The strange story of Botswana’s elephant massacre

On 3 September 2018, BBC News reported that “Carcases of nearly 90 elephants have been found near a famous wildlife sanctuary in Botswana, conservationists say.”

The story was widely reported on by the world’s media.

The source of the story is an organisation called Elephants Without Borders, which is currently conducting an aerial survey of elephants in Botswana for the government.

According to the news reports, 87 elephants were found near Okavango Delta wildlife sanctuary. Many were killed for their ivory “just weeks ago”.

The BBC’s report included the following quotations from Mike Chase, the founder of Elephants Without Borders:

“I’m shocked, I’m completely astounded. The scale of elephant poaching is by far the largest I’ve seen or read about anywhere in Africa to date.”

“When I compare this to figures and data from the Great Elephant Census, which I conducted in 2015, we are recording double the number of fresh poached elephants than anywhere else in Africa.”

“People did warn us of an impending poaching problem and we thought we were prepared for it.”

“The poachers are now turning their guns to Botswana. We have the world’s largest elephant population and it’s open season for poachers.”

“Clearly we need to be doing more to stop the scale of what we are recording on our survey.”

“This requires urgent and immediate action by the Botswana government.”

“Botswana has always been at the forefront of conservation and it will require political will.”

“Our new president must uphold Botswana’s legacy and tackle this problem quickly. Tourism is vitally important for our economy, jobs, as well as our international reputation, which is at stake here as being a safe stronghold for elephants.”

The BBC reported Chase as saying that the disarmament of Botswana’s anti-poaching unit was a cause for the poaching.

In fact, Botswana’s rangers are still armed. In May 2018, one month after Mokgweetsi Masisi took over from Ian Khama as president of the country, Botswana’s rangers were prevented from carrying military weapons, which they had been carrying illegally under Ian Khama’s presidency. The Botswana Defence Force still patrols many areas against poaching.

Hunting vs poaching

Poaching in Botswana has been increasing for several years, as Keith Somerville, a writer and lecturer at the University of Kent, reported in 2015.

In 2014, Ian Khama’s government banned all hunting. While this decision was welcomed by animal welfare organisations and some conservation NGOs. But as Survival International, pointed out the hunting ban had a serious impact on the livelihoods of Bushmen who hunt to feed their families.

On 21 June 2018, Botswana’s parliament passed a motion to review and reconsider the hunting ban. Increasing conflict between humans and wildlife was the reason given for the review, Reuters reported.

The motion was put before parliament by Konstantinos Markus a member of President Masisi’s Botswana Democratic Party. Markus told Reuters that because of elephant damage to crops:

“Communities have become very hostile and negative towards wildlife. This harvest loss leaves the community with fewer options to take care of their households while perceptions of local communities towards wildlife conservation have changed since the hunting ban.”

Less than two weeks after the government announced its review of the hunting ban, a petition appeared on Avaaz: “Botswana: Stop the elephant slaughter”. The petition describes the review of the ban as “a crazy plan”, and refers to “Botswana’s visionary environment minister” as a “major champion for elephants”.

Botswana’s Minister of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism is Tshekedi Khama, ex-president Ian Khama’s brother. The petition states that the Minister will deliver the petition in parliament “to show the world won’t stand by while elephants are slaughtered in their last sanctuary!”

The Great Elephant Census

Elephants Without Borders is an NGO registered in Botswana and the USA (twice, as EWB, Inc, registered in New York in 2008, and as Elephant Planet, Inc, registered in Massachusetts in 2005).

Mike Chase founded the organisation while he was studying for his PhD on the ecology of elephants.

Elephants Without Borders carried out the Great Elephant Census, a two year project that aimed to estimate how many savanna elephants there are in Africa (forest elephants were excluded because they cannot be counted from the air).

In 2016, the Great Elephant Census final result was: 352,271 elephants in 18 countries. That’s 144,000 fewer elephants (or 30%) than in 2007.

The Great Elephant Census was funded by Paul G. Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft. Allen now runs a company called Vulcan Inc, which according to Allen’s website aims to “save endangered species, slow climate change, improve ocean health, share art, history and film, develop new technology, tackle epidemics, research how the human brain works and build sustainable communities”.

“Ivory Tower”

Elephants Without Borders released an “Elephant Poaching Incident Report” dated 3 August 2018, under the headline “Ivory Tower”.

In the report, Chase wrote that,

Today we counted 48 elephant carcasses, I’ll repeat that – 48 dead elephants. Carcasses of all age categories – five of which were classified as Fresh – i.e. have been killed in the past few days! All carcasses presumed to be poached, because all of them had their skulls chopped to remove their tusks. Poachers tried to hide their crimes by concealing the mounds of rotting flesh with drying bushes. Certainly, we flew over one of Africa’s worst poaching hotspots today. I can attest to that with data having flown the Great Elephant Census, and not seen so many dead elephants anywhere else in Africa. The varying classification and age of carcasses is indicative of a poaching frenzy which has been ongoing in the same area for a long time.

The report includes photographs of three dead elephants and a satellite map with blue dots indicating the location of dead elephants (Elephants Without Borders stated in its report that it provided the exact locations to the government of Botswana):

It seems that Chase expected his figures to be challenged. In his report, Chase added that,

“We have exhausted our resources on helicopter time, so to anyone who doesn’t believe in the scale of elephant poaching the survey team is reporting, they can pay for the helicopter charter and I’ll fly with them to the carcasses, so they can wake-up, come down from their ivory tower, smell the carcass and see what we are bearing witness to…faceless rotting elephants!”

“False and misleading”

On 4 September 2018, the government of Botswana issued a statement, posted in full below:

RESPONSE REGARDING THE ALLEGED INDISCRIMINATE KILLING OF ELEPHANTS IN BOTSWANA

The Government of Botswana has noted with concern unsubstantiated and sensational media reports on elephant poaching statistics in Botswana carried by some local and international media attributed to Elephants Without Borders (EWB), a non-governmental organisation contracted by the Botswana Government to carry out the dry season aerial survey of elephants and wildlife in northern Botswana covering Chobe, Okavango, Ngamiland and North Central District. The stories allege that about 90 elephants have been indiscriminately killed recently.

To this end, the Government of Botswana 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.

The Government of Botswana wishes to further inform that the survey conducted by EWB started on 5th July 2018 and is expected to end by 30th September 2018. During the conduct of the survey from 5th July up to 1st August 2018, EWB reported that they had come across 53 elephant carcasses which were incidents that had already been cumulatively reported officially to the Government as early as July and August of this year. Of the aforementioned 53 reported, a verification mission between July and August established that the majority were not poached but rather died from natural causes and retaliatory killings as a result of human and wildlife conflicts.

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) antipoaching 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.

It should be noted that the Government of Botswana has from the 1980’s directed all security agencies to commit resources towards anti-poaching, a practice that continues to this date. Therefore the withdrawal of weapons from DWNP has not created any vacuum in anti-poaching operations as the antipoaching unit in DWNP continues to play a pivotal role in combating wildlife crime through other strategic interventions.

Furthermore 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.

In conclusion, the Government of Botswana wishes to condemn in the strongest terms possible attempts by individuals or groups who give a false impression that they love Botswana wildlife more than citizens of Botswana. Government wishes to reiterate the fact that wildlife remains a national heritage and our citizens will protect it at all costs.

Thank you.

Thato Y. Raphaka
PERMANENT SECRETARY

Pushback from militarised conservation?

Survival International’s director, Stephen Corry, questions the data behind the shocking headlines.

False information is frequently broadcast in the name of conservation: For example, the fiction that al Shabab terrorists were funded by ivory poaching. That still endures, in spite of Interpol pointing out that it was false.

Is the Botswana elephant story another pushback from militarized conservation against the “rights-based” model which the U.N., human rights experts, and many African environmentalists are now demanding? Is this just to create a clamour for rearming ecoguards in Botswana?

Corry’s concern is that the Botswana elephant story is a “pushback from militarized conservation against the ‘rights-based’ model which the U.N., human rights experts, and many African environmentalists are now demanding”.

Shoot to kill

In his ten year period as Botswana’s president, Ian Khama, took an aggressive approach to poachers. In 2013, the government announced a “shoot to kill” policy aimed at suspected poachers. The policy was unwritten, secret, and probably illegal.

In the 2013 documentary, “The Poaching Wars”, Tshekedi Khama, the ex-president’s brother and Minister of Environment, said,

“It’s a culture; we have to kill the supply to starve the culture. That is one of the reasons why, in Botswana, with our anti-poaching, we don’t necessarily interrogate the poacher. That is a position we adopted to send a clear message to say, if you want to come and poach in Botswana, one of the possibilities is that you may not go back to your country alive.”

Tshekedi Khama was quick to back up Elephants Without Borders’ story about an elephant massacre in Botswana.

Before the government had issued its response, Tshekedi Khama told AFP that elephants had been poached:

“I am very concerned, it’s a huge worry. I’m aware that the numbers are in double digits, and for Botswana they are high.

“Because we had been spared poaching for a long time, I think now we are realising the sophistication of these poachers.

“Unfortunately sometimes we learn these lessons the hard way.”

Chase argues that his numbers are accurate. “I am an objective scientist, with no political agenda. I am sad that our government has responded in this way,” he told National Geographic.

Which is quite a statement coming from someone who had by this time been reported by the BBC as uncovering a “poaching frenzy” in Botswana.

A group of scientists have questioned Chase’s comments to the BBC:

Response to recent BBC Report of Elephant Poaching Crisis in Botswana

In a recent BBC report, Mike Chase of Elephants without Borders reports what has been interpreted as massive poaching of elephants in Botswana, findings which arise from some preliminary aerial survey results. This “discovery” has gone viral on social media, creating digital hysteria and global concern and even some condemnation of the Government of Botswana.

In the BBC report, Chase is quoted saying, “When I compare this to figures and data from the Great Elephant Census, which I conducted in 2015, we are recording double the number of fresh poached elephants than anywhere else in Africa.” Such assertions are important in terms of elephant conservation but they also have important consequences that impact international perceptions of Botswana and its citizens. As scientists working in conservation in Botswana, we have received numerous requests for comment on the BBC report.

In order to do so, we rely on the numbers recently reported and Chase’s published paper of the 2015 surveys (Chase et al, 2016, https://peerj.com/articles/2354/ ) for comparison – comparative data referred to by Chase himself. We find it difficult to reconcile the information provided in the published paper with Chase’s recent numbers and assertions that unprecedented poaching is now occurring in Botswana.

Says Chase: “The scale of elephant poaching is by far the largest I’ve seen or read about anywhere in Africa to date.” (BBC News/world-Africa). The following is a quote directly from the publication of the 2015 Great Elephant Census (Chase et al, DOI: 10.7717/peerj.2354), “The highest fresh carcass ratios were found in Angola (10%), Cameroon (10%), the W-Arly-Pendjari (WAP) Ecosystem (3%), and Mozambique (3%), suggesting high levels of recent elephant mortality in these countries.”

By comparison, in the same table, Botswana is reported to have a fresh carcass ratio of 0.1%, equalling 130 fresh elephant carcasses identified during the 2015 survey in a population estimated to be at 130,451 at their last count. This can be compared with 340 and 288 fresh elephant carcasses reported for Angola (total pop est. 3395) and Mozambique (total pop est. 9605), respectively, during the same time period (DOI: 10.7717/peerj.2354/table-2).

The current EWB report of 87 fresh carcasses in Botswana in the 2018 survey (to date) cannot be characterised as an extreme loss of elephants compared to other range countries nor to numbers reported for Botswana in past surveys unless, for some reason, the current Survey Intensity is not comparable to previous surveys.

We appreciate the importance of survey work and population monitoring and share the concerns that elephant poaching remains a threat throughout the elephant range, including in Botswana. In conclusion, using Chase’s numbers directly, we find no scientific basis for the dramatic assertions made in the recent BBC report and question why such a report was disseminated to the media prior to completion of the current survey and data analysis.

Opinion post written by:


Kathleen Alexander, DVM PhD, Board President CARACAL, Botswana; Professor, Virginia Tech, USA

J.W. McNutt, PhD, Director, Botswana Predator Conservation Trust

Mark Vandewalle, PhD, CEO CARACAL, Botswana

Botswana’s defence force, police and the Department of Wildlife and National Parks are currently working with researchers to investigate the alleged elephant massacre, and will report to the government on 12 September 2018.
 

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