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Namibian journalist slammed for ‘sensationalist’ story on elephant capture

Namibian journalist slammed for ‘sensationalist’ story on elephant capture
A herd of elephant near the Doringstraat waterhole in the Bwabwata National Park, Namibia. (Photo: Gallo Images / GO! / Toast Coetzer)

There is simply no justification for using the term ‘canned hunting’ in John Grobler’s 3,000-word ‘novella’. The article merely reveals that Gerrie Odendaal also breeds white rhinos on 8,000 hectares of land.

Deep in darkest Africa, a terrible injustice is being perpetrated: a greedy, corrupt government sells precious elephants to wealthy Arabs via a shadowy middleman. The plot thickens: the middleman is involved in canned hunting, while his neighbour is politically connected – could this explain why the elephants were sold for a song? The innocent elephants are caught up in a stereotypically African story involving a corrupt government run by a former liberation movement. 

If this reads like the back cover of a trashy wannabe Wilbur Smith novel, it’s because 90% of it is fiction derived from a fertile imagination. 

Unfortunately, it was passed off as “journalism” in two articles written by John Grobler and published by Daily Maverick earlier this year. 

North West trophy hunting, the ghost and the dodgy deal — how Namibian tuskers got to Middle East zoos

The kernel of truth buried in the fictional narrative is that Namibia sold 22 elephants to a Namibian game farmer, who then sold them on to two safari parks in the United Arab Emirates. 

It was not a popular move, either within Namibia or beyond its borders, and the media backlash has been significant. 

The capture was intended to reduce human-elephant conflict from farmlands that were identified as conflict hotspots during the nationwide consultation process for Namibia’s latest elephant management plan.

Simply stating the facts of the matter is enough to get most of the general public on the elephants’ side, but this is clearly not sensational enough. 

While the 90:10 fiction:truth ratio, complete with science denialism and contempt for post-independence governments, is sadly all too common in environmental journalism – it is disappointing that it was not only published, but defended by a politically progressive publication whose strapline is “Defend Truth”.

Back to the articles in question. An important falsehood is found in the first sentence: “The hidden hand of North West’s canned hunting industry is involved in the controversial export of Namibian elephants.” 

The legal definition of canned hunting is: “The hunting of any animal in captivity, unduly restricted in its ability to escape, or which cannot eat, drink or breed without constant human intervention, which has been habituated to humans or which is not hunted under the principles of fair chase.”

There is simply no justification for using the term “canned hunting” in the whole 3,000-word “novella”. The article merely reveals that Gerrie Odendaal also breeds white rhinos on 8,000 hectares of land (the amount of land available to them was omitted). Legally. 

Besides the fact that game farming and rhino breeding are not canned hunting (the latter is illegal in Namibia), it has nothing at all to do with the purchase and sale of 22 elephants. 

Like South Africa, the private game ranching sector in Namibia plays an important role in maintaining small populations of rhinos across the country, making it more difficult for poachers to target them. Keeping rhino locations under the radar is the first layer of security for these ranches. 

Unnecessarily revealing information on the location of rhinos to the public was thus highly irresponsible. Despite Odendaal tightening security on his farm immediately after the article was published, he lost three rhinos to poaching not long thereafter. 

Perhaps because these rhinos were kept on the property of a “shadowy middleman”, no one will mourn their loss. 

Yet in the broader context of rhino conservation, any poaching event is to be taken seriously, and we strongly advise Daily Maverick to be more responsible about publishing rhino location information in future.

In addition, in the second, shorter article on the topic – Calves and cows split up as export terms go out the window in sale of pachyderms to the United Arab Emirates – the author claims that the elephant numbers in the whole of Namibia and in the north-west are “wildly exaggerated”. In reality, a highly respected and experienced survey team counts Namibia’s elephants regularly using scientific aerial survey techniques that are employed across Africa. 

While casting doubts on the science-based elephant estimates, a report based on a quick visit by a pair of foreign journalists is used to state “authoritatively” that the elephant population is on the “brink of collapse”. 

Similarly, the only “proof” provided that elephant calves and cows were split up during the capture operation, with some being left behind, is a photograph of some young elephants with an adult in the background. Many such photographs of elephants in north-west Namibia exist, but none of them prove anything other than the presence of elephants. 

Game capture is taken seriously in Namibia, and is undertaken by a handful of highly experienced veterinarians who specialise in moving wildlife. 

Against a photograph with zero context, we have the word of the wildlife vet in charge of the operation, who wrote to Daily Maverick to assure them that he took entire herds of elephants (this letter was not published). 

Even if you remain unconvinced by the word of a professional, ask yourself what anyone in this deal had to gain by purposely leaving animals behind? The Ministry of Environment and Tourism would not achieve their stated goal of removing elephant herds to reduce conflict with farmers, Odendaal would have fewer elephants to resell, and the game capture team would have tarnished their reputation.


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Finally, we need to address the controversial issues of BEE, land reform and alleged corruption that feature strongly in both articles. Bringing in these hot-button topics may generate reader interest, but there is no evidence at all that the auction in question was affected by any of them.

The government official who is targeted for alleged corruption – Kenneth /Uiseb – has no link at all to the resettlement farm in the vicinity of the captured elephants, and had no say about which herd of elephants the capture team should take (both false claims in the articles we refer to). 

As the Deputy Director of Wildlife, Monitoring and Research, it is simply Mr /Uiseb’s job to oversee government actions relating to elephants and other wildlife. When he calmly corrects Grobler on a point of fact during a press conference, it is reported as a “wild-eyed interjection” to round off an ill-conceived attempt at character assassination.

Another entirely innocent bystander was caught up in the investigation resulting in the two misleading articles. Elton Araeb, who is incorrectly named in the longer article after his father Elliot Hiskia, is accused of being Odendaal’s secret BEE business partner in the elephant transaction. The evidence for this? Mr Araeb is Odendaal’s neighbour and operates a general dealer (the kind you get Coke and chips from) on this property. He also happens to be distantly related to a former president of Namibia, but how that automatically qualifies him to be a corrupt businessman is unclear. 

A simple reading of the initial auction advertisement shows that bids from previously disadvantaged individuals would be given “preferential treatment”. None of the bidders had BEE partners, which of course means that there were no “preferred” options available. They nonetheless met the many other conditions on the tender advert, which are clearly worded as requirements rather than preferences.

The doom-and-gloom narrative peddled in both articles is in stark contrast to objective, scientific analyses of wildlife conservation in Namibia. 

In a recent peer-reviewed scientific article, Namibia was rated second only to Botswana using a “Mega-fauna Conservation Index” covering 152 countries worldwide. This index used expert knowledge contained in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List database to determine which countries were most successfully conserving large carnivores (>15kg) and herbivores (>100kg) in terms of the area of land where they still occur. 

One of the consequences of Namibia and Botswana’s success is that humans and large wild animals are coming into ever more frequent contact in both countries. 

If anything, other countries in the world should be taking notes on how conservation is done in these two nations. We are sure that Namibians and Batswana would be keen to find out how South African livestock farmers are getting on with the elephants in their back yards. Perhaps it could be the topic for the next DM article about elephants, since the publication appears to be so eager to show up Botswana and Namibia for their elephant management decisions.

Alternatively, one could honestly engage with these topics with insightful journalism that unpacks scientific analysis and engages with conservation challenges in an open and honest manner. 

If selling elephants to reduce human-elephant conflict is a bad idea, what else should Namibia do with elephants on farmlands? How does southern Africa cope with growing elephant populations? Are solid fences around small reserves containing contraceptive-dosed elephants (ala South Africa) the only option, or is coexistence really possible? 

These are valid subjects that would no doubt interest conservation-minded readers of Daily Maverick more than trashy “novellas”. DM/OBP

Gail Thomson and Chris Brown, Namibian Chamber of Environment.

Gallery
Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Carina Koen Koen says:

    I find it peculiar that DM keeps on publishing articles by this particular Namibian journalist, when they are pulled apart for factual inaccuracy with monotonous regularity. Surely the penny must have dropped by now that his work is unreliable? Signed: A former Namibian journalist.

  • Simon Espley says:

    I have great respect for the writers of this rebuttal, even though our views differ here and there, and feel similarly irritated that the demonstrated poor attention to factual accuracy is damaging to public awareness of the real issues

    This debate about wildlife utilisation will always be an emotional one for many, and we rely on all media platforms to enforce factually accurate reporting and considered opinions and to cull the dreadful attention-seeking outbursts that seem to be de rigueur these days

    DM should up their game and check facts – even more so because witch-hunts and character assassinations seem to be the favoured route for the journalist in question.

  • ian hurst says:

    I did not read the offending articles so I am unable to comment. However, the standard of DM reporting on South African wildlife issues is abysmal. Statistics are frequently misused to give authority to the author’s prejudices. DM should invest in more neutral commentators.

  • J R says:

    Good to see this article published. Grobler’s irresponsible writing has done enormous damage. DM’s otherwise excellent journalism on a range of issues including the environment is routinely marred by the “journalism” of some of its contributors; a largely Cape Town-based clique of writers whose writing on wildlife conservation issues is transparently agenda-driven and betrays their inherent biases and conflicts. Why DM has allowed itself to be dominated by these interests, their cherry-picked data and sources and, as the authors of this piece point out, “science denialism and contempt for post-independence governments”, is beyond me. DM is uniquely positioned as a respected and authoritative voice in South Africa and the region. If it chooses, it can play an enormously valuable and constructive role in journalism and debate on conservation and conservation science in all its messy complexity.

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