Mike Chase on Botswana’s biggest elephant dilemma

Mike Chase with Kelly Landen co directors of Elephants Without Borders PIC. THALEFANG CHARLES
Mike Chase with Kelly Landen co directors of Elephants Without Borders PIC. THALEFANG CHARLES

No man alive has amassed more in depth knowledge of African elephants than Mike Chase, the founder of Elephants Without Borders. Staff Writer THALEFANG CHARLES sat with him on the banks of Chobe River in Kasane recently as he shared some revelations from his recent project called the Great Elephant Census

Travelling on a Safari vehicle from Chobe Game Lodge to the Kasane Airport, a wide-ranging conversation with Map Ives, the National Rhino Coordinator, touches on elephants and quickly moves on to Mike Chase. Ives says: “Mike has amassed a lot of information and knowledge and I think sometimes it weighs down on him. You can tell from his eyes.”

We concurred on this after sitting in an hour-long exclusive interview with Chase, noting his occasional quiet, distant stares in mid-sentence as if he wanted to choose the right information from his bank of knowledge from ground-breaking research on elephants and zebras in Africa.

Born 43 years ago in Mahalapye, Chase has been studying elephants’ ecology in Botswana for over 17 years. He is the first Motswana to be conferred a doctorate in elephant ecology. In 2001 Chase founded a conservation organisation called Elephants Without Borders (EWB) based in Kasane and today when he speaks about elephants, he oozes with authoritative passion.

But why elephants? Chase explains

“I have always had passion for elephants. They have mystified me. I have been intrigued by them. I love the look of them, the smell of them, the way that they feel, their skin rubbing against each other and besides, Botswana has the largest population of elephants in the world.”

He says although Botswana is the global custodian of the African elephant, there was previously no dedicated study on these animals and he took it upon himself to serve that niche to provide invaluable scientific data on elephants.


Great Elephant Census

In 2014 Chase put together a team of over 90 scientists, six non-governmental organisations, consultants and two advisory partners to collaborate in the immense three-year Great Elephant Census (GEC) project. He says this was the first-ever pan-African survey of savanna elephants using standardised data collection and validation methods. The project, which was funded by billionaire philanthropist Paul Allen, revealed that there was indeed a substantial decline in elephant numbers in just the last decade.

Chase reports that ivory trade and poaching pose serious threats and there is now a risk that savannah elephants could disappear from parts of Africa.

The scientific report on the results of the GEC, which was published on August 31 states: “The Pan-African survey shows the estimated savannah elephant population to be 352,271 within the 18 countries surveyed to-date, representing at least 93% of savannah elephants in these countries”.

The report further states that Botswana holds 37% of the total elephant population followed by Zimbabwe at 23% and Tanzania with 12%.


Botswana’s biggest elephant dilemma

According to Chase, Botswana is facing a huge dilemma with regards to her noble decision to provide safe haven to the continent’s elephants.

“Because of Botswana’s stand on elephants, a lot of them are finding refuge in Botswana and this creates a lot of challenges in human-wildlife coexistence because living with high numbers of elephants is a big challenge.

“The great tragedy is that there is little we can do in Botswana. These elephants are part of a trans-boundary population and until our neighbours rise up and act on protecting their environment so that these animals can freely travel back and fourth through their ancestral migration routes, they will continue to stay here and seek refuge.”

Chase says on the northern part of the border, elephants are facing the highest concentration of poaching in Africa. Whenever the beasts attempt to migrate north of Botswana’s border, they get killed. As a result, more elephants are now moving into new territories sparking recent sightings in southern Botswana.

“People say Botswana is not affected by poaching but we are arguably the most affected country because now all the elephants are coming here seeking refuge and in the process, causing lots of damage to the environment and worsening human-wildlife conflicts,” Chase says.

He gives example of Chobe, saying the region cannot sustain the elephants population in the long run.

“It is time to stop paying lip service. We have agreements like Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA) and that needs to be enforced.”

The solutions, Chase says, lie in demonstrating to partnering countries the benefits of wildlife tourism.

“We need to present the Botswana model to neighbouring countries and show them that this is a multimillion dollar industry that could uplift communities and simultaneously protect and preserve the environment.”


Hunting ban

Chase also condemns those calling for the lifting of the hunting ban saying, they are basing their arguments on “little information”. He gives an example of the situation in the Caprivi Strip where hunting is allowed but there are many communities living in abject poverty without benefiting from the hunting of wildlife.

“Until we sort out the comprehensive community benefits from wildlife hunting, where communities will enjoy the benefits of wildlife they co-existed with for years, I see no future in hunting on state land in this country,” said Chase.


Environment and Conservation

Chase urges all parties to involve Batswana on environmental issues. He notes that local media do not cover environmental issues affecting Botswana comprehensively and urges fellow researchers to involve Batswana, through local media in their works. Chase is aware that even in Kasane, there are people who have never been inside the Chobe National Park and for Botswana to achieve environmental education, everyone needs to be involved and become an advocate for the environment.

“We have to intensify the appreciation of environment so that Botswana can still shine as a model of successful conservation,” he says.

Chase, who this year was very vocal against the burning of the elephant stockpile in Kenya, challenges conservation organisations to leave their ivory towers, get on the field and work to protect and preserve the environment.

Chase has also influenced the phasing out of the 20-year old elephant riding activity at the Abu Camp in the Okavango Delta. This week Abu Camp announced the ban in a statement saying: “Following an extensive review of its programme and in compliance with recent government directives, as of 31 December 2016, Abu Camp will no longer allow guests to ride elephants.”

For his next project, Chase is working on starting a wildlife sanctuary in Kasane with the support of the government.  “I want to start training and facilitating the next generation of conservationists. This will be a visitor education centre that will help in conservation and environmental education in Botswana.”

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