Erik Verreynne and Khama Rhino Sanctuary (Serowe)

Through the windscreen of my vehicle…..

The challenges managing the elephants are growing amidst three more people being killed by elephants in Botswana this week.

For three days this week elephants caused damage to the fences of Khama Rhino Sanctuary Trust, a community trust looking after Botswana’s rhino conservation history.

Early Wednesday morning a group of about elephant 14 cows and calves broke the boundary fence from the north, and out again towards Mogorosi village to the south. The next night five more bulls broke in near the main gate and out towards the south following the same pattern. On Friday morning the bulls returned, breaking back from the south, drinking at the extension and out again towards the northwest. Fortunately the fences were repaired before any rhinos could escaped and the damage to key tree species was minimal. It was a thrill tracking these magnificent animals when they were in stealth mode, passing the restaurant unnoticed and moving silently, hardly disturbing the thick brush they were passing through, skillfully avoiding the camp sites before they broke out again.

It sounds great and pretty “normal” for the north of Botswana nowadays. Yet we are not in the north of Botswana. We are near Serowe, administrative town of the Central District, 300km Southwest from the Makgadikgadi National Park where they use to concentrate.

The Boteti River, the seasonal life giving artery is dry, unlikely to flow again this year due to the low levels of the Delta inflow. No rain filled ponds or pans break the dusty river bed due to the drought. Even the Molapo farming framing the flood plains is gone, leaving fields only filled with wilted weeds. And as result, the elephants are pushing south, the usual crop raiding bulls seen in the past being followed by larger family groups of cows and calves, deeper and deeper into the heart of Botswana, closer and closer to conflict.

Seeing elephants in this area is not entirely unusual. For a number of years a few bulls would embark on raiding operations, moving in and out in a matter of a few weeks. The episodes were solitary, the damage limited and at most provided gossip around the evening fires at the cattle posts.

However, hunger and thirst are merciless, driving the matriarchs to ignore their instincts, leading their herds where the memories of old conflict have faded many years ago and the smell of blood have long been blown away by the winds of time.

Reports are they are coming from Mmashoro where there are herds of elephants resident, causing havoc to the infrastructure. Cattle owners are searching for their cattle that dispersed after the fences have been destroyed. Conflict is thriving and two bulls were shot not far to the north.

As I am watching the fence being repaired, I cannot help feeling helpless and in despair. The situation we are in is a mounting tragedy. Drought, conflict and numbers without real solutions are setting a table for an inevitable blood bath. The elephants are dispersing faster than our capacity to mitigate conflict can follow. Every incident of conflict are leaving a bad memory that will affect co-existence between our people and our elephants for many years to come.

It is time to set aside our distant petty differences about politics, hunting and moral beliefs and look for real solutions closer to home. It is time to strip all the layers of our hidden self-centered arguments and face reality. If not, history again will tell a story of a far away war where snippets of news “back home” gave rise to more “feel good” policies and boycotts. A story of a war that ended only because death drained the strength to keep the red flag waving….