Set on the banks of the Chobe river, Letlekane looks out across where five countries – Zambia, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Angola and Botswana – come together. This town, where the latest wildlife trade talks will take place this week, is at the heart of the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Park, an area bigger than Italy. It is the world’s biggest park, and Africa’s greatest hope of preserving its heritage.
Botswana appears to be leading the way in the battle to preserve the continent’s famous living treasury of animals. Tourism brought £227m into the economy last year. High-end camps attract visitors from around the world to appreciate nature that most people can see only on television. The president banned commercial hunting in 2014, and the country’s conservation projects are the envy of many.
Olmo von Meijenfeldt of Democracy Works, an NGO based in South Africa, has been touring these projects ahead of the conference. Sitting in a remote bush camp, he said: “Botswana appears to be on the cutting edge of conservation in southern Africa.”
According to Balule Nature Reserve warden Craig Spencer, communities turn to poaching and wildlife traffickers only when they are excluded from conservation solutions that might benefit them. In Botswana, new game management areas have been established to link parks through rural communities, which then can license rights to tour operators and benefit from tourism money directly.
At first glance the slaughter of elephants and rhinos that happens in neighbouring countries seems to have passed Botswana by. But this republic of just two million people, which scores highly on governance and transparency ratings, is not without its own troubles. As high-value species become harder to get, other animals are being targeted by poachers. The scaly pangolin, the giraffe and especially lions’ bones are being trafficked out of the country. At a special cross-border roadblock set up by South African police near the border with Botswana’s Kgalagadi National Park, police found both cheetahs and lions being trafficked for sale in South Africa.
Ogaliditse Ditwa, a wildlife officer, said: “There is a big problem with poaching in northern Botswana. At times the wildlife officers are sometimes fighting with the poachers.”
Poaching brings in big money to poor communities, and once the channels of sale are set up they are almost impossible to take down.
Julian Rademeyer, a South African journalist and author of an exposé of the global trafficking trade entitled Killing for Profit, said: “I don’t think we’re on top of it. I think it is going to get a lot worse before it gets better.”
Climate change is also taking a toll. Near Pandematenga in northern Botswana, the biggest migration of elephants left in Africa moves between Chobe National Park and Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. Hunting camps used to provide water points for an entire generation of elephants that made the 450-mile trek. With these water sources drying up, local environmentalists worry that some of the 30,000-plus elephants will die. According to reserve managers, poaching of this last great herd is also on the increase.
Meanwhile large-scale, cattle-based agriculture with ties to the EU, the second biggest income earner in the country, has driven farmers to overgraze their farms and compete directly with lions and other wild animals that have previously had free range.
The hunting ban has also created potential problems. Hunting’s direct contribution to the economy is hard to establish, but millions of dollars flowed into the country for big-ticket hunting licences for elephant and buffalo.
Now that this money is not there, the jobs that depended on it have also gone, says Von Meijenfeldt. “One has to be cautionary with the ban on hunting, because the effect could be that poaching will increase. Communities might be forced through economic pressures to supplement the income that was lost through participating in the hunting industry.”
This week the conservationist world will come here for guidance on the future of the animal trade. They will take a trip down the Chobe river at sunset, when the birds fill the sky and the elephants rumble as they drink. But they will see no rhinos: they have already been poached.