by Keith Somerville, Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies*
Without belabouring the Chinua Achebe motif, Botswana’s conservation community is less at ease than it is used to being but the country is still far from seeing things fall apart. Botswana has long prided itself on its advances in conserving key habitats, species and implementing a tough but generally workable anti-poaching strategy. But clouds are gathering on the horizon, partly due to regional failures in controlling poaching and the trade in wildlife products, and partly as a result of the domestic reaction to the government’s own policies.
The clouds forming along Botswana’s borders result from incursions into areas like Chobe and Linyanti (home to Africa’s largest and most healthily expanding elephant populations) by poachers from Zambia. These have increased over the last few years. The domestic concerns centre around creasing numbers of cases of poisoning of predators and vultures in the Chobe Enclave, indications that local communities may be helping ivory poachers entering the country’s safari areas and national parks, and an increase in the last year or so in poaching by local communities for bushmeat. The poisoning is thought by Michael Flyman, of the Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP), to be linked to elephant poaching and, in a small number of cases, to livestock protection. Animal carcasses, whether elephants or antelope, are poisoned, killing predators like lion and hyena but also jackals and vultures. The large-scale wiping out of vultures means that there are no flights of birds circling above kills to alert the wildlife authorities and Botswana Defence Force (BDF) anti-poaching patrols.
In four days tracking around the Chobe Enclave at the end of June, I saw no lions, hyenas, jackals or vultures, in an area that should be replete with them. Steve Johnson of the Southern African Regional Environment Program (SAREP) told me that increasing numbers of vultures and predators have been poisoned by those working with the poachers. He said this was going on along with the growth in the illegal bushmeat trade the region. What I did see was the clear sign of elephant poaching and the removal of tusks across the Linyanti river by boat into Namibia’s Caprivi Strip. Driving along the edge of the Linyanti marsh my guide and I found the tracks of at least a couple of men dragging two round objects the same diameter as medium-sized elephant tusks.
The guide was convinced an elephant had been killed in the last 24 hours and the tusks dragged down to the swamp to be taken by mokoro to the Namibian bank. This was reported to the nearby BDF anti-poaching team, who operate in Linyanti with a harsh shoot-to kill policy for poachers. We failed to find the carcass of the elephant, with and no circling vultures to help us.