Unprecedented Poaching In Botswana Leaves 90 Elephants Dead

In northern Botswana, near Okavango Delta (a protected elephant sanctuary, of all places), 87 elephant carcasses were found during an aerial survey of the region. Each of these 87 elephants was killed for their ivory with their skulls smashed to retrieve the tusks. Director and founder of Elephants Without Borders (EWB) Mike Chase contends this is an unprecedented magnitude of poaching. Moreover, these were “fresh carcasses,” meaning that they were lost within the last three months, but, EWB confirms that many of the killings occurred only in the last few weeks.

During the last audit of the region in 2014, only nine elephant carcasses were found. Botswana is home to one-third (135,000) of Africa’s elephant populations, the largest of any other country in the region. Accordingly, it has earned the reputation as a refuge and haven for elephant species. However, on a grand scale, elephant populations are on the decline. Between 2007 and 2014, the population of elephants in Africa fell 30% (144,000).

The most recognizable explanation for this level of poaching is the government’s decision to disarm their anti-poaching unit after new President Mokgweetsi Masisi was sworn in this past spring. The unit operated on an unwritten “shoot-to-kill” policy of debatable legality, thus, Masisi rationalizes the lack of legal framework for confiscating the weapons. Additionally, a regional newspaper cites increasing tensions with Namibia and Zimbabwe since unconfirmed poachers were killed by the unit. Conservationists argue that the unit cannot be expected to confront poachers of an organized and armed group, and this was already witnessed by EWB who claims that no members of the unit were seen during the first two months of the survey. It is no coincidence that this slaughter happened shortly after disarmament, however, this is not the only reason.

Another explanation suggests that poachers are following a natural pattern occurring after a certain area has been over-hunted. Excessive poaching in East Africa, northern Mozambique, Angola, and Zambia has driven elephant populations in these regions to the verge of extinction. According to data from tracking collars, elephants are retreating to safety in Botswana, which poachers are following.

Finally, Botswana citizens may be getting involved in poaching. This is a viable explanation because six of the carcasses were found in one of the least accessible areas in the country. Annette Hübschle, a researcher at the University of Cape Town, suggests, “Separating local people from wildlife and conservation, creates pathways to illegal economies. Rural communities are likely to support poachers and poaching economies because there are no benefits to these conservation areas for them.” Botswana invests plenty of its resources into conservation efforts, but this could be impeding on local residents’ lives.

Though bans on ivory distribution are widespread (e.g. the 2016 US embargo on ivory products and China’s ban on its sale in January), the demand for these products persist. This is attributed to the active ivory markets in China’s neighbouring countries which targets Chinese tourists. Furthermore, social media has made illegal trading on the black market easier and more accessible.

This unprecedented level of poaching and the six rhinos killed earlier this year indicates a larger and more complex underground illegal ivory trade than previously thought, so it would be ideal to focus in on who is controlling the underground network and to follow the money. Conservationists accuse the Botswana government of undermining and ignoring the poaching crisis for fear of tarnishing their reputation as a conservation leader in Africa. However, the problem must be faced since poaching levels are continuing to exceed elephants’ natural birth rates. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, 30,000 elephants are killed annually (or four elephants per hour) for their ivory. EWB is only halfway through their study and so expects the number of carcasses to rise. It is important for the government of Botswana to appeal to the tourism sector to invest in conservation efforts and to local communities to promote a harmonious lifestyle with nature. The onus is also on Asian governments to deter the demand for ivory products.