No more space left for Botswana's giants

Elephants frequently stray out of the wild,encountering humans in the process PIC:THALEFANG CHARLES
Elephants frequently stray out of the wild,encountering humans in the process PIC:THALEFANG CHARLES

As Botswana legislators prepare to consult on the lifting of the controversial hunting ban, a decision that was taken without any consultation by the previous administration, Staff Writer THALEFANG CHARLES argues that it is not by accident that Botswana is a refuge for the African elephant. "Keyboard conservationists" must know that the safe haven created by Batswana is now full and it is time for the real conservationists to solve the problem

Let me start with a disclosure. I love elephants. Ke motloung – that means it is my tribe’s spiritual animal and a totem too. As a custom, I am not supposed to kill it. I have gone out to learn about this animal that I was taught to venerate.

That is why an elephant is the central figure in the cover of my first book, Botswana’s Top 50 Ultimate Experiences, and even on my Facebook profile cover there is a picture of seven elephants marching single file in Pandamatenga. I have touched an elephant, stroked it and felt its coarse skin texture. I have walked with elephants in crocodile and hippo-infested waters of the mighty Okavango Delta. I have also rode on it and I have even transgressed our tribe’s beliefs and tasted its meat.

I have met various elephants and they were not all welcoming to this Motloung. There was one that charged and threatened to drown my expedition team in the Okavango Delta, but our polers managed to convince it that we meant no harm, as we were just on a peaceful transition on their land.

I have met tamed eles too – the famous Abu Herd of affluent Abu Camp. I have played with Naledi – one of the famous members of Abu Herd and it is Cathy that I am walking with on the cover of my book.

I have collared elephants with the world famous elephant researchers like Dr Mike Chase (the first Motswana to be conferred a doctorate on elephant ecology) from Elephants Without Borders (EWB). Chase has given me an opportunity to name two matriarchs from the herds living in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) – such a great honour.

So having such deep connection (both spiritually and aesthetically) with elephants, I believe no one could therefore dare contest my assertion that I love elephants.

Consequently, it saddens me to note that the worldwide African elephant population is dwindling. These gentle giants could soon disappear from some parts of Africa, but I am fully aware that we have plenty here in Botswana. As a matter of fact, comprehensive research has demonstrated that Botswana is facing a reverse situation of elephant over-population.

In 2014, Chase put together a team of over 90 scientists, six non-governmental organisations, consultants and two advisory partners to collaborate on massive three-year Great Elephant Census (GEC) project funded by billionaire philanthropist Paul Allen. The scientific report on the results of the GEC, which was published on August 31, 2016 stated, “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 stated that Botswana held 37% of the total elephant population followed by Zimbabwe at 23% and Tanzania with 12%. According to the report, Botswana and Zimbabwe have the highest density of elephants than all countries surveyed.

Botswana’s no-nonsense approach to conservation under former president, Ian Khama especially with what was labelled as “knee-jerk reaction” blanket hunting ban in 2014, has compounded the elephant over-population situation for Botswana.

Since elephants are intelligent animals with excellent memory, after the ban on hunting most of southern African elephants migrated to a safe haven that is Botswana. Dozens of herds of these giants crossed into our borders from neighbouring States where they were still being hunted. They never went back.

“Elephants are fleeing away from the relentless poaching in our neighbouring countries and they are moving down south in areas populated by people and they are causing lots of damage to farmers’ crops and property,” reported Chase in 2016.

Herds of elephants began to cause havoc to farmers as they destroyed their annual yields sending capable farmers into undignified begging and destitution. The elephants are roaming around Botswana unhindered.

Some have even arrived deep down south all the way to the capital city. Last year an elephant strayed all the way to Phakalane suburb in Gaborone North. As more cases of elephants damage to human property, crop fields and wells increased, consequently an ugly human-wildlife conflict ensued.

The government could not provide fast relief to damaged property because of the caseload and the bureaucratic red tape. As more poachers from outside Botswana followed the elephants into our borders, the government surprisingly found the funds to arm the anti-poaching army with latest high-tech ammunition. “Poachers would be shot to death” was an ominous message that was reiterated by Tshekedi Khama the Minister of Environment, Wildlife Conservation and Natural Resources.

Meanwhile, the people were told that the hunting ban was a temporary measure to figure out “the causes of wildlife declines and for measures to reverse the causes of declines to take effect”. It must be noted here that the referred “decline” singled out two exceptions: elephants and impalas.

The hunting ban left a bitter taste in most communities that survived on trophy hunting and some pockets of “cowboy” foreigners that were bigshot in the hunting business.

It is widely believed that former president Khama was convinced to summarily ban hunting by his bosom friends the Joubert family, who are celebrated photographic safari kingpins, without any consultation or concrete plan to mitigate the loss of income and other consequences like overpopulation. The Joubert apparently reasoned that the photographic safari is the gold mine that could be a win-win for wildlife and humans. But everyone in Maun knows that photographic safari industry is run by the Joubert alone and the barriers to entry are 10-fold. Even Khama with his power and connections did not help put indigenous Batswana into the photographic safari industry to prove its sustainability.

Khama is no longer the president and his successor, Mokgweetsi Masisi looks set to reverse most of Khama’s contentious decisions. The new President’s ruling style is totally different from his immediate predecessor since he prefers to use one of the core pillars of Botswana, which is consultation on any divisive issue.

Knowing that a human-wildlife conflict has been a contentious issue where Khama had passionate views against any suggestion that involved hunting, Masisi set the tone for his administration, announcing during his maiden press conference that he would set up a high-level consultation team to look into lifting the hunting ban in a sustainable manner.

Last week, a motion calling on the lifting of hunting ban flew through Parliament supported by both the ruling and opposition legislators. As keyboard conservationists from around the world are politicking, signing online petitions and vehemently condemning Botswana MPs from the comfort of their air-conditioned offices, trying to impress billionaire donors to throw them more dollars “to save the elephants”, they must understand that Botswana is facing a unique problem. The space that was left for giants is now full. Botswana has successfully protected the African elephant that the people of Botswana (most of them who could not see the direct benefit of tourism) can no longer co-exist with the current population.

While all countries were mercifully killing their elephants, Botswana took a bold difficult decision to protect these animals. The country has world-class experts, and now a leadership that actually consults widely and listens before making any decision. And most importantly, it is not by luck that Botswana has these elephants - Batswana are natural conservationists. And the people understand their assumed responsibility as the sanctuary of the African elephant.

So we would not kill ourselves while protecting these giants because if we die  , you would not be good enough to save these elephants like we did.


Editor's Comment
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