Botswana: 'Botswana Was Never a Safe Haven'

23 January 2020

While reports that more of rhinos continue to be gunned down by poachers in the Okavango Delta are yet to be confirmed, it is however factual that the endangered animals are under siege in Botswana.

It is alleged that about three rhinos were this past week found killed in NG 32 inside the Okavango Delta. In December the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism confirmed in a statement that about 31 rhinos were poached from October 2018 to December 2019. 23 were reportedly white rhinoceros while the remaining eight (8) were black rhinoceros.

The question now is what might have gone wrong in a country that was once rated among the best worldwide in protecting its wildlife, and what is it that can be done to stop the situation from getting even worse.

According to Dr Erik Verreynne, a Wildlife and Livestock Veterinarian, the biggest mistake was for the country's previous administration to think that Botswana is a safe haven when history and the regional trend however dictated otherwise. Dr Erik Verreynne believes that the idea was naive and arrogant. A total of 87 rhinos were relocated from South Africa into Botswana's wilderness between 2013 and 2017, as according to Dr Verreynne. " Despite the warnings and warning signs the country went ahead and brought in rhinos into areas that are difficult to defend," Dr Verreynne lamented in an interview with this publication.

According to him, the only solution to the present carnage is for the country to relocate the endangered animals back into safe sanctuaries like in 1993 when Khama Rhino Sanctuary started. Dr Verreynne believes that the country is better able to defend these animals as semi wild populations than as wild populations in vast open wilderness areas.

"A fire by fire approach only will not work as we are seeing," he advised.

Dr Verreynne is against the believe that the rise in rhino poaching could be a result of government's decision to disarm the Department of Wildlife and National Parks's Anti-Poaching Unit. He argued that the Unit is working together with members of the Botswana Defence Force who are armed with automatic rifles.

He said rhino poaching could be on the increase also because the delta terrain is challenging and also the lack of infrastructure which prevents quick motorized responses against predominant guerrilla-type incursions. Dr Verreynne also noted that the apathy of communities to report suspicious activities present serious challenges. He says the increased number of rhinos widely distributed over the area forces a reactive defensive approach that is failing.

Dr Verreynne observes that the risk of poaching in Botswana is also linked to the instability in the region, adding that it was just a matter of time before Botswana became a target for poachers. According to him, poaching increased dramatically in 2009 first in Zimbabwe and then in South Africa where it peaked at unprecedented levels in 2014/15. He says it then spilled over to Namibia a few years later when the security in SA, especially in privately owned population were intensified.

Another factor why the country was safe for a while, he said, was the fact that the country had a very small population with most animals protected in small private sanctuaries. After the country brought in a large number of rhinos into the Delta, it was only a matter of time before poaching became rampant, Dr Verreynne argues.

"The risk was always there as history has shown us. The large wilderness areas close to open international borders with many waterways and few people allows for relatively easy covert poaching incursions. Coupled with the increase in rhinos in the Delta the last five years the Delta became an appealing target to people believing rhinos are worth more dead than alive," he noted.

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