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(Luc Gnago/Reuters)
(Luc Gnago/Reuters)

Botswana’s intelligence agency has been accused of using its anti-poaching operation to conceal elephant tusks from the responsible government department, potentially using it as a conduit for ivory smuggling.

This comes after the department of wildlife and national parks’ anti-poaching unit raided a storage facility at a directorate of intelligence and security services (DISS) camp in Ngwashe, near Nata village in northern Botswana, allegedly finding a large stockpile of elephant tusks.

Highly placed departmental sources told INK that the department was unaware of the stockpile at Ngwashe until last week and that the DISS could not explain why it kept such a large number of tusks in a warehouse in the bush, as this was not standard procedure.

They said the DISS officer at the scene could not account for the stockpile and told wildlife department officials that questions should be directed to Isaac Kgosi, the former DISS head who was sacked earlier this year.

The sources said the wildlife department has refused to take over the tusks without a proper inventory. The department wants to know how the DISS was able to collect so much ivory without its knowledge and where the agency got it from.

According to wildlife officers, the correct procedure is that the DISS must first report to the department how and where it obtained each tusk.

Botswana takes a tough line on poaching and smuggling of animal products, and follows an unwritten shoot to kill policy with poachers. The Wildlife Conservation and National Parks Act carries a fine of 50 000 pula (R64 750) or a 10-year jail sentence for possession of ivory.

The wildlife department falls under former president Ian Khama’s younger brother, Tshekedi Khama.

The DISS underwent an abrupt change of leadership after Botswana’s new president, Mokgweetsi Masisi, fired its founding director-general, Isaac Kgosi, in May this year and replaced him with Brigadier Peter Magosi.

According to a source, the raid on the Ngwashe facility would not have been possible without the support of senior DISS officials, who have called for reforms at the spy agency.

Kgosi is alleged to have set up an illegal anti-poaching unit in parallel with the wildlife department’s unit. Department officials complain that the DISS overstepped its authority and that its anti-poaching outfit “gets in the way” of their operations.

There have also been rumours that the DISS unit was set up to smuggle ivory and launder money out of the country.

The media reported last year that the agency had been on the radar of the Wildlife Intelligence Unit for some time following a tip-off that it was part of an international diamond and ivory smuggling racket.

In mid-2016 three DISS agents were reported to have been arrested by the Wildlife Intelligence Unit at a roadblock in Makalamabedi, central Botswana, with elephant tusks cut into small pieces inside a sports bag.

The Sunday Standard alleged that information gathered by the unit suggested that agency officials had been smuggling ivory and diamonds out of the country in their Pilatus PC-12 aircraft as diplomatic cargo, which enjoys immunity from search or seizure.

The DISS was seen as the personal fiefdom of Kgosi, who was formerly the private secretary of Ian Khama and enjoyed his protection over a 10-year period as the agency’s head.

Kgosi refused to comment on the claims relating to the Ngwashe stockpile, saying he no longer works for government. “Go and ask relevant authorities,” he said.

READ MORE: Who is Botswana’s new spy chief?

When he took over, Magosi, the former boss of Military Intelligence, publicly promised to change the DISS’s “old culture” of impunity.

This week he confirmed that the agency has a storeroom full of elephant tusks at its Ngwashe camp, but insisted that there is nothing unusual about this.

“Sometimes elephants just die,” he said. Under a standing arrangement, the DISS anti-poaching unit often picked up tusks while on patrol in the bush, transported them to the Ngwashe camp and made arrangements for game rangers falling under the wildlife department to collect them.

“The tusks are recorded on a daily basis and we report any new finds to DISS headquarters. When the time is right we hand over the tusks to the department of wildlife and record the transfer.”

Both the department of wildlife and the DISS refused to make available the guidelines applied in such cases.

When INK put it to him that the department of wildlife and national parks was not aware of the stockpile until last week, Magosi suggested that INK might have asked the wrong officials.

He said he had already notified the wildlife department of the stockpile and assured them that the tusks would be transferred to them. He declined to reveal the quantity of ivory in the DISS’s possession.

However, the permanent secretary in the ministry of environment, wildlife and tourism, Thato Raphaka, disputed this.

Raphaka said he was not aware that the DISS has a storeroom full of elephant tusks at its camp in the wilds of northern Botswana, and that is not how the matter is normally dealt with.

The ministry is responsible for keeping records of all ivory storage facilities in Botswana.

“While that area [of the Ngwashe camp] is under the DISS,” he said, “they have a responsibility to notify us every time they find such things as elephant tusks and hand them over. That is the procedure.

“We do not know anything about [the stockpile] and I am sure we would have been briefed about it … It is not procedure to keep such a large stock of elephant tusks and not report on it.”

He noted the department regularly checks with the DISS to see if they have anything for them. “There is no smoke without fire,” Thato said. “Where we feel there is an issue, we will always address it.”

Kgosi established the DISS in 2008 with a vague mandate and without proper channels of accountability.

Late last year, the agency was accused by Botswana’s corruption watchdog, the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime, of diverting public funds intended for fuel levy to the acquisition of military grade equipment, supposedly for use in the fight against poaching.

An amount of 118-million pula was paid to an Israeli technology firm, Dignia Systems, for the acquisition of the equipment.

*This story was produced by the INK Centre for Investigative Journalism in Botswana, in association with the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism.

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