OP-ED

Botswana’s rhinos are under siege: It’s time to learn from historical mistakes

By Erik Verreynne 10 January 2020

White rhino, Etosha National Park, Namibia: As Namibia cracks down on rhino poaching, the poachers are now hitting targets in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. (Photo: Tony Weaver)

Rhinos were reintroduced to the supposedly secure sanctuary of Botswana’s Okavango Delta with the backing of the photographic safari industry and despite misgivings on the part of conservation professionals. Now the rhinos are being killed by poachers and desperate measures are called for.

News of 22 rhinos being killed by poachers on Chief’s Island in Botswana’s Okavango Delta during the past nine months, 13 of them in the past two months, has sent shockwaves through the conservation world. While Namibia reported a drop in rhino poaching statistics, the increase in poaching in northern Botswana came as a surprise and shock to many. The escalation in poaching started when 13 were poached between April 2018 and January 2019.

Botswana has been portrayed as a safe haven for rhino and elephant in the tourism marketing campaigns of the last five years, but now the government has warned that the population of rhinos in northern Botswana “could be wiped out within two years”. At least eight of the rhinos killed are the rare South Central black rhino of which most were released less than five years ago near Mombo on Chief’s Island in the middle of the Okavango Delta. The white rhinos being poached are part of a population of Southern white rhinos (SWR) reintroduced in 2002/3 in the same area, as well as nearly 100 white rhinos released recently in various photographic concessions of the Okavango Delta by Rhinos Without Borders (RWB).

There may be a number of additional reasons why rhino poaching in Botswana has been escalating since 2018. The intensification in anti-poaching measures in neighbouring Namibia may have played a role.

The main reasons, however, for the inevitable, are embedded in the notions that the previous Botswana administration and a few photographic safari operator companies ignored the warning signs and the lessons learned from Botswana’s past rhino conservation history. They motivated rhino relocations according to the needs of the tourism industry and not the needs of rhino conservation, used it as a marketing exercise and dismantled the local advisory structures when they opposed further reintroductions in the Okavango Delta. In short, tourism demand for the “Big Five” superseded the risks posed to rhinos in the Okavango Delta despite the warnings and warning signs, and rhinos were released in potentially high-risk areas where they never should have been.

Botswana has always had a turbulent relationship with rhinos with two near-extinctions of its wild rhino population in the 20th century. The central driver is the sparsely populated, vast open wilderness areas interspersed with the waterways of the Okavango Delta, all in close proximity to unfenced international borders. The location and geography allow easy covert intrusion and quick escape routes by syndicates based in neighbouring countries, and renders monitoring and law enforcement challenging and very expensive.

Both black and white rhinos were believed to have gone extinct in Botswana in the 1890s. Reintroductions of 156 SWR between 1967 and 1980 from South Africa into Moremi Game Reserve and Chobe National Park were wiped out by cross-border poaching. An extensive aerial survey in 1992 resulted in estimates of only 27 rhinos left of the wild population in the north, of which three were killed shortly after the aerial survey. The decision was made to capture all rhinos left, bringing them into the protection of the newly established Khama Rhino Sanctuary, and breed them up to be released once the security situation has changed.

Six SWR were subsequently captured in Chobe and Moremi between 1992 and 1996 of which only four survived (one died of bullet wounds inflicted while in Chobe). The population at Khama Rhino Sanctuary was supplemented with animals from Pilanesberg National Park and Mafikeng Game Reserve in South Africa, and soon grew into an “Important 1” population and later into a “Key 2” population according to the African Rhino Specialist Group (AfRSG) classification (Emslie and Brooks, 1999).

The last few years of the old millennium brought some relief to rhinos, allowing wild populations to grow and allowing the establishment of various closed system semi-wild populations both in Botswana and the rest of the region. A sense of security, even though fragile, prevailed.

A new introduction of SWR from South Africa and Zimbabwe into the Okavango Delta started in 2003 as a collaboration between Okavango Wilderness Safaris (later Wilderness Safaris), the Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP), Zimbabwe National Parks, SANParks and North West Parks Board where 33 SWR and five black rhino were reintroduced into Mombo on Chief’s Island. A number of rhinos dispersed from Chief’s Island during the following years despite the island being surrounded with water for parts of the year. The movements of dispersing rhinos outside Chief’s Island were regularly reported to authorities by communities and hunting concessionaires, and their cooperation made retrieval and relocation possible.

Most individuals were captured and relocated back to Mombo. Not all were fortunate and two sub-adults that followed the zebra migration routes to the Makgadikgadi National Park were poached in Nxai Pan National Park. Another dispersing rhino was poached 35km West of Maun while a breeding bull relocated to Makgadikgadi Pan National Park was also poached not far from the scout camp. Despite these continuous dispersals and isolated cases of poaching, the core population settled well and grew into a “Key 2” population during this period of relative safety in the region.

Nearly 10 years after the 2003 reintroduction, the regional security situation changed for the worse. First Zimbabwe, then South Africa experienced unprecedented levels of rhino poaching. Namibia was to follow four years later.

Members of the Botswana Rhino Management Committee (BRMC), a national representative advisory committee to the Director of DWNP, were concerned about the announced reintroductions of 100 to 300 rhinos by RWB from “high-risk poaching areas in South Africa to the comparative safety of Botswana”. The concern was based on the history of rhino poaching in Botswana, the difficult terrain near open international borders and the changing regional poaching threat. An assessment of the risks in the Delta and a change to an alternative Intensive Protection Zone outside the Delta were proposed with the contingency plan of placing half the intended rhinos in a sanctuary where they could be adequately protected.

The translocations went ahead despite the concerns and according to their website, RWB translocated a further 87 SWR between 2013 and 2017 to exclusive high-end tourism concessions in the Delta. Wilderness Safaris translocated a significant number of South Central black rhinos to Mombo from South Africa and Zimbabwe in 2015. Rhino Conservation Botswana (RCB) was established as a trust and took over most of the monitoring of the rhinos. Rhinos responded as in the past, a few dispersing from release sites with some even ending up in Namibia.

The wild population is now experiencing the next onslaught as security improves in neighbouring range states. Zambian syndicates with alleged insider information and assistance are killing rhinos in the main Intensive Protection Zone of the Okavango Delta at an alarming rate despite monitoring by RCB and a strong Botswana Defence Force (BDF) presence. Soldiers issued with automatic weapons are patrolling the area and reportedly not hesitating to kill when threatened. The government of Botswana said in a statement that seven poachers have been killed so far.

Compared to other African range states, the loss of fewer than 20 rhinos per year seems low. However, the impact on a wild population of only 200 SWR and less than 50 black rhino is enormous and losses to poaching are already exceeding the population growth rate of Botswana’s wild population. If it continues, and all indications are it will, we are in danger of experiencing another extinction of our wild rhino population in Botswana. Once the high concentration population of Mombo has been depleted or secured, other areas will follow until our anti-poaching capacity is stretched beyond its limit. It is naïve, maybe even arrogant, to believe we can totally protect a population of 200-plus rhinos spread over vast wilderness areas when finding them for monitoring is already a challenge.

The cost of monitoring the rhinos in such a vast and difficult area is enormous. Cost and manpower are difficult to define. If we take suggested required budgets cited by Clive and Anton Walker (Rhino Revolution, 2017) for protecting rhinos in SA at $1,115 to $2,231/km² per year with a personnel need of one ranger per 15-30km² ( for reserves 1,000km² and larger), then the roughly 1,050km² Chief’s Island will require an annual budget of at least $1.17-million with 35 rangers constantly patrolling the area. The manpower required exceeds the available Anti-Poaching Unit capacity which, with the BDF, is also tied up over a much wider theatre with an increase in ivory poaching and tons of bushmeat leaving the Delta annually.

The proposed budget required for Chief’s Island (just 0.12% of Botswana land surface) alone is more than 1.5% of the ministry’s total recurrent budget for 2018/19 and about 10% of Wilderness Holdings declared profit before tax for the 2018 financial year. And the question remains: Are the rhinos benefiting more by keeping them in these high-risk areas?

Even if we can come up with the budget, a policy that only focuses on “fighting fire-with-fire” will not safeguard all the rhinos and responses to poaching incidents will remain reactive. Proactive intelligence is important to prevent incidents and this is only possible with the goodwill of the surrounding communities. The government in its statement indicated that it has “considerably stepped up efforts to address the poaching situation” and some rifles and horns were retrieved. Is it enough though?

We must not for one minute believe the onslaught is from neighbouring countries only. With communities left out of direct benefits from rhinos and other wildlife in the Delta for more than five years, the sympathetic eyes and listening ears of surrounding communities have long faded or are looking the other way. You now only need one disgruntled employee to inform. Rhino locations in the photographic tourism industry are exciting news and knowledge is shared from managers down to cleaners. Some people believe rhinos are worth more dead than alive, and with communities not benefitting, it will take time to change the perception, unless we can demonstrate direct and immediate benefits to communities in looking after rhinos.

It is time to abandon idealism and face reality before we are again left with only 27 rhinos. History can be harsh in its judgement and time will not forgive Botswana if it fails. The solution to the present carnage lies in a swift and pragmatic reaction to safeguard as many of the rhinos in the Delta as possible by relocating a significant proportion of them to safer, smaller, community-based sanctuaries away from the hotspot areas – at least until we can change the value perception of rhinos.

The terrain will not change. The poaching onslaught will not change soon. What needs to change first is the risk to poachers which can only be achieved by concentrating the population in smaller areas where we can concentrate our defences optimally. It is a concept used all over the region with even Kruger National Park in South Africa resorting to moving their remaining rhinos to a fenced-off Intensive Protection Zone. The concept has shown success in the private and community-owned southern population of Botswana where the other half of Botswana’s rhinos are looked after with assistance of the BDF in sufficiently sized units as semi-wild populations. Only five rhinos were lost to poaching in 2018 in these populations and none in 2019.

Secondly, by benefitting communities as custodians of the rhinos, the beast from within is neutralised and the concept that rhinos are worth more dead than alive is diluted. Proactive information becomes available and informant risks increase.

History dictates a repeat of the 1992 emergency relocations and the establishment of another, safer, community-based rhino sanctuary as obvious. We dare not ignore it.

Significant funding is needed to move these rhinos back into safety. However, the funding required should be significantly less than when translocating the rhinos to Botswana from South Africa. If the industry could generate enough funding to move the rhinos to Botswana, they should be able to generate enough to remove them to safety.

Rhinos are not a key species. The biodiversity in the north of Botswana flourished in their absence for many years. But as a flagship species, they deserve to be protected, and keeping them in high-risk areas for the sake of tourism is against all sound principles. Tourism, like any other form of wildlife utilisation, must promote conservation in a sustainable way. When it fails, as is the case with rhinos, responsible tourism should be willing to give up the privilege of seeing endangered species in the wild.

Viewing semi-wild rhino in Botswana is better than viewing no rhino at all. DM

Dr Erik Verreynne (BVSc, M.Phil Wildlife Management) is a wildlife and livestock veterinarian in Botswana. He is the co-ordinator of the Research and Veterinary Working Group, and Rhino Working Group of the Botswana Wildlife Producers’ Association.

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