Conserve Botswana Blog

To hunt or to poach? That is the question

There is a man called ≠Xoa* from a small village in the heart of Botswana’s Okavango Delta, one of the wildest places on earth. ≠Xoa hails from the Bugakhwe – one of the San tribes in northern Botswana – and his people do not keep any livestock or plant any crops. In this area, teeming with predators and visited by elephants on an almost daily basis, what would be the use of trying to keep domestic animals alive, or trying to protect a few maize plants?

≠Xoa is a well-known figure in his village; he has a good job that includes distributing meat among his people, which is always a popular task. Some are even hinting at electing him to the committee of their local Community Trust – he is honest and respected. In his work with the nearby hunting concessionaire, ≠Xoa uses one of the ancient skills of his people – tracking animals through the bush.

≠Xoa’s tracking skills are renowned, but this is not all that is on his CV. He can skin and butcher an animal with few tools and great efficiency. Besides speaking Khwedam, his own complex language that includes four different types of clicks, he speaks Setswana, Sembukushu, Seyei and Afrikaans fluently. Unfortunately, his exceptional tracking skills are not officially certified, and his CV is unwritten because he never learned to write. His employer nonetheless values his tracking abilities highly and can attest that he is hardworking and reliable.

One day in 2013 ≠Xoa hears of a consultative meeting held by government officials in his village. The meeting is about hunting, but that is all he knows. He attends, thinking that maybe they want to adjust the quotas for next year. Soon he finds out that despite the meeting’s stated purpose, no one actually wanted to consult him or any of the other villagers.

They came merely to inform the villagers: from next season, hunting would be banned. ≠Xoa is stunned for a moment, but soon raises his hand, “Sirs, what shall I do for work when this ban is enforced?” His question is echoed around the room as other villagers take it up. The government official says that this ban is only a temporary moratorium that will probably be lifted again after a year. One of the prospective photographic concessionaires stands up and declares magnanimously, “Do not fear about losing your jobs, my tourism company will employ everyone from the hunting industry!”

With the promise of a new job ringing in his ears, yet nagging concerns about no longer having a reliable source of meat, he returns home. His wife, Gyai, is even more concerned. ≠Xoa is the breadwinner for the household, and what will the children eat? With his last salary from the hunter, ≠Xoa buys a few bags of maize meal, a staple diet in Africa. He knows, though, that maize fills the belly but leaves the body weak. Without a meal containing some meat at least a few times a month, he is concerned that his children will not grow strong and healthy.

≠Xoa loses no time trying to find a new job at the end of the hunting season. If he could only earn a steady wage, he might be able to buy some canned meat or fish to supplement his family’s diet. He cannot write, but he can describe and demonstrate all of his key skills. Surely one of these new lodges would find a use for his incredible bush and language skills? With this optimistic thought, he hitches a ride with one of the lodge’s game vehicles that is bringing supplies from town.

On this day, and many others like it, he is disappointed. To apply for a job, you need a written CV and relevant certificates that prove you have the skills you claim to have. Even if he could overcome those barriers, he is told that the lodges do not actually need a specialist tracker. They all employ guides that multi-task – they drive, chat to guests, and look for game all at the same time. The guides may not be as good at tracking as he is, but they don’t really need to be – their guests want to see animals, not just their tracks!

What does it take to be a guide? Perhaps I could get work if I qualified for that job, he thinks. But ≠Xoa’s face falls at the list of requirements: 1) Valid driver’s license with special permit to carry people (he can drive a car, but has never sat a test), 2) Fluent in English (of the five languages he speaks, this is not one of them), and 3) Can read and write. With a heavy heart, he turns away from the last lodge he enquired at, and returns home.

His youngest child is screaming, while his older child nags his haggard mother for more food. “There is nothing more, the maize ran out yesterday. Maybe the Community Trust will help us, as they have done in the past, and food will come tomorrow” she replies, “You can go hungry for a night, okay?” Gyai puts on a brave face for the children, but she knows that the Trust is running out of money since much of their income came from the hunting industry. She cries softly all night lying next to her husband who is no longer able to provide for them.

The next morning, having heard his child’s screams and felt his wife’s tears, ≠Xoa makes a decision. He knows where the animals are in the hunting concession where he used to work. Their movement patterns and favourite hideouts are well known to him, who has spent innumerable hours tracking them. One of his friends in the village has a small-calibre rifle, which he borrows. ≠Xoa walks out of his village, heading towards his former hunting grounds. With his skills, ≠Xoa can survive in the wild for days on end, although he has never starred in a TV show to demonstrate it.

≠Xoa comes back at the dead of night, sneaking in to the village with a small steenbok carried over one shoulder. He dare not hunt during the day, for fear of the anti-poaching units. The smell of the steenbok had attracted some hungry looking spotted hyaenas on his way home, and they followed him for a while. He had to jog for miles to get away from them. Safely home, ≠Xoa presents his prize to his hungry family. Pride wells up in ≠Xoa’s chest as he sees their faces light up – he is a provider once more!

≠Xoa’s new line of work is not as safe as his old one; there is something he fears much more than hyaenas. The government released a statement recently saying they were clamping down on what they termed “poaching”. The Botswana Defence Force (BDF) was ramping up its anti-poaching efforts in northern Botswana, and declared that they would “shoot to kill” any suspected poachers. Besides fearing for his safety, ≠Xoa is also concerned about his lack of cash income. Although he now supplies his family with nutritious meat, their many other needs – clothes, transport money, soap and other basic household materials – go unmet. Gyai asks him for these things regularly, but he is ashamed to say that he cannot afford even the first item.

By 2017, the promised job in photographic tourism has yet to materialise, and the local Trust is still struggling to help its members. It is now a few years since ≠Xoa left formal hunting to take up it up in an informal capacity. One day, he sees a stranger in the village. A tall, dark man with a strange accent speaks a form of Sembukushu he has never heard before. They manage to understand each other, however, and he discovers that the stranger is from Zambia. Zambia! That is a long way to come just to visit our village, he thinks. But this stranger has an interesting proposition for him.

The Zambian man needs a tracker who knows the local concession, understands the animal movements, and has experience dodging the BDF anti-poaching patrols. This set of requirements fits ≠Xoa’s CV perfectly! Better yet, he doesn’t have to write it down or produce any certificates. The Zambian came with a large-calibre rifle and an impressive-looking axe. His target: elephants.

In his dealings with the Zambian, he also discovers that this hunt comes with an impressive price tag. The tusks will be sold in Lusaka to an Asian man with lots of money, he is told. Although it is far more dangerous (“shoot to kill”, he thinks with a shudder) than his old job, the payment for this one hunt is worth an entire year’s salary!

The offer is almost too good to be true. ≠Xoa knows that the penalties for being caught with ivory (provided you aren’t shot first) are much higher than being caught with a steenbok, so he discusses it with Gyai. Their household needs are mounting, but they still weigh up the pros and cons of this hunt carefully. On the one hand, ≠Xoa has tracked many elephants in his time, so this job should be relatively easy; on the other, the same authorities that announced the hunting ban would show no mercy if they found him carting an elephant tusk through the bush.

With all these thoughts weighing on him, ≠Xoa makes up his mind. He kisses away Gyai’s fearful tears, and holds his youngest for what could be the last time. ≠Xoa then takes a deep breath, and heads out.

Gail C. Potgieter

Note: This story is based on the real situation faced by all those who lost their jobs when hunting was banned in Botswana. All characters in this story are entirely fictional. ≠Xoa means elephant and Gyai means steenbok in Khwedam. I would like to thank Satau Gakemotho, who hails from the Okavango Delta, for his input in this article and for providing suitable names for my fictional characters.

* The ≠ is pronounced as a click