under interrogation, the four said they shot all 4 elephants at Chobe National Park in Botswana.
They also told the police that several other members of the Zambian poaching gang had crossed back home to meet up with waiting ivory buyers.
The BDF’s poaching challenge
Addressing the 25th session of the Botswana/Zambia Joint Permanent Commission on Defence and Security in October last year, BDF Commander Lieutenant-General Placid Segokgo said the two countries should work together to fight organised cross-border crimes like poaching and the trade in illegal wildlife products.
Lt. Gen Segokgo said he was particularly concerned about cross-border poaching, which has become a regional security threat. He urged the two countries to intensify joint border patrols and share intelligence on the operations of cross-border poaching syndicates.
However, a recent analysis of the BDF anti-poaching policy and operations by former BDF Major Jackson J Sekgwana found that apart from lack of cooperation from neighbouring countries, some internal weaknesses have allowed poachers to operate with impunity in Botswana.
Major Sekgwama said the BDF has failed to stamp out poaching because the anti-poaching unit operates on a quasi-political order instead of a national strategy with clear delivery objectives. He said the use of the army for anti-poaching faces several challenges at the operational and tactical levels.
“The military was deployed in this campaign as a quasi-political decision, thought to be a quick remedy to the poaching dilemma in Botswana. The quasi-political aspect has omitted creation of a national strategy to comprehensively address the poaching dilemma in Botswana and Southern African region, especially since most of the poachers originated from outside the country.
Although on one hand it could be argued that the BDF is positively addressing the poaching problem, on the other, it could also be argued that the lack of a clear policy on anti-poaching has hampered the mission. The inefficiency of these campaigns is demonstrated by continued poaching activities in Botswana,” Major Sekgwama said.
He said Botswana needs to re-think and re-define its national anti-poaching strategy in order to increase the effectiveness of the means of intervention. This could include a comprehensive integration, synchronization and harmonization of all anti-poaching operations by the army, the police and wildlife rangers to achieve unity of purpose.
With a refined anti-poaching strategy, Botswana can then work with its neighbours Zambia and Zimbabwe) in order to achieve effective operations.