The Botswana government’s strategy when dealing with the elephant poaching crisis sparked by Elephants Without Borders (EWB) director, Dr Mike Chase, appears to have been to ignore 'the elephant in the room' that is the Minister of Environment, Wildlife, Conservation and Natural Resources, Tshekedi 'TK' Khama.
The situation turned into a crisis after the BBC report by Alastair Leithead headlined, “dozens of elephants killed near Botswana wildlife sanctuary” was picked by many international media outlets.
The BBC had attributed the unsubstantiated elephant massacre to claims that government had disarmed the anti-poaching units just after former president, Ian Khama, handed over power to President Mokgweetsi Masisi.
“The spike coincides with Botswana’s anti-poaching unit being disarmed. The government disarmed its anti-poaching units in May - a month after President Mokgweetsi Masisi was sworn into office,” wrote the BBC.
British Prime Minister Theresa May also commented on the issue saying that she was “saddened to see elephants targeted by poachers.”
Even TK’s wife, Thea Khama shared the BBC story saying, “Put pressure to the Botswana government to re-arm its Wildlife Department.” (Thea has since deleted her post) This all happened while President Masisi was on a State visit to China and Vice President Slumber Tsogwane was at the helm in an acting role.
Government technocrats then released a strongly-worded rebuttal signed by Thato Raphaka, permanent secretary in the Environment ministry, condemning the “unsubstantiated and sensational media reports”.
The statement concluded with a strongly-worded swipe saying:
“The Government of Botswana wishes to condemn in the strongest terms possible attempts by individuals or groups who give a false impression that they love Botswana wildlife more than citizens of Botswana.”
This week, in the events that played out before live media, it emerged that the government statement did not pass through Minister TK. He apparently only saw it in the media, and hated it. Before the state TV and private press, TK did not hide his frustrations as he publicly condemned his own government and bashed his ministry officials for the “erroneous” statement.
When President Masisi returned from China, last Saturday, he announced that Foreign Affairs Minister Unity Dow would brief the media on the elephant poaching row.
The government wanted Dow to deal with the matter but on Monday, the whole affair turned into a shameful public relations disaster for government after TK apparently gatecrashed the press briefing and went off script.
Ministry officials say on Monday, before the afternoon press event, TK enquired about the whereabouts of his Permanent Secretary, Raphaka, and discovered that most of his senior officials including DWNP Director, Major General Otisitswe Tiroyamodimo,
The press conference moderator, Sakaeyo Janie--a veteran broadcaster at Radio Botswana, was actually expecting three panellists namely, Minister Dow, her permanent secretary Gaimelwe Goitsemang and Raphaka from the tourism ministry. He was surprised to see TK, and an extra chair had to be added by the producers to accommodate the minister.
The presence of TK did however not stop Dow from hitting hard on the supposed culprits in the row.
With her usual fast-talking manner, Dow started painfully attempting to explain why her ministry (Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation) was out there dealing with a local poaching crisis.
She then accused EWB of “shining the light in wrong area” saying the motive behind their explosive report is “to influence the hunting ban debate”. She even revealed that the government gave Chase P3.8million to conduct the elephant survey.
Dow further disclosed that EWB was given P600, 000 to nurse three elephant calves in Kasane, the same elephants the BBC story used in their report claiming they were part of the poached pachyderms.
Dow went further to condemn the organisational structures of the EWB and Tlhokomela Trust, questioning the involvement of former president Ian Khama and minister TK in their Board of directors.
TK, however did not read from any script but publicly condemned his ministry and government for releasing “erroneous” rebuttal on the crisis. He also said the comment that associated President Masisi with the disarming the Anti Poaching Units was “irresponsible”.
Asked to defend his statement that the minister said was unfortunate and erroneous, Raphaka, who appeared at ease during the entire press conference said, “I do not normally subscribe to washing dirty linen in public.”
Raphaka said he stands by his rebuttal because “it was a joint effort from various ministries.” He also said the ministry has sent a delegation on a fact finding mission with Chase and the report would be availed.
After the press conference ended, TK stood with the media and answered questions. He later invited the media to another press briefing that was to be hosted by him the following day.
On Tuesday morning, TK’s planned press conference was cancelled indefinitely without explanation.