The results of the recent and most extensive elephant population survey of Botswana estimates the country’s population at 126,000 elephants, a further decline from 131,600 reported in 2014. The report shows repeated evidence of significant increases in elephant poaching in four hotspots in Northern Botswana, which started a media storm last year.
This report by Elephants Without Borders (EWB) comes after the cabinet sub-committee presented their pro hunting report to President Masisi on Thursday last week, which proposes not only lifting the hunting ban, but also the introduction of regular elephant culling and associated elephant meat canning industry for pet food, as well as closing certain wildlife migratory routes.Botswana government earlier submitted a proposal to CITES in preparation for the CoP18 meeting in May this year, asking to amend the CITES listing of the African savannah elephant to allow for trade in hunting trophies, live animals and registered (government-owned) stocks of raw ivory. According to the African Elephant Status report (2016) Botswana’s elephant population declined by 15 percent in the preceding 10 years.
This report clearly shows that Botswana’s elephant population is not increasing, as is often suggested in political and hunting corridors. Although its population is still the largest in Southern Africa it is actually 100, 000 less than the 237,000 often quoted by politicians and the media in Botswana in attempts to justify culling and hunting. The EWB elephant population of 126,000 is based on a region-wide aerial survey, covering a larger area than any previous study by EWB. The joint EWB and DWNP team flew over a period of 62 days, recording more than 32,000 km of transects and covering over 100,000 km2 of Botswana, including Chobe, Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pan National Parks and surrounding Wildlife Management Areas, Okavango Delta and Moremi Game Reserve, and the pastoral areas in Ngamiland, Chobe and the Central Districts.
ELEPHANT POACHING HOTSPOTS
Since the last survey in 2014, the EWB research team discovered a steep increase in the number of fresh and recent elephant carcasses, that is, elephants that died within the last year of both natural causes and poaching. The EWB team confirmed that of the 128 elephant carcasses less than one year old, 72 were confirmed either on the ground or by aerial assessment as killed by poachers and an additional 22 from survey photographs as poaching victims. In addition, 79 older than one-year carcasses were assessed in one particular hotspot, of which 63 were confirmed as poached.
The all-age carcass ratio increased from 6.8 percent to 8.1 percent between 2014 and 2018, generally accepted as indicating an elephant population that could be declining. The elephant remains all show the graphic evidence of poaching with a similar modus operandi. Poachers shoot the animals with high calibre rifles when they come to drink at remote seasonal pans. If the elephant doesn’t die immediately, one of the poachers immobilises it by damaging the spinal cord with an axe.
Their tusks are hacked away, severely damaging the skull, the trunk is often removed from the face, and the carcass is covered in cut branches in an attempt to hide the dead animal. The poachers seem to operate in a certain area, targeting the bulls with large tusks, before moving on to the next site.
They are in no apparent rush, as a poacher’s camp was also discovered close to one of the carcass clusters.The ground verification team established that the vast majority of poached elephants are indeed bulls between the ages of 35-45 years old. This also corresponds with evidence in the report that the bull population has decreased from 21,600 individuals in 2014 to 19,400 in 2018. The poaching appears predominately in four hotspots in Northern Botswana – the area between the Pan Handle and Caprivi Strip, in and around the Savuti section of Chobe including Khwai and Linyanti, near Maun, and in the area between Chobe and Nxai Pan.
A panel of nine independent elephant scientists reviewed the EWB report and found the science to be rock solid. One member stated, “this is a very thorough and carefully documented report demonstrating exceptionally high rigour”. Nevertheless, the Botswana government still attempts to cast doubt on various issues detailed in the report, as part of a confusing political campaign. EWB strongly refutes the government claims and says they find it regrettable that the government has not contacted them directly to discuss the report.
In addition to the many elephant fatalities, 13 rhinos were killed by poachers in just 11 months in Botswana, three of which were in the Okavango Delta. The surge in wildlife poaching is alarming, but sadly not unique to Botswana. Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton, member of the reviewing panel, says “in my view [the EWB] count showing that elephant poaching has increased to a greater level than previously thought, raises the possibility that further escalations are possible”. Another member adds, “it is safe to say that, if the observed poaching trend continues, there could be a significant decrease in elephant populations. Politicians never like to see negative publicity however this should act as a warning call, and preventative action should be taken”.
An uproar over the alleged poaching which resulted in the slaughter of close to 90 elephants has been linked to a political standoff between former President Ian Khama and his successor Mokgweetsi Masisi.The main idea, it’s being said, is to discredit Masisi’s administration. The once close buddies- Khama and President Mokgweetsi Masisi - are said to have had a fall out after Masisi assumed the high office in April this year and started reversing some of Khama’s policies and decisions.
Masisi has also denied Khama access to do as he pleases. Recently attempts by the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) Council of Elders to reconcile the duo hit a snag. Reports by conservationists that almost 90 elephants were found dead near a wildlife sanctuary in Northern Botswana, have been dismissed by government as false, but have also raised eyebrows regarding the leaking of the information to international media.
Workers from Elephants Without Borders (EWB) have carried out an aerial survey, which found that 87 elephants have been killed for their tusks in the area, with most of the deaths happening just weeks ago. Dr. Mike Chase of EWB told the BBC: “I’m shocked, I’m completely astounded. The scale of elephant poaching is by far the largest I’ve seen or read about anywhere in Africa to date.
“When I compare this to figures and data from the Great Elephant Census, which I conducted in 2015, we are recording double the number of fresh poached elephants than anywhere else in Africa”. When the news broke out on Tuesday this week Masisi’s administration bore the worst attack from international groups and organisations who stated that Khama was doing a better job than Masisi with others referring to him as “your new man”.
Dr. Chase said there have been warnings of an impending poaching problem and the country was prepared for it. “The poachers are now turning their guns to Botswana. We have the world’s largest elephant population and it is open season for poachers. Clearly we need to be doing more to stop the scale of what we are recording on our survey.”
The debate around the issue heated up when Thea Khama, wife to Minister of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism Tshekedi Khama, who is also former President Ian Khama’s younger brother, added her voice to the debate on social media.
“This is a tragedy of epic proportions. While we promote trade and cultural tourism with China and the world at large, all is lost without the flora and fauna of our eco-systems.
We have built a strong industry and reputation in photographic safaris that generate capital for the Botswana economy. “This can still be further exploited for the benefit of Batswana in the wake of the diamond industry scaling down and moving to sell out to synthetics. The last great haven for keystone species is now under our watch and in our lifetime under serious attack.
How to help? “Put pressure to the Botswana government to re-arm its Wildlife Department, cultivate cultural tourism projects that help communities live safely with the predators, and large keystone species in their areas and educate and make money for the communities so they can learn to protect and value the world’s wildlife populations, create awareness campaigns, educate yourself what happens when we lose our keystone species, lions, elephants, rhinos, whales, wolves, etc from the food chain”.
This was perceived by many as a direct attack on President Masisi by a Khama relative after Masisi ordered the withdrawal of weapons from the department of wildlife sometimes in May this year. Thea’s comment attracted a lot of attention from people most of whom condemned the government for disarming the wildlife department. The debate was later joined by UK Prime Minister Theresa May who said she was saddened to see elephants targeted by poachers. “The UK will continue to work with Botswana who have a long and successful conservation programme.
We are leading the fight on wildlife crime and I look forward to hosting the End Wildlife Crime Summit in London next month,” said the Prime Minister. Government has however refuted the claims indicating that the statistics were “false and misleading”. A statement from Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism Permanent Secretary Thato Raphaka indicated that that EWB had counted 53 carcasses in their survey and that most of the animals had died of “natural causes”.
He stressed that the increase in poaching was not due to the decision to withdraw weapons from Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) and such a withdrawal has not created any vacuum in anti-poaching operations.
“The fact of the matter is that the withdrawal of such weapons from DWNP did not in any way affect the effectiveness and operations of the anti-poaching unit.
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,” he said.Thea indicated on her social media page that no one is trying to discredit any person. “But I see a lot of attack on my husband and myself for no reason.
Nobody said anything about President Masisi. Yes, China is associated to poaching. Yes, the APU in Bots is disarmed by the OP, the news ran previously locally but most people pay more attention when it hits international papers……the reason you never saw it was because the international media did not pick it up back then. “How many times have the media outfits tried to discredit heads of states around the world and in Botswana? What is freedom of speech when only one point of view thinks it is allowed to speak,” she posted.
President Masisi has travelled to China on an official trip where China announced that it would assist African countries, Botswana included, with funds for infrastructure development. Efforts to speak to Dr Chase were futile as his mobile phone rang unanswered and did not respond to WhatsApp messages sent to him. But in an interview with National Geographic Dr Chase stood by his numbers: “I am an objective scientist, with no political agenda.
I am sad that our government has responded in this way”. Dr Chase stated that there is a GPS location for each of the 87 carcasses and that there are multiple witnesses who saw each one. He explained that every flight has four people, including one government employee, and novice recordings from the flights will bear out these findings.
Minister Khama also could not be reached for comment even at 2100hrs on Wednesday when he had promised to be available. The minister also did not respond to WhatsApp messages that were sent to him regarding this matter. Vice President whom at press time was Acting President Slumber Tsogwane, said he is not aware that the BBC story has sparked a heated debate on social media.
Tsogwane who is also BDP Chairman, told this publication that he is only aware of the rebuttal of the BBC story by the Tourism Ministry which also aired on government media.“I would not be in a position to say anything because I haven’t been to social media. I do not know what is being said there.
I have also not been briefed by officials of the matter trending on social media and our government under the leadership of President Masisi being discredited. I would have to first find out from our officials who handle our media and social media platforms so that I could make a determination,” said Tsogwane on Wednesday.