UPDATE: Elephant spree massacres in Botswana – An official government response

The alleged recent spree of elephant poaching in neighbouring Botswana has garnered much attention and outrage since reports appeared in a variety of respected news agencies in early September 2018.

Recap: The appalling claims

A non-governmental organisation, Elephants Without Borders (EWB), partnered with Botswana’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks to carry out a carefully mapped aerial survey as part of a wildlife census in the renowned Okavango Delta area.

Beginning on 10 July 2018, the survey, according to Mike Chase, the director of EWB, revealed that 90 elephants, mostly large-tusked bulls, have fallen to rampant poaching over the past months. A “fresh carcass” is defined as being 3 months old, or less, but the organisation has indicated that many of the poaching incidents happened within the past few weeks. Chase notes, “We started flying on 10 July, and we have counted 90 elephant carcasses since the survey commenced. Each day, we are counting dead elephants”.

Former president, Ian Khama, took a strong stance on protecting Botswana’s wildlife. Image adapted from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office @Wikipedia.org

The revelation of the poaching spree could be seen as a surprise given Botswana’s past. The country, led by the efforts of former President, Ian Khama, was seen as a sanctuary for elephants as the anti-poaching unit was armed and followed a zero-tolerance policy (rangers were allowed to open fire on poachers). Since Khama was succeeded by President Mokgweetsi Masisi in May 2018, however, the unit has been disarmed and Chase has been reported as saying that this could account for the recent surge in poaching.

White Rhinos have unfortunately not escaped recent sprees. Image courtesy of Ikiwaner @Wikipedia.org

Botswana hosts an estimated 135 000 African Elephants (of the remaining 415 000), earning the country a reputation for being a well-protected refuge. Elephant “refugees” have fled to Botswana from Zambia, Angola and Namibia – where they have been hunted to near extinction.

The official Botswana Government response

The government of Botswana has refuted the claims in no-uncertain terms, and has called them “unsubstantiated and sensational”. The Botswana Government Official Response to Mass Poaching Incidents September 2018 explains that it,

[Wishes] to inform members of the public and other key stakeholders that these statistics are false and misleading. At no point in the last months or recently were 87 or 90 elephants killed in one incident in any place in Botswana.

Contradicting the number of elephant carcasses alleged by EWB, the Official Response states that EWB had, in fact, only counted 53 carcasses in the period 5 July to 1 August 2018. These carcasses had, “already been cumulatively reported officially to the Government as early as July and August of this year.”

A female African Bush Elephant. Image adapted from Wikipedia.org

Answering to Chase’s implication that the rise in poaching could owe to the disarming of the anti-poaching unit, the Official Response points out,

The Government of Botswana wishes to state that it is unfortunate that some media reports attribute the rise in elephant poaching primarily to the withdrawal of weapons from the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) anti-poaching unit. The fact of the matter is that the withdrawal of such weapons from DWNP, did not in any way affect the effectiveness and operations of the anti-poaching units.

The response further states that,

The public is informed that withdrawing weapons from DWNP is in line with the existing legislation which does not allow the Department of Wildlife and National Parks to own such weapons. This action was taken whilst corrective measures are to be undertaken.

Wherever the exact truth of the matter may lie, given Botswana’s previous reputation and its status as an asylum for all forms of Africa’s precious wildlife, there can be little doubt that it should continue to lead the fight against poaching. The illegal trade in ivory has decimated vulnerable elephant and rhino populations – populations that deserve our every effort to preserve.

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