Syndicates move south; Botswana president calls it fake news
A report by Elephants Without Borders claiming ‘a significant poaching outbreak is ongoing in at least four distinct hotspots’ in Botswana has provoked government ire.
Anyone who saw the results of the 2014 Great African Elephant Census knew it was only a matter of time before the poaching tsunami hit Botswana.
The census led by Elephants Without Borders (EWB) was a shocker: Africa is losing elephants to poachers at an average of one every 15 minutes. There are only 415,000 savanna elephants left – down from several million a century ago and over a million in the 1970s.
International poaching syndicates – having wiped out large numbers of elephants in central, west and east Africa – are moving south, and the latest census of Northern Botswana by EWB has confirmed this.
It found the poaching of elephants in Botswana had increased dramatically and that the outbreak was the largest recorded since the 1970s. It suggests that the world’s largest elephant population may be at risk.
The first week of the survey, EWB head Dr Mike Chase raised concerns with the appropriate authorities and, throughout the survey, continued to alert the government as to the alarming number of carcasses and evidence seen of poaching. It should have rung alarm bells, but instead, it produced outrage, finger pointing, personal smears and claims that it was fake news.
This reached a near-hysterical level when a local journalist broke the poaching story, which was picked up by the BBC and went worldwide. Why?
First let’s see what the census found: Botswana’s elephant population was found to be static, but between 2014 and 2018, the number of “fresh/recent” carcasses had increased by a startling 593%.
Most of those were poached, their tusks chopped out with pangas and skulls halved. Most poached carcasses observed up close on the ground were bulls aged between 35-55, presumably carrying exceptionally large “trophy quality” ivory. Many were clustered, indicating targeted poaching operations. Photographic evidence and GPS locations were taken of all poached elephants and submitted to the relevant authorities during the survey.
Botswana contains roughly a third of Africa’s savanna elephants, but since 2010 the population appears to have plateaued. Although poaching has not reached the levels of countries to the north and east, ‘”evidence suggests that the problem has reached Botswana”.
Chase is a world expert on elephants and the survey science had been meticulous. In over four months his team flew 1,074 transects 360 metres wide covering 103,662 square kilometres and travelling 32,283 km. In addition, helicopters were used to make ground inspections of carcasses.
The total elephant population estimate came to 126,114 plus 11,044 estimated carcasses. Estimated numbers of elephant carcasses however increased by 21% from 2014 to 2018. Numbers of fresh or recent carcasses actually seen increased by 593% between 2014 and 2018. In 2014, of those that were seen, none were considered poached. While in 2018, of the recent carcasses examined 81% were confirmed as poached.
According to the report, “evidence suggests that a significant poaching outbreak is ongoing in at least four distinct hotspots”.
The report was favourably peer-reviewed by some of the world’s foremost elephant experts. Ian Douglas-Hamilton of Save the Elephants wrote:
“I am very impressed with the thoroughness and expertise in the way the count was planned, implemented, analysed and written up. On the evidence, I am persuaded that your conclusion is correct that there has been an overall increase in elephant poaching in Botswana.
“Your count showing that elephant poaching has increased to a greater level than any previously recorded raises the possibility that further escalations are possible.”
Conservation biologist Dr Keith Lindsay of the Environment and Development Group in Oxford wrote:
“I have been through the report. A very high-quality survey and thorough analysis, touching all the bases. It is hard to see how anyone can dispute any of the results of this. This is a very important piece of work.”
A report by Falk Grossman, of the Niassa Reserve, and Paul Elkan, of the Wildlife Conservation Society, said the EWB’s survey design, methods and implementation were “of a very high standard and well within current accepted areal survey standards for strip sampling”. They said the report provided “indisputable evidence of the observations”.
The facts of the census were clearly correct, but it inadvertently touched a raw nerve with the new president of Botswana, Mokgweetsi Masisi, who was planning to end the ban on trophy elephant hunting and maybe use it to garner votes for the upcoming election. Botswana, it transpired, had joined a submission to the wildlife trade organisation CITES by South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe to allow trade in ivory.
One of the EWB’s research permits were revoked and Chase was accused of “taking the team to old elephant bones or carcasses that died of natural causes”. It was suggested that he be prosecuted for “leaking” information while under contract to the Botswana government, though EWB says it has no contractual constraint on information and that no taxpayers funds were used for the survey.
President Masisi then mounted a personal attack on EWB and Chase personally for spreading “fake news”. At a kgotla meeting in Maun, he described the elephant-poaching story as “blue lies” perpetuated by “certain people with ulterior motives to tarnish the good name of Botswana”. The government followed with a statement refuting the EWB’s scientific findings:
“The Government of Botswana wishes to inform members of the public and other key stakeholders that these statistics are false and misleading. At no point in the last months or recently were 87 or 90 elephants killed in one incident in any place in Botswana.
“The Government of Botswana wishes to condemn in the strongest terms possible attempts by individuals or groups who give a false impression that they love Botswana wildlife more than citizens of Botswana.”
In a carefully crafted story without a byline in the local Sunday Standard on 10 September 2018, details began to emerge: After two terms in office, Ian Khama handed over the presidential reins to his vice-president, Masisi, in March 2018, expecting his handpicked successor to continue with his policies. Masisi surprised Khama by reversing many of the previous administration’s wildlife initiatives.
In the new corridors of power there appears to be political paranoia about the Khama legacy and for the new premier, the elephant issue was low-hanging fruit.
“President Mokgweetsi Masisi is facing a vicious pushback from the all-powerful tourism old-boys’ network which was the invisible force behind former President Ian Khama’s administration,” the newspaper began.
“The recent elephants’ massacre propaganda war waged by tourism interests against the Masisi administration is believed to be part of a big ‘death by a thousand cuts’ strategy employed by former President Khama’s allies to chip Masisi’s power.
“For decades the Botswana tourism industry existed, not to serve Batswana, but as a site for rent extraction by the very small minority that controlled political power.”
Responding to the moves, Khama told The Times that he despaired at what he saw as his conservation legacy being squandered by Masisi.
“I am aware I sound upset when I talk about this,” he said, “but I know how long it took us to get to where we were and now seeing how quickly things can be reversed. Hunting or a cull would result in Botswana being hammered internationally. You don’t kill your way out of a problem.”
The possibility of lifting the hunting ban was music to the ears of Safari Club International, the world’s biggest hunting association, which posted an interview with Professor Joseph Mbaiwa of the University of Botswana claiming the elephant population was double the country’s carrying capacity. He offered no proof to back his claim.
In the hunting issue, Khama is not blameless. While his anti-hunting policies created a photo safari boom, one of his biggest mistakes was to unsuccessfully fill the voids created when he stopped hunting at the end of the 2013 safari season. Most of those ex-hunting concessions have been lying dormant ever since, even though offers were made by photo safari companies to lease many of them. Most poaching, however, is taking place in the photographic concessions.
Communities that once received meat and cash from hunting were left with empty stomachs and drained bank balances. A number of rural Okavango communities had the revenues they earned from tourism conducted away from them into the controversial new Land Bank that was set up and controlled by central government.
These communities are understandably discontent at their losses and in an election season, their voices get heard. While Botswana earns most of its foreign revenue from diamonds and tourism, much of the internal economy is about rural communities, farmers and cattle – and they carry the votes.
There has also been little policy direction on how communities can effectively deal with roving elephants that destroy crops and harass – even kill – people. These tragic incidents are reported in the press and reach the ears of politicians and the pro-hunting lobby, which appears to have exploited them to persuade the Botswana government to reverse the ban on sports hunting. Legalised hunting, however, is unlikely to curb human-elephant conflict.
In the 2014 elections, Khama’s ruling BDP party failed to win an outright majority, garnering just 46.5% of the popular vote, retaining power only because opposition parties were fragmented. The next elections are around October 2019, before which President Masisi will have to consolidate his and the BDP’s position. There have already been challenges to him from within his party. One of his strategies is to address matters not dealt with sufficiently under Khama’s administration.
By pure coincidence, as the new president’s plan to open hunting coincided with the EWB’s census on a sharp escalation in poaching. A poaching crisis is not a good time to push for trophy hunting, so it appears Masisi’s approach was to attempt to kill the message, if not the messenger. As a scientist, Chase reported what he saw, but it was not the message the new Gaborone administration wished to hear.
What remains to be seen is the effect renewed hunting would have on Botswana’s booming tourism industry, one of the pillars of its economy. Between 2013 (the last year of hunting) and 2018, tourism in the country grew its contribution to Botswana’s GDP by a staggering 70%. In 2017 it contributed over $2-billion to the economy and provided 76,000 jobs. Tourism investment for that year was $443-million.
One study estimated the value of an elephant throughout its lifetime to be about US$1.6-million from tourism. The total intrinsic value of the 96 confirmed poached elephants would be a loss of US$153,600,000.
Unbanning hunting may be a vote catcher, but doing it at a time when poaching is escalating in Botswana could be extremely bad news for elephants – and the country’s thriving tourism industry.
Local communities have benefited hugely from the growth of tourism, which provides thousands of jobs and opportunities for training and skills transfers – far beyond anything provided by the hunting industry. If hunting hit the tourist industry they would suffer. DM
Late last week a Botswana cabinet committee handed Masisi their report regarding management of the country’s wildlife. It was a triumph for hunters and a shock for conservationists. Their recommendations were:
• The hunting ban be lifted.
• Develop a legal framework that will create an enabling environment for the growth of the safari hunting industry.
• Manage Botswana elephant population within its historic range;
• Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) should undertake an effective community outreach programme within the elephant range for Human-Elephant Conflict mitigation;
• Strategically placed human-wildlife conflict fences be constructed in key hotspot areas;
• Game ranches be demarcated to serve as buffers between communal and wildlife areas;
• Compensation for damage caused by wildlife, ex gratia amounts and the list of species that attract compensation be reviewed;
• All wildlife migratory routes that are not beneficial to the country’s conservation efforts be closed;
• The Kgalagadi southwesterly antelope migratory route into South Africa should be closed by demarcating game ranches between the communal areas and Kgalagadi Wildlife Management Areas; and
• Regular but limited elephant culling be introduced and the establishment of elephant meat canning, including a production of pet food and processing into other by-products.