A Tale of Two Countries: Zimbabwe and Botswana, Neighbors with Opposing Attitudes toward Wildlife.


Masha Kalinina, Humane Society International, National Geographic

Date Published

See link for photos.

On a recent tour into Zimbabwe’s Matobo National Park – where white and black rhinos are being reintroduced – our group noticed that the horn of a white rhino we spotted was removed. I asked our guide why. “To deter poachers,” he replied. Knowing that even the small stump that remains is worth thousands of dollars, I prodded further, “What do you do with the horn?” He responded “It’s stored in a vault in Harare.” “But why?” I inquired, given his previous explanation that the use of horn powder in Asian medicine is a scam. “To sell it for ornaments, for carvings” he told us, fully confident this was the right thing to do with the rhino’s horn. Since ornamental trade is one of the drivers of the demand for rhino horn and the rhino poaching war we face today, it was disappointing to hear this.

I traveled to Zimbabwe to gain a better understanding of the efforts to conserve wildlife in Southern Africa. One of my top goals was to learn more about the co-existence of people and wildlife –  where is it working and why? This was a constant debate at the recently concluded meeting of the Conference of Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which regulates trade in wild animal and plant products. I was at this meeting in South Africa representing Humane Society International.

At CITES, hunters argued that trophy hunting profits help local communities coexist with wildlife. Yet conservationists know that local residents receive as little as three percent of the money paid by trophy hunters. Corruption prevents these funds from benefiting conservation and the money simply greenwashes an unsustainable practice. If trophy hunters and their advocates are heard loud and clear, which African voices are not being heard?

And so following CITES, I booked a tour, setting off on an 11-day driving trip from Johannesburg to Zimbabwe’s Matobo National Park and Victoria Falls, to Botswana’s Chobe National Park, the Okavango Delta, and the Khama Rhino Sanctuary.

The first country on the trip, Zimbabwe, was one of four (including Namibia, South Africa and Botswana) to legally export ivory to China and Japan in 2008, all with permission from CITES. It is widely recognized that this sale, with other contributing factors, spurred the current African elephant poaching crisis – in September 2016, the Great Elephant Census, the first pan-African aerial survey of savanna elephants in decades, revealed a disturbing 30 percent decline of the species between 2007 and 2014. This year at CITES, Zimbabwe and Namibia yet again sought to legalize trade in their ivory stockpiles. Fortunately this effort failed. Run by a dictator and known for its corruption, Zimbabwe’s profit-driven attitude toward wildlife is hardly surprising.

In stark contrast to its neighbor to the east, the next country in my visit, Botswana, is a beacon of hope for wildlife in the region.

As we loaded our mokoro canoes for our camping trip on Botswana’s Okavango Delta, I met Waco, one of our expert “polers” who would guide us down the narrow streams of the lush delta marshland. Waco was also an expert tracker and one of two guides helping us explore the delta on foot. No guns or other weapons were permitted even though our hike took us through an area where all of Africa’s “Big Five” (elephants, lions, leopards, rhinos and buffalo) reside.

Waco knew every animal by sound, used their calls to determine their distance from us, and recognized the tracks of every single creature. There was both a primal intuition and a deep intelligence in him. On our hike, we observed an elephant bull eating acacia tree fruit and Waco commented, “Elephants are very important to the ecosystem. They help create the paths we and other animals use to cross the forest. They knock down dead trees and their dung carries seeds that help plant new ones.”

Waco, who was born on an island a short walk from our camp, has lived through a transformational time in Botswana’s conservation history. In January 2014, Botswana prohibited all forms of wildlife hunting, including subsistence and trophy hunting. In fact, Waco himself was formerly a subsistence hunter. Since 2014, this land has been successfully converted from hunting to photographic concessions, with government assistance.

This transition did not come easily for Waco and the local residents, who were previously able to provide for themselves in part through hunting or by working for hunting operators. Waco reflected on the changes while we sat around our campfire. “Our communities own this land and now the tour operators pay us to bring visitors here.” The operators must also employ locals for these camping experiences, as polers, cooks, guides and cleaning staff. “For hunting, the season is short…six months…because hunting was not allowed when animals are breeding,” Waco added, “but with tourists, we can work all year.”

A nearby concession, now called the Selinda Reserve, converted from hunting to photographic tourism thus providing a net increase in revenue benefit to the nation of 2,500 percent. This includes a massive increase in employment. Villagers are also compensated for damage done by elephants to their farms and those who lose cattle to predators can receive replacement animals.

Botswana also set an incredible example this year at CITES. Botswana’s Minister of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism, Tshekedi Khama, declared that – unlike South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe, which seek to profit from ivory trade – Botswana would voluntarily prohibit commercial trade in ivory. I was in the room to witness this momentous announcement, which was met with thundering applause.

Back at our campfire on the Okavango Delta, I found myself surrounded by the elephants Minister Khama, and Waco, now work to keep alive. Our voices echoed into the night until Waco and a fellow camp operator, Phil, hushed our group pointing in the direction of the mokoro canoes on the water. An elephant shadow appeared in the moonlight only 20 feet away from us, followed by her calf. These “grey ghosts” walked gracefully and quietly. Then, slightly spooked by the canoes, the two rushed away from our camp toward other elephants we could hear splashing nearby in the water. I lay in bed that night listening to the symphony of the savanna, reflecting on the fact that Waco and Botswana are the voices and hope for the future of Africa where, in some parts, people and wildlife are learning to live in peace.