Conservation International’s tacit approval of Botswana’s shoot to kill anti-poaching policy

Earlier this week, Conservation Watch wrote about the strange story of Botswana’s elephant massacre. An NGO called Elephants Without Borders reported a “poaching frenzy”, with 87 elephants killed for their ivory in recent months.

The government described the claims as “false and misleading”.

Scientists also questioned claims, concluding that “we find no scientific basis for the dramatic assertions made”. The scientists also asked why Elephants Without Borders released the report to the media before the survey was completed, and before the data had been analysed.

Mike Chase, the founder of Elephants Without Borders, may even face legal action from the government of Botswana, for releasing the report to the media without the permission of his employer, the Ministry of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism.

Conservation Watch’s post included an infamous quotation from Tshekedi Khama, Botswana’s Minister of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism, talking about the country’s shoot to kill anti-poaching policy.

Tshekedi is the brother of Botswana’s ex-president, Ian Khama.

The quotation came from a two-part documentary called “Poaching Wars”. It was broadcast on ITV in the UK in 2013, and featured the actor Tom Hardy travelling to Africa to investigate the wildlife trade, poaching, and anti-poaching.

In the first part of the documentary, Hardy looks at the problems. In part two he’s “looking for some answers”. He visits Botswana, which he describes as “a country renowned for its wildlife, where the full might of the military is pledged to protect it and their closely related tourism industry”.

At the end of the documentary, Hardy acknowledges the complexity of the wildlife trade. “I know even less than when I started this documentary,” he says. “Every question that I ask, there are just more questions.”

When he travels to Botswana, the first person Hardy meets is Tshekedi Khama. The conversation highlights how Khama views wildlife and poaching.

The myth of ivory poaching and terrorism

Hardy and Khama meet in warehouse in Gaborone, Botswana’s capital, where Botswana stores confiscated elephant tusks.

Khama tells Hardy that,

[I]n Central Africa, where you have strife at the moment, civil unrest and what have you, those sort of movements, guerilla movements, this is what finances their weapon purchases.

Hardy asks him whether Al-Qaeda might be involved. Khama says,

Well, you know, they have all these funny names that they have associated to them, Al-Shabaab and things like that. Yes, there has been mention of those names as well.

To be fair on Khama, his meeting with Hardy took place in 2013. The key source for the link between ivory and Al-Shabaab is an article posted on the website of the Elephant Action League in January 2013. Elephant Action League is an NGO registered in California in February 2013.

The claim that Al-Shabaab was using ivory to fund terrorism was widely repeated in the media.

But since then, the claims in Elephant Action League’s article have been repeatedly and thoroughly debunked.

Elephant Action League’s article was written by Nir Kalron and Andrea Crosta. Kalron runs a company called Maisha Consulting that specialises in anti-poaching, anti-trafficking, and investigation in Africa. Before Crosta founded the Elephant Action League, he was an independent consultant who provided advice on security solutions to companies, and on Homeland Security to government agencies.

Kalron and Crosta’s article, titled “Africa’s White Gold of Jihad: Al-Shabaab and Conflict Ivory”, states that,

In effect, ivory serves as one of the lifelines of al-Shabaab, enabling it to maintain its grip over young soldiers, most of who are not radically motivated. According to a source within the militant group, between one to three tons of ivory, fetching a price of roughly US$200 per kilo, pass through the ports in southern Somalia every month.

But the only evidence Kalron and Crosta present for this claim is the recording of a meeting with two anonymous sources in a hotel in Nairobi. In 2016, Elephant Action League published a report that includes part of the transcript of this meeting.

In the 2016 report, Elephant Action League acknowledged that,

Ivory actually played a relatively small role in al-Shabaab’s total finances.

Also in 2016, Cathy Haenlein, Thomas Maguire, and Keith Somerville looked in detail at the claims in Kalron and Crosta’s 2013 article in a report published in the journal Whitehall Papers. They conclude that,

[T]he evidence underpinning the Al-Shabaab–ivory narrative is limited. Indeed, rigorous primary and secondary research by the authors suggests that the extent of Al-Shabaab involvement in ivory poaching and trafficking has been significantly overstated. Though impossible to rule out any Al-Shabaab involvement, this research suggests the existence of little more than small-scale, ad hoc and opportunistic participation. Notably, the primary source alluding to significantly greater involvement – the EAL’s brief 2013 report – is plagued with methodological problems, which undermine its reliability…

Botswana’s shoot to kill policy

Since late 1987, the Botswana Defence Force, the country’s army, has had an anti-poaching mission. Before he entered politics, Ian Khama was commander of the Botswana Defence Force.

While he was the country’s president, from 2008 to 2018, Ian Khama took an aggressive approach to poaching. The government had an unwritten “shoot to kill” policy aimed at suspected poachers.

In the “Poaching Wars” documentary, Khama talks about the shoot to kill policy. What he describes sounds a lot like extrajudicial killing.

Khama avoids Hardy’s question about the rules of engagement. Instead he turns the question back on him and asks him what he would do if he were facing an armed poacher.

And when Hardy says he would open fire on suspected poachers, Khama shrugs.

Unfortunately, neither Hardy nor Khama mentions the fact that innocent people have almost certainly been killed because of this policy.

Here’s the conversation:

Hardy: 15 years time, the Chinese being the largest creditor in the world, is it not actually inevitable that we have to give them what they want in a certain degree in order to survive?

Khama: It’s a culture. We have to kill the supply to starve that culture.

Hardy: They come in?

Khama: That is one of the reasons why, in Botswana with our anti-poaching we do not necessarily interrogate the poacher. And that is a position we’ve adopted to send a clear message to say, if you want to come and poach in Botswana, one of the possibilities is you may not go back to your country alive.

Hardy: What about your local fixers, do they get the same treatment?

Khama: If a person has a weapon, and they challenge our security forces, at that stand off distance you don’t know, you’re not interrogating what country they come from.

Hardy: Of course, you might receive fire.

Khama: Exactly. The response is the same.

Hardy: I put my weapon down. At 100 yards you don’t see that. What’s the rules of engagement?

Khama: You put your weapon down? 100 yards.

Hardy: Bang. You can’t see it.

Khama: OK. What do you think it would be?

Hardy: I know what I would do.

Khama: What would you do?

Hardy: I would open fire.

Khama: [Shrugs.] If you have a weapon and you feel your life is threatened…

Hardy: Immediately.

Khama: That’s a natural reaction, isn’t it?

Hardy: Fair enough.

Conservation International and Ian Khama

In 2016, a US congressional delegation visited Botswana. During the visit, Chris Coons, a Democrat Senator, was reported as saying that the Botswana Defence Force should review their rules of engagement. “Human life must also be taken into consideration when dealing with the anti-poaching issues,” he said.

Conservation International, on the other hand, appears to approve of Botswana’s shoot to kill policy. Botswana’s ex-president, Ian Khama, has been on Conservation International’s board since 1999. In July 2018, Conservation International announced that Khama had joined Conservation International as a Distinguished Fellow.

Conservation International’s chairman Peter Seligmann said in a statement that,

“What President Khama brings to Conservation International is immeasurable. For decades, he has provided us with a unique perspective as an exceptional leader who shares our commitment to securing nature for the benefit of people. We’re thrilled to continue to benefit from his vision and institutional knowledge to preserve Africa’s rich natural resources.”


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