Politics, popular grievances and the power of animal advocacy

No Image

This comment by Dr. Mokgweetsi Masisi sums up the feelings of not just Botswana’s President but also of many of its parliamentarians, community leaders and especially-of Batswana who live in rural areas alongside potentially dangerous and destructive wildlife.

To them it seems that Western animal lovers and animal-rights NGOs, and their African allies, appear to cherish wildlife above any concern for people who suffer crop damage or loss of livestock. This has been a long-running issue across southern Africa, but Botswana in particular is now caught up in an increasingly bitter controversy over its elephants that is fuelled by a number of factors, including:


* Vastly differing estimates of elephant numbers and elephant poaching

* Competing approaches to the conservation of wildlife and habitats

* Significant political divisions within Botswana since the Presidency changed in April 2018

* Conflicts of interest between the eco-tourism and sustainable-use lobbies and rural people and their elected representatives.

* Foreign sentiments about wild species and habitats, especially versus the needs of rural people


Poaching, EWB & the BBC

In Botswana, these issues heated up in September 2018, when Dr. Mike Chase, the veteran elephant researcher and founder of the advocacy group Elephants Without Borders (EWB), told the BBC News that he and his EWB colleagues had found 87 elephant carcasses between the Okavango and Chobe rivers, and that many of these had been killed illegally – i.e., poached. Hunting (for trophies or meat) has been illegal in Botswana since January 2014.  Yet most of the reported carcasses had been seen only from the air, and no corroboration was provided of how many there were, how many had been killed, how long they had been there, or of their ages or sex. Nonetheless, the BBC’s Africa correspondent, Alastair Leithead, ran with the story. He uncritically reported Chase’s claims that “[this] scale of poaching deaths is the largest seen in Africa” and that it indicated a massive rise in poaching resulting from “Botswana’s anti-poaching unit being disarmed.”

“‘People did warn us of an impending poaching problem and we thought we were prepared for it,” said Mr. Chase.” Leithead included no statement from the Botswana government or the DWNP, the Dept. of Wildlife and National Parks, and no verification of the statement that its APU, the Anti-Poaching Unit, had been disarmed.

The claim that this was the “largest scale” of elephant poaching in Africa was preposterous, but it gained public attention. While elephant poaching in Botswana has risen since president Khama’s 2014 ban on hunting, it pales against the mass killing (generally for ivory) of elephants in Tanzania and Mozambique in recent years and, in 2012, in northern Cameroon and the Central African Republic.

As a former BBC journalist (I spent 28 years with the BBC World Service and the BBC College of Journalism), I know how these stories are put together, and how the customary BBC concern with balance often goes out the window when it comes to wildlife. Animal-rights groups are routinely treated as the sole purveyors of truth, and such stories – the furor over Cecil the lion, for example, which I researched and wrote about in detail – become emotive clickbait. So I contacted Alastair Leithead to ask about the balance and facts of his report.

His reply: “I honestly don’t believe Mike Chase made up the 87 carcasses—I’ve met him a few times and respect him and his work and believe he acted in the best interest of the animals at great personal cost it seems.” Leithead thought it was “a shame” that people with “an agenda” had used his statement of findings to create a row about hunting, the APU and conservation.

However, the Botswana government has said it did not find the number of carcasses Chase claimed had been killed illegally, and it strongly disputed any lapse in effectiveness of the APU.

President Masisi responded angrily to the BBC story, and the truth about the “disarming” of anti-poaching patrols emerged: Botswana’s APU had traditionally carried semi-automatic rifles, as used by game rangers across southern Africa. But during the presidency of Ian Khama—a vehement opponent of legal hunting as well as poaching, and a former commander of the BDF, the Botswana Defence Force—the APU had been given full-automatic military assault rifles. This was illegal, but former president Khama overrode the law and never submitted the issue to Parliament.

The APU continued to be deployed along Botswana’s borders with Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe and members were authorised to shoot suspected poachers. As a result, in 2015 alone, “at least 30 Namibians and 22 Zimbabweans” were killed by the APU or the BDF on suspicion of poaching. After taking office, in April 2018, Ian Khama’s successor, President Masisi, announced (to the relief of neighbouring governments) an end to this aggressive approach to suspected poachers, and the APU gave up its assault rifles.

However, the members were not “disarmed”; they went back to their semi-auto rifles. There was never a period when the APU was unable to perform its duties, and it can still call in heavily armed BDF units in the Chobe, Linyanti, Savuti and Okavango districts for support if necessary.

In the view of many sustainable-use conservationists across Southern Africa, Chase’s BBC story (which was picked up by other international news organisations) and his conclusion (that, since the APU was “disarmed,” elephants were in unprecedented danger) seemed calculated to generate sympathy for elephants—and timed just as a move to end Botswana’s four-year-old ban on hunting was gathering strength.


Elephant Numbers, Elephant Hunting

Rural communities and their leaders and MPs (Members of Parliament) say that after hunting was banned in Botswana, in 2014, they suffered substantial increases in crop losses and property damage due to elephants, and in livestock losses to lions. Some communities also lost significant hunting-related revenue. As a result, a large majority in Parliament, of both the governing Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) and opposition MPs, have called on government to lift the hunting ban, particularly on hunting elephants.

Vice President (VP) and Boteti West MP, Slumber Tsogwane said that human-wildlife conflict is a major problem in areas bordering the wildlife-rich habitats of the Okavango Delta and the Chobe and Boteti rivers. Elephant numbers have increased in these areas, he said, and they are causing unsustainable levels of damage to crops and property. The VP emphasised, however, that if government did reinstate hunting, this “should not be regarded as a leeway to promoting poaching of elephants, as government would implement stringent measures to protect elephants and other wildlife species.”

According to Maun East MP, Kosta Markus, speaking in June 2018, available figures indicated that Botswana’s elephant population is 237,000 while the country’s carrying capacity had been calculated by the DWNP (in the early 1990s) to be 50,000 elephants.

The number 237,000 is widely regarded as inflated; it may instead be the elephant population of the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA), where Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zambia and Zimbabwe converge. Figures extrapolated from the African Elephant Status Report 2016 put elephant numbers for KAZA between 202,000 and 240,000. That survey also calculates Botswana’s elephant population at 131,626 with a margin of error that could mean a maximum of 144,134. EWB now sets Botswana’s number at 126,114 with a possible maximum of 136,036.

In response to the request to allow hunting again, the Masisi government appointed a ministerial committee to consult with all affected parties and to call traditional Kgotla meetings, local assemblies where Batswana can question, challenge and even defeat suggested government policies.

This committee was formed in late 2018 and its findings were made public in February 2019. The committee’s report, combined with further media coverage of Chase’s claimed catastrophic rise in elephant poaching, led to the controversy that rages today around elephant management in Botswana.

Before going further, it is worth looking briefly at historical and political contexts.

Conservation, Militarisation & Grievances

Between Independence, on September 30, 1966, and the imposition of the hunting ban by President Ian Khama in January 2014, Botswana had seen, thanks to favourable natural conditions, protection in national parks and strict quotas in hunting concessions, a significant rise in elephant numbers.

At the time, elephant poaching was not widespread in Botswana. This led to a wildlife conservation plan built on three platforms: protected national parks, photo-tourism reserves and concessions where controlled hunting—for trophies and also for meat by communities such as the San/Bushmen, who use traditional weapons—was legal. In each hunting concession, the DWNP set annual quotas of game that could be harvested.

This wildlife plan fostered high-price/low-volume tourism, which earned substantial income for the country and for safari operators but, other than some employment, it provided little cash at the local level.

However, many San (and Tswana) communities opted to sell their hunting quotas, set by government for species including elephants, to safari operators and to work for them as guides, trackers, skinners, drivers and camp staff.

Then President Khama banned hunting. In this, he was supported and encouraged by his brother Tshekedi (the Environment Minister, responsible for the DWNP and APU) and by anti-hunting allies and business associates such as Dereck Joubert (the filmmaker and owner of the vast Selinda Concession) and Mike Chase and EWB.

Just as Jomo Kenyatta had done in Kenya 40 years earlier, Khama unilaterally banned hunting with no consultation or public input and no legislation in Parliament. At the same time, he gave military weapons to the APU and authorised them to shoot poachers, also without the permission of Parliament.

Government did not provide alternative livelihoods and many villages lost (literally) the lion’s share of their income. In 2015, Steve Johnson of the Southern African Regional Environment Program told me of San communities along the Khwai River, outside the protected area of the Okavango, that had earned hundreds of thousands of dollars annually from selling their hunting quotas. In 2018, Chief Timex Moalosi of Sankuyo, north of Maun, told me that the hunting ban cost his villagers $600,000 a year in lost income, and that they were suffering wildlife damage on a massive scale.

The hunting ban not only impoverished communities, it also led to more human-elephant (and human-lion) conflict. Hunting concessions had acted as buffers between game parks and farmland, and boreholes in the concessions (wells maintained by safari operators or local people) meant that wildlife need not move into farms in search of water.

Hunting provided other benefits as well: safari operators supplied meat to villages and left partial carcasses in the bush, which meant that, if necessary, lions and other predators could find food without raiding livestock. The presence of hunting parties also deterred poachers.

These issues were ignored by the Khama Administration, which moved away from the democratic and consultative traditions of Botswana and became increasingly authoritarian and unaccountable. It began to crack down on journalists, critics and freedom of speech. In several visits, from 1993 to 2018, as a journalist and then an academic researcher (as well as a camping-safari aficionado), I saw how ordinary Batswana and conservationists, local and foreign, had become wary of expressing any opinion not in line with ex-president Khama’s policies. Researchers feared losing their permits if they were seen to be “off message” by the government.Another worrying trend was the evidence of growing cronyism and the development of a powerful elite around the Khama brothers and their intelligence chief and business associate Isaac Kgosi. Kgosi has since been sacked and arrested on charges of corruption.

In April 2018, by law, Khama stepped down after two terms in office. He had tried to arrange for his brother Tshekedi to succeed him, but the BDP would not accept that. Instead, Masisi was elected President. As a fallback, Khama expected Masisi to appoint Tshekedi to be VP. When he did not, Khama turned against President Masisi.

*Professor Keith Somerville is a member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent (and teaches at the Centre for Journalism there). He is a fellow of the Zoological Society of London, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (University of London) and a member of the IUCN Sustainable Livelihoods Specialist Group. His book, Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa, was published in 2016; his newest book, Humans and Lions: Conflict, Conservation and Coexistence, will be available in July 2019.

This article is published with the express permission of Conservation Frontlines

Editor's Comment
What about employees in private sector?

How can this be achieved when there already is little care about the working conditions of those within the private sector employ?For a long time, private sector employees have been neglected by their employers, not because they cannot do better to care for them, but because they take advantage of government's laxity when it comes to protecting and advocating for public sector employees, giving the cue to employers within the private sector...

Have a Story? Send Us a tip
arrow up