Taming the wild, wild west

No nonsense: Khama is leading local delegates at the illegal wildlife conference. PICS: KEBOFHE MATHE
No nonsense: Khama is leading local delegates at the illegal wildlife conference. PICS: KEBOFHE MATHE

Between Monday and Wednesday, scores of delegates from 41 countries and 10 international organisations descend on the tourist town of Kasane, for the highest profile global meeting on illegal trade in wildlife. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI notes that under the world’s gaze, Botswana is expected to shine as a leader in anti-poaching

If the global illegal trade in wildlife can be likened to the notorious Wild West period of America’s 19th century, the sheriff with the shiny badge, gleaming spurs on the boots and glistening gun in hand would be Botswana.

“The harder we hit back, the less motivation they have and it’s about hitting back harder than what they hurt us with.  They must know that when you cross the border, you will not be welcomed with a tea party. You must know that you may not go back home with your life.”

In an interview in his simple office, Environment, Wildlife and Tourism minister, Tshekedi Khama leans forward, eyebrows knitted as he grimly states Botswana’s position on contact with armed poachers.

Famously known as the shoot-to-kill approach, the no-nonsense attitude the country has adopted towards poachers in recent years has been rewarded with the tapering of incidents among key targets such as elephants and rhinos.  It is has also preserved the country’s prized safari wilderness in the west as pristine, a quality cherished by government through policy and highly sought and paid for international tourists.

Last year, the travel and tourism sector was expected to contribute P5.9 billion directly to the country’s economy, while employing 31,000 people.  World Travel and Tourism Council researchers expect that by 2024, the sector will contribute P10.3 billion to the economy and employ 41,000 people.

Besides the obvious economic impact, Khama and his predecessors hold the belief that the country’s natural wonders should be preserved for both current and forthcoming generations, while communities living in and around such areas should glean benefits for their upliftment.

Government policy, which includes the 2014 hunting ban, is that the management of the prized flora and fauna should benefit the communities, local and foreign visitors, future generations and the continuous study of creation.

Poachers, however, are not included in the list of those to benefit. According to experts, the end of the Namibian war of independence in 1990 meant that caches of arms remained unaccounted for and sometimes in dubious hands.

Some of these weapons would later find themselves held by people with military experience and an eye on the lush bushes of Botswana’s tourism heartland in the west.

“We have seen that after Namibia became independent, some cadres came across with military weapons such as AK’s to poach.  Those weapons did not just disappear after the war,” Khama says.

Officers involved in the anti-poaching effort report that the majority of armed suspects they encounter are either from Namibia or Zambia. As a result, when a poacher is reported shot, in most instances their nationality is either of the two countries.

According to Khama, the shoot-to-kill policy is not necessarily as ‘scorched earth’ or indiscriminate as it sounds.

“Most of the poachers that carry weapons and challenge our security people are the ones that are shot,” he explains.

“It’s not the ones carrying axes, let’s be clear on that. We must also be clear that while it’s frequently foreign poachers who are armed, Batswana do engage in bush meat trade, although we manage that through Community Based Natural Resource Management.

“Locals use snares and other devices and we catch them with the meat.”

The tough approach has led to a spike in the local elephant population with a recent survey by Elephants Without Borders indicating that local numbers are between 140,000 and 150,000 – the highest in the world.

In addition, Botswana plays host to a migratory population of between 40,000 and 60,000. Coupled with a birth rate of between 4.6 percent and five percent per annum, the local population could be growing by up to 10,000 animals per annum.

“You are going to have a similar death rate and the tusks that we do find are from natural deaths, not poaching. The race is always on to find them first,” says Khama.

While rhinos have recently received unwanted attention with a poaching incident three weeks ago in the Makgadikgadi and another in the Sandveld, the pre-historic looking beasts are generally safest in Botswana.

In recognition of its status as a safe haven, Botswana received 16 black rhinos relocated from South Africa in 2014, as part of that country’s efforts to save its populations.

With more due to come this year, the relocation exercise brings its own threats to the extent that Khama is unwilling to specify where the relocated rhinos have been moved.

A Rhino Squad, bolstered by a P48 million injection through the December 2014 supplementary budget, is being trained and militarised to safeguard and monitor the rhino population.

Of the budget, P2 million is for training, while the balance will be used for equipment, which includes helicopters.

As the country prepares to exhibit its excellence in anti-poaching on the world stage, Khama notes that Botswana’s success is made more unique by the fact that its expenditure in this regard, has had little external support.

“We are not convinced that the situation pertaining to the continued illegal wildlife trade in certain countries does not have political influence,” he says quietly.

“The reason I say that is because here, we are doing very well managing, but there are countries with more resources that are not doing half as well as we are.

“Those countries are receiving sponsorships and grants, but are still battling.

“The question must be asked: ‘what are they doing with those funds’.” Because of its middle-income status and perhaps because of the success already recorded, Botswana receives minimal regular funding of its anti-poaching efforts. One source is the German government’s funding of the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA), which is distributed to five countries including Botswana.

However, the funds each country receives, such as the €1.2 million for Botswana recently, are strictly used in KAZA areas and permission to spend has to be sought from the KAZA Secretariat.

Next week, Khama, his lieutenants and other local players plan to dazzle their foreign visitors with a lesson in ‘doing more with less’.

“I’m not a sceptic, but there are talkers and doers. We are doers.

“Some people only seem to be motivated when there’s money on the table, but our conservation and efforts in anti-poaching are resourced locally.

“Others get millions, but who is the leader? It is Botswana and we will guard this jealously.”

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