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Birdlife Botswana takes a lead in veld fire battle

As Botswana is bracing for veld fires due to heavy fuel load throughout the country this year, Birdlife Botswana is reported to be ready with a community inclusive fire management approach for the battle which officially starts from July to October.

This is a welcome development that involves the very communities which are usually blamed for causing the fires in an inclusive fire management approach. Experience has shown that communities have knowledge on burning patterns that influence fire risks in their areas and their involvement in fire risks and suspension can also help in conservation strategy and climate change. 

Birdlife Botswana has embraced this strategy by engaging communities in Sua Pan which is home to thousands of flamingoes and one of the only three remaining breeding sites of Lesser Flamingoes in Africa, the other two being Etosha Pan in Namibia and Lake Natron in Tanzania.

However, it seems Birdlife Botswana had conceived the idea way back in 2005 when it started to strengthen conservation and management efforts in and around Makgadikgadi wetlands for the benefit of both flamingoes threatened by extinction and riparian communities. According to records, this is the largest concentration of lesser flamingoes remaining in Africa, yet they receive little attention from government and are left to Birdlife Botswana for their threatened survival.

However, under the Sua Pan Fire Management strategy and through a UNDP/GEF funded project, Birdlife Botswana is working with the Department of Forestry and Range Resources and the Department of Environmental Affairs to facilitate, monitor and manage rangeland resources in Sua Pan for sustainable use.

According to Dr Kabelo Senyatso, Birdlife Botswana director, Birdlife wants to develop a flamingo breeding site in Sua Pan as a natural habitat for the birds without human conflict for posterity. Although the pink shimmering mass of flamingoes on Sua Pan is an irresistible sight for tourists, Birdlife does not want to develop it as a tourist destination.  

Using the Sua Pan Fire Management Strategy, Birdlife is confident that its approach will provide guidance to communities in the area on how to prevent and manage veld fires which threaten life and property. It has provided local communities of Southern Sua with

fire beaters and other important fire-fighting equipment for this fire season and beyond after conducting a risk assessment to identify potential emergency scenario.   

Records show that in 2008, veld fires consumed 70% of Chobe, 80% of CKGR and 70% of Ngamiland as well as Western Sandveld. This was linked to high rainfall that generated a build-up of fuel load, especially in Western Sandveld. Another large burn was recorded in 2013 when about 15 million hectares of grazing land was destroyed by veld fires.

This is a great loss, considering that Botswana’s economy relies on cattle and wildlife. With more fuel load this year, the situation could be worse if communities which can suppress fuel and ignition as significant causes of fire are not involved. Conflict between government officials and fire volunteers over night-out-claims should be a closed chapter. 

Central to this paradigm shift are the Australians who have contributed immensely in developing an effective fire management strategy and contributed fire equipment worth P530,000 in 2013. Records also show that Australians approved P4 million to be used by the Department of Forestry and Range Resources in Chobe, Ngamiland and Gantsi, which are prone to veld fires.

We should also be grateful to the Australians for training close to 3,000 Batswana as fire-fighters to man the 10 districts of the country as burning or physical removal of fuel load is a crucial activity in fire management by people.

As public education is another important component of veld fire management, it is important to review communication posters such as “se tshube naga” whether the message still has a meaning or is just a label in the wild. Some conservationists are of the view that the message should be written in both English and Setswana and show the name of the place where it is placed for purposes of identifying the area, especially by foreign travellers in case of fire emergency.

Moreri Gabakgore

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