Why is the Botswana government denying the large scale of elephant poaching in the country?

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Botswana is home to a third of Africa’s elephants

On 4 September 2018, This Is Africa tweeted Botswana’s President Mokgweetsi Masisi, asking why the poaching of elephants in Botswana had increased. This was immediately tagged “fake news” by the Twitter handle of the Botswana government. President Masisi went on to call the claim “the biggest hoax of the 21st century”. On 7 January 2019, the “Aerial Survey of Elephants and Wildlife in Northern Botswana” report was submitted by Elephants Without Borders (EWB), a non-profit, tax-exempt, registered organisation in Botswana that focuses on elephant conservation and management.

Dr Michael Chase, the founder and director of EWB, said, “Let me state at the onset, we observed dozens of poached elephants close to the Okavango delta wildlife sanctuary. To make sure we had this correct, I chartered a helicopter and visited elephant carcasses to determine their cause of death. Carcasses were verified by both ground and low-altitude assessments. I did not have the resources to visit every recently killed carcass seen on the survey, but of the over 100 carcasses of concern, 90% were confirmed as having been poached.”

Dr Chase, who came under fire for exposing the increased poaching activities in Botswana, further said, “Botswana has, until now, been the exception – where elephants have been safe, with low levels of poaching for ivory. Strong law enforcement policies, good governance and the political commitment of conservation-minded leaders kept Botswana’s elephant population secure and stable.” Under former President Ian Khama, who was more conservationist minded, the game rangers were well equipped.

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A 180-page report, which was compiled by Dr Chase, has been described by Thato Raphaka, Botswana’s Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism, as “sound and based on the established methodology of flying aerial surveys using transects”. However, in a press release Mr Raphaka contested Dr Chase’s “interpretation of carcass ratios to arrive at a conclusion that the mortality rate has recently increased in Northern Botswana.”

Dr Chase’s response to Mr Raphaka’s claims has led to further explanation. In one of his responses to the claim made by Mr Raphaka that only a portion of all carcasses observed during the aerial survey were verified by helicopter, Dr Chase said, “We observed a total of 1 677 carcasses with an estimate of 11 044 in the survey area. We visited carcasses that were of concern, reported as possibly poached, numbering at 104, out of a total of 128 fresh carcasses. We used a helicopter to visit 72 fresh carcasses; 33 of which we were able to visit on the ground, 39 were photographed at low level by helicopter with confirmed evidence of poaching, another 22 photographs were from survey photos, a total of 94 or 90% of ‘concerned elephants as poached’. We continued to verify a limited sample set of older carcasses in an area observed as a ‘hotspot’ to assess cause of death. Of the 79 carcasses examined on the ground, 63 were confirmed as poached. This is a high sampling frequency, given the cost of helicopter hire.”

In Botswana, 18% of the land is dedicated to national parks and 23% to wildlife management areas. In 2017, tourism contributed to 11.5% of Botswana’s GDP. Given the Botswana government’s inaction when it comes to these recent reports of poaching, there are fears that there might be a downturn in tourism to the country.

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