The worth of an elephant
ON WEDNESDAY 4 December a man was fined N$100 000 in the lower court at Mukwe for trafficking in ivory.
This is a significant fine, celebrated by law enforcement agents and conservation communities as a victory, and as a warning to would-be criminals. The culprit, 31-year-old Bagorogile Motsokwe, a Motswana, failed to pay the fine and was thus sent to prison to serve four years.
The case marks a variety of achievements for Namibian efforts to combat wildlife crime. It highlights the trans-boundary nature of the crimes, it underlines the value of international collaboration, as well as the importance of ongoing surveillance and information sharing.
It proves the perseverance of Namibian law enforcement officers and shows the potential efficiency of Namibian courts, and the value of close liaison between law enforcement and the judiciary to ensure effective prosecution and adequate sentences.
Let us look at the case. On 27 March 2019, Namibian law enforcement officers conducted a sting operation in the Divundu area of the Kavango East region. The aim was to apprehend a known ivory trafficker in possession of four elephant tusks, whom undercover investigations had tracked from Botswana to Namibia.
The joint operation involved environment and tourism staff and Namibian Defence Force members. It culminated in an ambush at 04h00. Although the ivory could be seized, the suspect managed to flee the scene and disappeared. The origin of the tusks could not be determined. While it may seem likely that the elephants were killed in Botswana, this could not be confirmed. Rather than abandoning the case, law enforcement officers initiated ongoing surveillance efforts. Over the next six months, these included collaboration and information sharing with counterparts in Botswana.
This finally led to Bagorogile Motsokwe’s arrest at the entrance gate to the Mahango Core Area of Bwabwata National Park by environment staff on 8 October. .
Motsokwe first appeared in the Rundu Magistrate’s Court on 10 October, and was remanded in custody, with the case postponed for further investigations until 20 January 2020. The investigations were quickly finalised, however. The trial was brought forward to 4 December, and Motsokwe was convicted and sentenced at the Mukwe Lower Court.
Yet, is N$100 000 really such a hefty fine? What is the worth of an elephant, and does the sentence balance the loss?
A wild animal’s worth is difficult to quantify, as this depends on its ‘use’. Some argue that no attempt should be made to ‘put a price on nature’, but that might be unrealistic.
Initiatives to calculate the worth of an elephant over its lifetime are obviously problematic, as it is difficult to isolate an individual elephant within the overall visitor experience of a photo safari in Africa. Tourism values also vary significantly, depending on the particular destination and its tourism infrastructure, and the subsequent payments that tourists are willing to make for their experiences.
In 2014, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust estimated that an elephant could generate US$1,6 million (more than N$23 million) during its life in a prime tourism destination.
The hunting values of wildlife are much more specific, as hunts target single animals, and elephant hunts usually do not include other species. In 2020, an elephant hunt in north-eastern Namibia may cost the client N$900 000 or more, at least half of which comprises the trophy fee, with the other half consisting of day rates for the hunt.
As hunting generally targets old animals nearing the end of their life, this could theoretically be added to the value that the elephant has already generated over its lifetime.
Elephants in north-eastern Namibia roam freely, not just across hunting and tourism areas, but al-so across international borders. Here, a significant percentage of both tourism and hunting income goes to the local conservancies and communities.
Some of it pays for conservancy running costs such as game guard salaries; some is invested in social development projects; some is paid directly to households. A significant amount is used to mitigate human-wildlife conflicts.
Poaching an elephant is stealing from the local communities, who are deprived of the animal’s potential legal income. It is also stealing from the government, which is deprived of related income and taxes. Clearly, wildlife crime is not simply about the death of a magnificent creature. It is a complex economic crime.
The costs of conservation and of combatting wildlife crime, be this in state-protected areas or communal conservancies, must be considered in this equation. Wildlife crime puts a huge additional burden on these structures. Investments into anti-poaching (e.g. monitoring and patrols), law enforcement (e.g. wildlife crime investigations) and the judiciary (courts, correctional facilities, etc.) are all significant.
This includes the need for expensive additional equipment and infrastructure. All these costs could be avoided if wildlife crime could be eliminated.
Seen in this light, the fine of N$100 000, which at face value appears to be a hefty punishment, should be considered the lowest limit for such a crime.
Motsokwe could not be charged with killing the elephants, as no direct evidence for this exists. He was convicted for the possession of and dealing in controlled wildlife products. Yet his fine is less than a tenth of the legal trophy fees of two old elephant bulls (depending on the size of the ivory) – without taking into account their tourism value, or the societal and livelihood impacts of poaching.
Namibia can certainly be proud of numerous successes cases, but there is no room for complacency in the fight against wildlife crime – partners continue to strengthen efforts to combat this constantly evolving villainy.