The Botswana government last week took a contingent of local and international media on a fact-finding mission of the elephant poaching that has recently been reported on.
The Botswana Defence Force (BDF) flew the media around with six army helicopters over areas of Chobe and Ngamiland believed to be the hotspots for poachers. But key personalities in the crisis who had the power to talk and offer answers to the media were conspicuously absent from the tour and the whole exercise added more cloud and confusion to the crisis.
Dr Mike Chase
He is a researcher and founding director of Elephants Without Borders (EWB) who is leading the Botswana elephant aerial survey in the north. Chase is the source of the BBC article that broke the news of the “Dozens of elephants killed near Botswana wildlife sanctuary”. Following the news, a delegation of government officials including the BDF and Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) went for their own fact-finding mission with Dr Chase.
Chase was however famously absent at last week’s media tour.
Osisinaqa Lekgoko from Botswana Government Communications on Tuesday said they “failed to get hold of Chase” as his phone was not available and the messages they sent were not being responded to. EWB responded a day later on Wednesday via a press release denying any invitation from government. They wrote: “Dr Chase was not extended an invitation to the recent Government of Botswana press briefing held in Kasane on September 19 pertaining to a fact-finding mission about the alleged elephant poaching.” Chase insists he has all the GPS coordinates, photographs, written records and cockpit voice recordings of all the 87 carcasses they found.
A charity organisation founded by Chase. EWB has conducted a number of aerial surveys of elephants, the largest being the Great Elephant Census (GEC) covering 18 African countries. It is based in Kasane and has a state of the art research camp in Abu. EWB was not represented during the media tour. Some journalists went and knocked at their offices in Kasane – which has vicious dogs – and were told to wait for a press statement. In their statement, EWB curiously omitted the number of the dead elephants – an issue that caused the whole uproar. The statement interestingly chose a diplomatic view of the issue saying, “an unusually high number of elephant carcasses were seen by the survey team”. EWB also interestingly added that the current census was funded by the “grant from the Conservation Trust Fund, under the administration of the DWNP”. This was a response to those who are questioning whether there was a tender before conducting the census.
Major General Otisitswe
The former deputy commander of the BDF is now the director of the DWNP. Tiroyamodimo has not commented on the issue. He has a staff member who is currently conducting the elephant census with EWB. He was absent from the media tour.
He is deputy director operations at DWNP who represented the ministry during the media tour. Collyer, who was with Chase during the first government fact-finding mission, says Chase lied and they have engaged the Attorney General to seek legal advice on the matter. He also told the media that Chase has been allowed to complete the survey despite government questioning his numbers. He referred all the contractual details of Chase and DWNP to his boss, Tiroyamodimo.
Brigadier Simon Barwabatsile
He is the national anti-poaching coordinator and led the media fact-finding mission. Barwabatsile is the big boss of multi-sectorial bodies that are working together to fight poaching in Botswana. He said Chase showed them coordinates of only 36 elephant carcasses. Barwabatsile told the media that they flew with Chase for two days and found only 19 carcasses. “Ten of the carcasses we found on first day, while nine on the second day. We verified that six in the total of 19 were indeed poached,” said Barwabatsile. He added that all the carcasses were not as ‘recent’ as the media reports suggested because they found them to be around ‘eight months’ old. He said they have a total of 63 elephants poached since January this year adding that it is a normal statistic looking at the fact that there are over 100,000 elephants in the area. Barwabatsile said Chase did not give them all the 87 coordinates of the alleged poached elephants. The brigadier also cleared the air on the ‘disarmament’ of the rangers saying all his men are still carrying their guns, but only certain types of guns were taken from the DWNP rangers. He highlighted that the area in question, is not guarded by the DWNP but by the army who still have all their guns.
He is the Minister of Environment, Wildlife, Conservation and Natural Resources
He is the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Environment, Wildlife, Conservation and Natural Resources. He was absent from the media tour. Raphaka was oozing with confidence when he reported to Public Accounts Committee (PAC) saying the government investigating team sent to Chase did not yield any massacre of elephants. Although his minister condemned him for publishing an ‘erroneous’ rebuttal, Raphaka stood by his statement saying, “it was a joint work effort from various ministries”.
Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation minister who was thrown deep into the centre of the elephant storm and was struggling to explain her relevance on the issue. Dow, however, spat some pungent punchlines that hit hard on the Khama family and their close associates in the tourism industry. She highlighted and questioned the involvement of the former President Ian Khama and minister Tshekedi Khama in the board of directors for organisations like EWB and Tlhokomela Trust. Dow is also currently with the presidential delegation in the US.
She is and official from the Botswana Government Communications unit under the Office of the President. She was speaking on behalf of the government in Kasane and her explanation on why the government did not get Chase to be part of the media tour was not convincing. Chase’s absence left so many questions unanswered. Lekgoko however advised that the government will openly facilitate those journalists looking for further information on the issue.
President Mokgweetsi Masisi
Chase has been trying to tell President Masisi something. It appears that what Chase knows, is so big and could implicate big shots in the country. Prior to the explosion of this crisis he wrote letters hand delivered them to the Office of the President, but he has never gotten audience with Masisi. Chase was however present at the researcher’s meeting with the President in Maun and it appears that he did not pass the message he wants the President to know. The international news report has been trying to tie in Masisi with the poaching problem saying that his decision to “disarm” the rangers is the cause of all this.
Two men who are heading the brigades of the anti poaching unit (APU) are Colonel Shadrack Kgosi (younger brother to Isaac Kgosi – former DIS chief) and Colonel George Bogatsu. These APU battalions work in shifts in the north. They are heavily armed and shoot to kill. It therefore remains a mystery of how an elephant massacre could happen under the noses of such heavily armed forces. Col Bogatsu was with the media during the tour and said Chase did not give them all the 87 GPS coordinates of the carcasses.
“Additional to soldiers that are always on the ground we usually bring our recruits to come and sweep these areas looking for any trails of poachers,” said Col Bogatsu. Soldiers on the ground who shared war stories on the frontlines of poaching war said, “Poachers cannot take out more than five elephants at a time”. Soldiers say even though the poachers still try to sneak in, they know that crossing the river into Botswana is an audacious and dangerous mission. The soldiers were equally bemused of EWB carcass numbers.
Researchers are saying that poachers are targeting elephants with extra large tusks, also known as “tuskers” or “great pounders”. These are the old big bulls with big tusks that weigh around 100 pounds (45.45 kg) each, which is also why they are sometimes called “hundred pounders.”
These are the tusks that yield huge revenues in the illicit ivory trade and are therefore most wanted by the poachers. As Botswana is discussing the lifting of the hunting ban, it appears like highly professional poachers are wiping out the most valuable elephants, the ‘great pounders’ that are roaming in Botswana. “This is the work of a highly professional poachers who seem to be well connect too,” said one researcher who requested to remain anonymous. “These are the elephants that could benefit communities if, God forbid, the hunting ban is lifted and communities receive the hunting proceeds,” said another conservationist.