Mmegi (Botswana)

Poaching and the hunting ban: Oil and water 

For elephants, the hunting ban was meant to protect the gentle giants and create a safe haven for them in Botswana. It appears poachers did not get the memo. Staff Writers, MPHO MOKWAPE and MBONGENI MGUNI report that two issues that appear related, have proven poles apart

By Fri 24 Aug 2018,

Former president, Ian Khama is adamant that his 2014 ban on professional hunting in Botswana was a masterstroke in the nick of time. Today, his critics point out that the decision was taken without consultation and has led to a population explosion, especially in destructive species such as elephants.

Still Khama is unmoved, telling Mmegi a fortnight ago that his intervention was a stitch in time.

“The hunting ban was imposed to address a situation whereby we found that we were having a decline in animal populations.

“During the time of hunting, the hunters themselves were also cheating by shooting more than what they were supposed to. And it was contributing to the decline of wildlife.”

It would appear poachers were not listening. Instead, research has shown that as elephant populations rose in Botswana from 2014, with beasts from across the region fleeing to the safe haven created by Khama, poachers found themselves spoilt for choice with the higher numbers.

In fact, today, there are certain quarters who argue that with higher elephant numbers stretching anti-poaching resources, poachers have had a field day.

Where these criminals would spend days tracking one animal or waiting for their snares to work, the explosion in numbers has cut their work down. The ban is doing their work for them.

This week, Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) director, Otisitwe Tiroyamodimo revealed that elephant poaching has been on the rise for some time, even with the enhanced anti-poaching activities that have accompanied the hunting ban since 2014.

While elephants naturally incur higher poaching fatalities due to their higher numbers, Tiroyamodimo said five rhinos had been poached since June 2018. The director was giving a snapshot of the challenge authorities are wrestling against.

“We continue to witness poaching of elephants in the northern parts of the country. We suspect that the ivory is later traded illegally. Poaching of elephants remains a challenge and we need a collective approach to curb it,” he says.

Part of the problem has come from tightening budgets for anti-poaching activities, as the country’s dwindling revenues over the years have seen intense scrambles for allocations amongst ministries.

Last year, then Environment Minister, Tshekedi Khama exclusively told Mmegi that a fleet of anti-poaching vehicles had been grounded due to non-settlement of a fuel bill due to the Central Transport Organisation.

In the last financial year, Khama’s ministry saw its development budget slashed from P213 million to P165 million, while its recurrent budget, under which anti-poaching activities take place, increased by only P2 million to P617 million.

Unlike other countries that enjoy generous funding from international donors for their anti-poaching activities, Botswana is a victim of its own success.  As well as being a middle-income state, the country’s success in anti-poaching means many would-be donors stand back and expect that the country can fund itself, or is not in need of funding.

“It appears you must be a little bit reckless to get help,” Khama told Mmegi.

“I’m fighting for resources and also fighting poachers.

“We have to be a step ahead of the people who want to kill these animals.”

This year, matters appear to have gotten better for the anti-poaching squad, as the DWNP was allocated P280.1 million up from P238 million last year.

However, the actual anti-poaching work on the ground was dealt a blow by government’s decision in May to withdraw “military weapons and equipment” from the DWNP.

The budget cuts at Ministry level have meant less room to compensate citizens whose crops, animals and very lives are affected by the swollen population of elephants.

Compensation is already very low and the Ministry has an arrears backlog. Farmers whose fields are destroyed can expect payments as low as P555, while the families of those unfortunate enough to be killed by a wild animal receive P50, 000 for each person with P20, 000 for funeral expenses.

With the DWNP estimating elephant numbers at 154,000, some communities who have found themselves struggling for income due to conflict with the behemoths, could be becoming more sympathetic to the poachers coming across the borders.

The northwest region, where the majority of these elephants live, is the stomping ground of former veterans of liberation wars in Namibia, Angola and Zimbabwe, many of whom made off with the weapons from that era.

At best, villagers could turn the other way or become less vigilant in reporting suspected poachers; at worst, they could aid and abet them to substitute or supplement their incomes.

These are the heady matters stakeholders involved in updating the National Elephant Action Plan (NEAP) are grappling with. On Monday, stakeholders met once again, this time at Mokolodi, following their other engagements around the country.

The NEAP is meant to identify and prioritise the actions that are needed to protect, manage and monitor elephants.  In previous consultations on the NEAP, ordinary members of the community have demanded the reinstatement of professional hunting activities specifically for elephants.

In Maun last month, delegates at the meeting spoke as one, demanding the return of hunting and recounting the horrors they have suffered due the explosion in elephant numbers.

“Elephants have turned some of us who rely on agriculture around here, into paupers,” Othata Dikobe, a local farmer, said.

Participants at that meeting even suggested that government should find markets for live elephants and elephant meat, in order to both manage populations and boost incomes for communities.

Unlike those consultations, the Mokolodi NEAP meeting also included experts in management and conservation, forestry, ecotourism, community conservation, land management, agriculture and law enforcement.

Perhaps also because the venue for the meeting was not in the elephant heartland, tempers were cooled with greater focus on the science of conservation.

Environment permanent secretary, Thato Raphaka noted that due to climate change and frequent droughts, elephants were moving greater distances for survival, in the process encountering poachers on a more frequent basis. The greater distances also stretch anti-poaching efforts, particularly when elephants turn up in areas or communities where they have never been heard of before.

“A lot has changed and there has been a rise in human-wildlife conflict as demand for land for pastoral and arable agriculture has also increased.

“In the past, considerable work was undertaken to develop elephant management plans. It is a testimony to our conservation success that today the country is home to the largest elephant population on the continent,” Raphaka said.

The DWNP hopes to hammer out a final NEAP by the end of October, which will guide the management of elephants.

Poachers will once again be keenly following the latest developments, but whether they will be deterred or spurred on, remains to be seen.