The 87 elephants storm

Another wild goose chase, what eff ect will it have this time around?

Back in 2013 a tirade of media reports put Botswana under the international spotlight. Allegations were flying thick and fast that the country had allowed some companies to use a banned technique called fracking (hydraulic fracturing) to extract coal bed methane (CBM) not withstanding its harmful effects to both the environment and wildlife.
Most Batswana then did not know anything about fracking, let alone the meaning of the word. The word derives from American slang to describe processes involving sub-surface fracturing of rocks usually through the injection of chemical fluids to enhance permeability to improve gas flows from carbonaceous layers in numerous zones.
But soon it became a buzzword that threatened Botswana’s image internationally, thanks to a documentary film titled The High Cost of Cheap Gas by journalist and film maker, Jeffrey Barbee. Barbee’s documentary film drew the attention of human rights groups who questioned Botswana’s stance on fracking while accusing the country of going behind the backs of its citizens to allow such an environmentally harmful practice especially in a fragile environment like Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR).
The documentary together with ensuing media reports triggered a chain of criticisms that immediately put government’s crisis management machinery into motion. A team of journalists which I was part of and comprising both government and private media, was immediately dispatched to the Mmashoro area for a site visit of the P125 million Kalahari Energy Botswana (KEB) CBM exploration project.
Leading the government contingent, was then Ministry of Minerals, Energy and Water Resources Deputy Permanent Secretary, Nchidzi Mmolawa. From KEB were its Chief Executive Officer, Steven Martin and Mokwaledi Ntsimanyana, as the company’s geological consultant who also had vast experience working as a public officer.
It was an elaborate process as government and companies in the CBM extraction project went all out to dispel the myth created by Barbee’s claims. Journalists were taken to exploration sites for first-hand information. Data from researches and studies carried out in the area were produced and analysed besides taking journalists to communities and local authorities which Barbee claimed were not consulted on KEB’s activities in the area.
From Mmashoro, the fact finding mission proceeded to the Tlou Energy Gas project in the Moiyabana area. A similar process obtained as the fact finding mission beat the trail along the Botswana’s CBM belt which stretches into the CKGR and journalists were told that it was not viable to mine gas westwards given the deepening geology. In the end, it was more of a wild goose chase than anything else.
Five years later Botswana again finds herself in the throes of an international media which has triggered yet another storm such that the country has to account for 87 elephants that were allegedly massacred by poachers in one of their habitats in the north. This has caused a lot of anxiety locally and abroad. It has pitted Batswana, who just like that of Barbee, doubt the sincerity of the man behind the allegations, Dr Chase of the Elephant Without Borders (EWB) and the international community, which seems to validate his report.
As much as the elephants are an economic resource and part of the eco-system, on the other hand they have caused harm to the communities living around them as well as the environment they subsist in because of their huge numbers which outstrip carrying capacity. However, that many of them are found in Botswana it is because the country has become a safe haven for them. A study carried out a few years ago found out that Botswana had 130 000 elephants some of which migrated from neighbouring countries because of rampant poaching.
Given such a scenario, research is ongoing for their management. Just recently, the University of Botswana led an interdisciplinary team of researchers from the Sustainable Futures in Africa (SFA) Network for a workshop on human-wildlife interactions at Mmadinare.
SFA Network is a collective of researchers, educators and practitioners from around the world who work collectively across global contexts, disciplines and with communities in advancing the goal of ethically and successfully supporting development and sustainability in contexts negatively affected by the consequences of colonialism, globalisation and climate change.
The Mmadinare workshop brought together different stakeholders among them Director of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, Major General Otisitswe Tiroyamodimo and his staff, World Health Organisation representative in Botswana, Nigerian High Commissioner and some captains of industry. During the workshop, the community aired its voice alongside political and economic perspectives, as well as ecological findings to come up with a collective and informed response.
Solutions ranged from culling or translocation where possible to setting up of an elephant abattoir in Selebi Phikwe as one way of revitalizing the economic fortunes of the mining town besides educational parks for communities to learn various aspects on elephants and co-existence. Job creation, establishment of game reserves and wildlife camps to help control and monitor movement of the jumbos, were further suggestions from the community.
In Maun, the University of Botswana’s Okavango Research Institute (ORI) has launched a project known as ‘Promoting Sustainable Livelihood (ProSuLi) in Transfrontier Conservation areas’ to address human-wildlife conflict through research.
The three-year project funded by the European Union to the tune of P2.5 million covers areas in the Okavango Delta where communities also experience extensive human-wildlife conflicts. The idea is to have sustainable development to benefit communities now and in future hence the need for amicable solutions, ORI director, Professor Joseph Mbaiwa is quoted in the media.
Besides, Botswana received anti-poaching equipment from China in 2016 to step up its anti-poaching efforts. The donation comprised 10 diesel water pumps, 700 sleeping bags, 800 back packs, 19 gasoline generator sets, 400 one man tents, 400 two men tents, 30 solar power sets and 12 laser printers.
Other items were 30 desk top computers, 10 projectors, 50 laptops, 15 tablet PCs, 200 canteens, 300 flashlights, 150 binoculars, 100 handheld GPS, 700 protective clothing, 7000 raincoats and 7000 jackets. Additionally, the Department of Wildlife and National Parks procured four Jabiru J430 aircrafts in November 2015 at a cost of R700 000 each. All this is, is in addition to the prominent role the Botswana Defence Force has played since the 1980s.
Now the big question that remains is, what common narrative will emerge after all had been said and done?
Thomas T. Nkhoma
(Writing in his personal capacity as a former journalist)

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