Botswana’s elephants and conservation – are things starting to fall apart?

by Professor Keith Somerville, ICWS Senior Research Fellow

Dr Mike Chase grimly views one of 26 dead elephants in Linyanti, Chobe Enclave. Copyright, Elephants without Borders

Dr Mike Chase grimly views one of 26 dead elephants in Linyanti, Chobe Enclave. Copyright, Elephants without Borders

The picture of Dr Mike Chase grimly viewing the carcass of a poached elephant in the Chobe Enclave in northern Botswana is doubly poignant.  Not only is it one of at least 26 elephants poached for their ivory there recently, but Mike Chase has just completed the massive Great Elephant Census of many of Africa’s savannah elephants. This massive survey is aimed at providing data to help conserve elephants and their habitat and inform debates over the levels of poaching and of human-elephant conflict. It found a decline in savannah elephant numbers in 18 states surveyed (but oddly excludes those in Namibia, Central African Republic and South Sudan – and all forest elephants) over the last nine years (much of which was already known, though and recorded in the African Elephant Database) and the full import of the new minimum estimate of 352,271 has still to be assessed against existing data.

Just over a year ago, stealing the title from the great Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, I wrote a report entitled No longer at ease: clouds on the horizon for Botswana’s conservation success story following a research trip to the Chobe Enclave, eastern Linyanti, Maun and Gaborone.  I drew attention to the gradual growth in poaching (30-50 elephants a year, according to Michael Flyman, who is in charge of the Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) department’s elephant surveys). Now, I must warn that the title of another of Achebe’s novels, Things Fall Apart, could become a more relevant description of elephant conservation and rising human elephant conflict in northern Botswana.

Poaching and conflict on the rise

In late August reports emerged from northern Botswana of the killing of 26 or more elephants in the eastern Linyanti are of the Chobe enclave.  This is the heartland of the huge area over with as many as 150,000 elephants roam between Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and Angola. But Chobe is the core of the territory with its river, the Linyanti swamp, the Savuti Channel and other sources of water and food.  The elephants had been killed between the Linyanti Bush Camp (where I stayed a year ago) and the public camping site and within about a kilometre or two of the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) camp, which houses an anti-poaching unit drawn from the army, which has permission to shoot-to-kill when armed poachers are found. Scores of Namibian and Zambian suspects have been shot in recent years.

Three weeks before the publication of the shocking photos of the dead elephants, I had been following up on reports on the photographic website bush 24accompanied by photographs of the discovery by them of several dead elephants, all missing tusks, also in the eastern Linyanto area of Chobe.  They accompanied the photos with the narrative that, “Have just returned from trekking through some swamplands to find 2 more peaceful animals with faces chopped off for their tusks…by my calculations we have had close on 50 poached in a small area of about 10km wide along the Linyanti Swamp in just 3 months…and that’s what I know of! What about all the others we are not finding??? We keep hearing about the decimated herds that have been wiped out across Africa…now the last great elephant population of Africa is being attacked and we can do nothing about it except record the deaths of all the fallen giants around us…it’s another sad day in paradise”.

Copyright bush24

Copyright bush24

When I talked to them about the evidence they’d found, they said that in recent months they had records of 15 elephant carcasses and reports of others, adding to 14 they noted in 2014 in just one areas, which was concentrated “in the LInyanti Swamp close to where the cutline of the private concession meets up with the north-west corner of Chobe National park and east of there. “This where, in July 2014,  I found evidence of elephant poaching, with tracks of poachers and drag marks of tusks leading to the swamp and the exit route by boat to Namibia’s Caprivi Strip.

Copyright Keith Somerville

Copyright Keith Somerville

At the time of my visit, I came across Batswana fishermen and local people wandering through the bush near where I found the drag marks and signs that boats were coming and going to Caprivi across the swamp.  My guide said that local people were now helping Zambian poachers, who were ferried across the swamp by Namibians from Caprivi, to find and poach elephants and take the tusks back out.

Amos Ramokati of the regional wildlife officer for the DWNP in Maun and Michael Flyman both admitted that since the government had banned commercial hunting and trophy hunting in January 2014, there had been an increase in the number of local people who had become involved in assisting poachers, where in the past they had backed the DWNP and defence force efforts to stop poaching. After the hunting ban, many rural communities lost the substantial income they had received. Some, like those in the in the Khwai River area getting annual income of over a quarter of a million dollars, according to Southern African Sustainable Use Specialist Group (SASUSG), which had petitioned against the ban.  The Group said that it would hit rural communities hard and in the end force them back into poaching for bushmeat or even helping ivory syndicates because of the loss of irreplaceable earnings.”

The current rise in poaching does not immediately spell disaster for Botswana’s elephants – the biggest single population in Africa – but it is a threat and is a possible indication that the consensus that a combination of national parks, high-cost tourism, legal hunting quotas and concessions, and sustainable-use programmes had built up in Botswana, giving it one of the best conservation records in Africa and encouraging the growth of the elephant population in the wider region around the Chobe, Zambezi and Kavango rivers linking Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Poaching and the Great Elephant Census

One of the worrying things about the increase in poaching – whose exact extent remains to be fully established – is that it not only suggests a growing exploitation of Botswana’s previously sacrosanct populations but also a threat to long-term plans for increasing elephant ranges, migration corridors and thereby encouraging conservation in this wider region. The Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA) has been established by the states already mentioned to encourage the migration and dispersal of elephants to avoid environment damage by concentration in the Chobe region and to repopulate areas denuded of elephants by poaching and the effects of conflict, notably in Angola.  The KAZA agreement is full of good intentions but is still, as Botswana DWNP officials and conservation NGOs there told, largely a paper organization.

The wave of poaching in northern Botswana adds to Mike Chase’s reports, derived from the Great Elephant Census (GEC) survey, of large-scale killing of elephants in south-eastern Angola.  Once home to well over 100,000 elephants, the population there was nearly wiped out by a campaign of killing and tusk removal carried out in the 1970s and 1980s by the apartheid South African Defence Force and the Angolan rebel movement UNITA.  After the withdrawal of the SADF in 1989 and the end of the Angolan civil war in 2002, Chase hoped that the population would recover and he said there were signs that elephants were moving back there from Botswana via the Caprivi Strip in large numbers – which Michael Flyman in Botswana also confirmed to me.

But when he conducted the surveys for the GEC Chase said he found large numbers of carcasses and very few elephants, given that large numbers were thought to have moved into empty areas of bush from Botswana.  This expectation was based on Botswana’s dry season surveys in 2103 and 2014 which showed a drop in Botswana’s population from the range of 156,401-166,882 down to 129,939-142,453. Flyman told me this did not indicate massive poaching but movement between Botswana and neighbouring states. He and Chase over the last couple of years have denied that there is a growing poaching problem in Botswana and said few carcasses of illegally killed elephants had been found.  The recent discoveries suggest, rather, that poaching is increasing, which was what I have been told by safari and hunting operators who know the region well.

In Angola. Chase estimated that the country was losing 10 percent of its elephants each year, a higher mortality rate than any other country on the GEC and that its population was a mere 3,400. This indicates the poaching problem there was among the most severe in Africa at the moment – following on from the poaching disasters in Tanzania and Mozambique which lost 60 per cent and 48 per cent, respectively, of their elephants between 2009 and 2016.

The nature of poaching in the region was shockingly demonstrated in July when tourists at a Namibian safari lodge on the banks of the Kavango River watched as men armed with AK-47 assault rifles attacked a herd of 40 elephants grazing on the Angolan bank of the river. The poachers opened fire on the elephants with the automatic rifles, taking no notice of the watching tourists. At least three elephants were killed and many others wounded, perhaps to die later.  The attack was blatant and carried out with impunity.  Since the end of the war 14 years ago, the corrupt but oil-rich Angolan government and political elite has done nothing to redevelop the south of the country, which had been hostile, rebel territory; guns abound there. Poverty and weapons, plus a ready market in China for tusks, are the ingredients for widespread poaching – aided by government corruption and little or no spending on either rural development or wildlife conservation or protection.

Hunting ban may be hurting elephants and people

Returning to the growing incidence of poaching in Botswana, many blame it on the ready market for tusks and widespread networks of criminal syndicates smuggling ivory out of Africa, but also on the hunting ban and failure by the Khama government to provide alternative sources of income to local communities deprived of hunting earnings.  Getting hard information was not easy as the Khama government does not take kindly to criticism of its policies and both when I was in Botswana last year and in correspondence since many safari operators, former hunting concession owners and some NGO conservation specialists have been wary of bringing down upon themselves the wrath of the President and his brother, Tshekedi Khama the Environment Minister. Many would only speak on condition of anonymity, fearing their ability to operate in Botswana would be curtailed by open criticism. Botswana has a tradition of democracy and free speech but has become noticeably less open and more authoritarian under President Khama.

But all those to whom I spoke or with whom I corresponded had much the same to say – that the hunting ban was introduced without any provision for local communities who relied on the income, forcing them to look at illegal hunting or helping poachers in return for payment as a means of survival.  And the end of hunting and the abandonment of hunting concessions has had another very serious effect on local people.  The concession areas were policed by safari operators to keep out poachers (especially from Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe) and, most importantly of all, they operated boreholes which supplied water for the substantial range of wildlife on the land. This was particularly important for elephants and buffalo, which used the boreholes heavily in the dry season.  Those boreholes are now dry and three different safari operators told me that the elephants that used them were now becoming problem animals on cultivated or grazing land beyond the hunting areas. They were moving in search of water and food and destroying crops, water pumps and damaging grazing land. The lives of local farmers were also put at risk. The lack of previous level of management of the areas and the withdrawal of the presence of safari operators and their staff was also attracting in poachers, I was told. Alongside this, the lack of quotas to kill problem lions was leading to greater loss of livestock. Rural people were no longer seeing benefits from conservation mixed with sustainable-use and opposition is growing both to the ban on hunting and to the stringent, army-backed anti-poaching programme. The old consensus and systems of mutual benefit are falling apart.

The combined effect of this has been to end local support for conservation, increase direct poaching or assistance for incursions by poachers and to demand for the shooting of problem animals in farming areas now being invaded.  There has been a very worrying increase in the poisoning of carcasses to kill predators and scavengers, which is taking a huge toll of vultures, while killing lions whose bones can be sold to traders for use in Chinese traditional medicine. About 120 vultures were found dead north of Maun, having been poisoned by feeding on two cow carcasses laced with chemicals. The director of Birdlife Botswana, Kabelo Senyatso, said the incident marked yet another mass slaughter of increasingly endangered birds. Vulture numbers are falling as a result of widespread poisoning. The killing of vultures, lions and hyenas also aids elephant poachers as it removes scavengers which could draw attention to poached elephants and bring the BDF anti-poaching units round.

To the south of Chobe and the Okavango, around Nxai Pan and Makgadikgadi National Parks, there is also a growing problem of poaching since the ban.  Last year I was told of poachers on horseback hunting zebra for meat and skins there. This year, one former hunting safari operator told me that  the areas surrounding Nxai Pan and Makgadikgadi had one elephant poaching incident in 17 years while hunting companies managed these areas whereas as the complex has had 32 elephant poached since hunting stopped and the protection hunting companies provided was lost. He said, “Without eyes in the field and feet on the ground the poaching in these now vacant areas will be enormous hence there being no buffalo and very few elephant remaining in these eastern concessions.”

No easy answers and a ban wasn’t one of them

It is not the hunting ban alone that is to blame for the threat to Botswana’s conservation successes, but it very clearly hasn’t helped.  Poaching has been gradually increasing and it may be that what Mike Chase and Michael Flyman had interpreted last year and the year before as a reduction in Botswana’s elephant numbers did involve a higher level of poaching then they thought but which is now becoming more evident, combined with movements to Angola and Zambia, where poaching is still clearly rife and Chase has now detailed.  But the hunting ban by depriving local communities of income, which cannot be easily replaced, makes them vulnerable to the blandishments of poaching syndicates but may also push them into bushmeat hunting to survive and poisoning to protect livestock or provide income through the sale of lion bones.

The loss of community income is made worse by the increasing elephant-human conflict in farming areas now being invaded by wildlife which relied on hunting concessions boreholes. This creates another grievance.  The Southern African Sustainable Use Specialist Group (SASUSG), argued against the ban on all these grounds. The Kalahari Conservation Society’s acting CEO, Baboloki Autlwetse, told me that the intention of the ban was to encourage communities to develop an income stream through eco-tourism, but that this took time, funds and expertise which the communities lacked. In conversation with me a year ago, he stressed the need for a fast-track approach by the government to help such communities so they did not become opponents of conservation or resort to poaching from desperation.  Little seems to have been done in the meantime and poaching and poisoning appear to be escalating. Action is needed by the government before things really fall apart.


Professor Keith Somerville is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London; teaches journalism at the Centre for Journalism at the University of Kent; his book – Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa is published in November 2016. 

Taking the bull by the horns – dehorning rhinos to protect them

by Professor Keith Somerville, ICWS Senior Research Fellow

The large bull rhino, accompanied by a couple of rhino cows, was about a hundred metres away. The jeep carrying the darting team moved closer, there was a popping sound and the bull twitched and moved off with a dart clearly visible sticking in his upper leg. Within two minutes he was down on his knees looking groggy. The dehorning team was out of the jeep and over to him, attaching blinkers to cover his eyes and a group of ranch hands held him down and attached a rope to his back leg.

Things then happened quickly1 but with an assured and rapid routine that was impressive to watch. The vet monitored the rhino’s vital signs – it was sedated but not unconscious and not obviously alarmed or in any pain. The dehorners measured and meticulously recorded the circumference and height of the horn and calculated how much to remove. All the while the rhino was breathing loudly but steadily and made no attempt to get up or even shake off attention.

Once the measurements were taken and recorded, a line was carefully d2rawn around the horns (both the large front and smaller rear ones) leaving about four or five centimetres below the cut line to ensure growth would continue and there would be no damage to the horn bed where it joins the skull. A battery driven saw was then used to cut through the horn, which took little longer than a minute – all the time someone was spraying cold water on to the horn as it was cut to prevent over-heating and burn injuries.

3Then the horn was off. The team cleaned up the edges of the horn stump and brushed off any shaving or horn dust – which all went on to a big plastic sheet under the rhino and was gathered up in sealed and marked bags. The two horns were measured, weighed and marked with indelible ink and their specifications recorded. When a rhino (all of which are tagged and ID chipped) is first dehorned, DNA samples are taken so in future any horn from that rhino can be clearly identified.

From the first rhino I saw dehorned from feet away, the main horn weighed 565g, the smaller horn 67g and the shavings 45g – at the estimated market price in Vietnam and China (the main markets for poached ivory horn) this would be worth about $40,000. The horns and shavings from this rhino, though, would not be bound for the smuggling syndicates and illegal trade but for a safe in a bank or secure depository somewhere (we were not told where) in South Africa.

The two dehornings I saw took place at the huge rhino ranch at Klerksdorp, in South Africa’s North-West province, belonging to the world’s most successful breeder of rhinos, John Hume. His 8,000 hectare property carried 1,405 rhinos (mainly white rhino with just 17 black) and he has successfully bred 951 rhinos over the last 25 years. To give an idea of the importance of this for maintaining rhino numbers, South Africa has 18,796 white rhinos and 1,916 black rhinos (according to Save the Rhino), but 5,424 rhino have been poached in South Africa since 2006, and some feel this may be an underestimate as not all carcasses will have been found. The horn is poached by a variety of different groups – from poor Mozambican peasants to local South Africans to rogue professional hunters and even former vets and senior wildlife officials from the Kruger Park, I was told by Nicholus Funda, the head ranger at Kruger National Park.

4John Hume is a very determined and pugnacious man and since retiring from a successful holiday property has devoted his life and considerable funds to raising rhinos and fighting to find ways of saving them. His ranch is not a national park or sanctuary but a massive breeding operation with more rhino than you’ll see gathered together anywhere else. He told me, though, that it is not like a rhino factory farm with animals squeezed in and he estimates that in the vast rhino bull enclosures, there is just one bull to every 9 hectares and cows have about 8 hectares each. Only at feeding time do they gather in huge numbers – a variety of feedstuffs is brought in to supplement grazing; vital now that South Africa is in the grip of severe drought.

Hume pays out two to three million rand a month for feed and another three million rand a month on security. He is currently trying to build a radar tower and install sophisticated camera systems to supplement his existing surveillance and patrolling capabilities.


Hume and other private rhino breeders in South Africa are dehorning their animals to deter poachers. Dehorning doesn’t totally stop poaching as there is still a band of horn left which could be hacked off. But evidence from peer-reviewed studies has shown that dehorning, when widely advertised, does deter poachers, as they will seek to find the most lucrative targets (see Lindsay and Taylor.) and generally avoid farms/ranches with dehorning and good security. Even so, Hume has had attempted incursions by poachers.

The horn grows back on the rhinos and Hume dehorns his every 18 months to two years. The study of dehorning by Lindsay and Taylor suggests there is no long-term impact of dehorning, as long as all rhinos in an area are dehorned. In the wild, though, their study suggests that there could be reduced ability of cows to defend calves from predators like hyenas and lions. But on ranches, there is no obvious change in behaviour or health (Lindsay and Taylor). When I saw the two dehornings there seemed to be no great trauma involved and the rhino were on their feet and walking away in less than 15 minutes and there is no evidence that dehorning carried out every 18 months leads to any side-effects from the sedative.
The horn is made of the same substance as hair and fingernails, keratin. Rhino horn is chemically complex and contains large quantities of sulphur-containing amino acids, particularly cysteine, but also tyrosine, histidine, lysine, and arginine, and the salts calcium carbonate and calcium phosphate. It has been used in Chinese traditional medicine for millennia and now is believed, erroneously, in Vietnam to cure both cancer and hangovers.

Currently, the international trade in rhino horn is banned and the booming demand in China and Vietnam has created a huge and lucrative black market with horn fetching $60,000 a kg. This is a major threat to rhino numbers. John Hume believes that in the future only a combination of good security, dehorning at least on private ranches (few national parks and reserves want to dehorn, as Chief Ranger Nicholus Funda of Kruger and anti-poaching head Cedric Coetzee of the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal told me) and the development of a regulated and closely monitored legal trade in rhino horn will save the rhino in the wild. This is a view strongly opposed by many conservation and animal rights NGOs and is unlikely in the near future to get sufficient support from governments around the world to end the 39 year old CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) ban on trade. It will be debated at the CITES Conference in Johannesburg at the end of September, when Swaziland applies to be allowed to trade in rhino from legal stocks and natural mortality – but no change is remotely possible at this stage. John Hume and a growing number of rhino breeders and conservationists believe it is the only answer. They have a mountain to climb to prove it can be done. But what is clear, is that dehorning is a very useful tool and one that can reduce the attraction of a rhino to poachers without any ill-effects for the rhino.

Professor Keith Somerville is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London; teaches journalism at the Centre for Journalism at the University of Kent; his book – Ivory Power and Poaching in Africa is published in November 2016. He is grateful to the Comanis Foundation for funding and organizing his research trip.