Southern Africa: The Truth About Botswana Elephant Poaching

11 September 2018

Botswana's support for the on-going ban on international trade in ivory has not eliminated elephant poaching. The recent discovery by an environmental group, Elephants Without Borders (EWB), that 90 elephants had been poached in recent months, seems proof enough that the policy has not worked.

All this, is in spite of the fact that the government has described the reports as unsubstantiated and sensational. It categorically denied them. "At no point in the last months or recently were 87 or 90 elephants killed in one incident in any place in Botswana

"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," the government statement noted.

Now the question becomes, "When will the Government of Botswana rejoin Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and other SADC countries in support of controlled and sustainable international trade in ivory?"

It should be soon. With its huge elephant population, Botswana would undoubtedly benefit from sustainable ivory trade. Money now flowing to poachers could be instead get devoted to better conservation, tourism, and economic development programmes. The profitability of poaching evaporates when markets have a sufficient, consistent but controlled ivory supply. Prices stabilise when the uncertain costs of smuggling and bribery are eliminated.

Once rural communities neigbouring Botswana's protected areas begin to appreciate the benefits of co-existing and conserving wildlife they will no longer collaborate with, but fight against elephant poachers. Additionally, the re-opening of elephant trophy hunting would help to keep Botswana's elephant population within the carrying capacity of the ecosystems of different protected areas in which they exist.

Currently, Botswana is faced with an elephant overpopulation problem that threatens both the elephants and their ecosystems. The elephant ecosystems can no longer provide enough food and water for them. The end result of this inevitable pattern would be disastrous - both ecosystem and elephant population collapse. This threat is real, Botswana's authorities need to heed this danger.

Meanwhile, very well-placed sources who spoke on condition of anonymity said that other SADC countries are now considering issuing a Declaration of Intent that states that future policies of CITES found to be unfavourable to a country's best interests will be rejected.

The continued ban on ivory trade is one of the CITES policies that these countries indicate are against their best interests. Botswana is part of SADC and ought to issue this Declaration as well, particularly in light of the fact that Gaborone is the seat of the SADC Secretariat.

Taking such a principled and courageous action would gain worldwide recognition for the new government of Botswana as CITES member countries meet for a Standing Committee meeting in Sochi, Russia next month. It would help Botswana do a bit of damage control over the recent CNN elephant poaching news report in which an environmental NGO, EWB, claimed that 87 elephants had been poached in Botswana in recent months.

Later in the week, the National Geographic published a report in which the Botswana government disputed the number of poached elephants. The Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks said that the EWB's Dr Mike Chase had issued a "false and misleading" statement. The Botswana government statement said that only 53 dead elephants had been counted and many of them had died from natural causes.

The fact that there is a dispute over how many elephants were actually poached -- and how many died from old age, illness or fighting -- is a reminder that organizations with particular axes to grind often alter the numbers to make their cases seem stronger. EWB is one of these. It is also curious to note that while EWB was conducting the elephant poaching survey on behalf of the Government of Botswana, the organisation released their "findings" without informing the Government of Botswana.

Dr Chase said that a Botswana employee was present in each EWB elephant survey flight. Surprisingly, that officer was not present when Dr Chase released the controversial figure of 87 poached elephants.

While Dr Chase is at fault for releasing "false and misleading" information, the Government of Botswana also needs to admit that it is equally at fault for having supported the ban on ivory trade at the Johannesburg 2016 CITES Conference. Did it truly believe that the policy would save its elephants? Or were people in the government personally benefiting from this change of policy? Whatever the answer, there is no doubt that Botswana's decision to vote for the CITES ban on international trade in ivory did not stop, but surely added to the increase in elephant poaching.

We live in a weird world that lacks both conservation and economic logic. Any economist knows that a ban on any commodity increases its demand and price. This is happening in Botswana dramatically right now. It has been happening throughout Africa as long as the ban in international trade in ivory has been in force.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) African Elephant Specialist Group recently reported that the total African elephant population has dropped by approximately 111,000 to 415,000 in the past 10 years. This is happening while the international ban on ivory trade has been in force, meaning that it is failing to stop elephant poaching.

In fact, Botswana's ivory trade ban support has failed badly as we also learnt in July this year that Botswana's Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services (DSS) camp in Ngwashe was allegedly using its anti-poaching operation to hide ivory from the Botswana Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management, in what was alleged to be an ivory smuggling scandal.

But in a typical animal rights response, the director and founder of EWB, Dr Mike Chase, blamed the poaching not on failure of ivory trade ban to stop it, but on the Botswana Government's reduction of its anti-poaching rangers. So if that is the cause for poaching and not the ivory trade ban, why don't animal rights groups tell CITES that its member countries should increase the number of rangers to deal with elephant poachers and not to ban ivory trade? They do not because they never want to admit that the ban on ivory trade has never and will never help to stop elephant poaching.

Southern African countries have always argued that animal rights groups are notorious for exercising authority without responsibility within the CITES framework by controversially endorsing the international ban on ivory trade as the solution to elephant poaching. When things go wrong as is currently happening in Botswana that listened to these animal rights groups, they ironically blame countries such as Botswana that accept their failed elephant protection experiments. Therefore, it is hoped that Botswana has learnt its lesson the hard way and should never repeat the mistake of supporting the international ban on ivory trade.

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