Poachers and politicians take aim at Africa’s largest elephant population in Botswana


Jane Flanagan, The Times

Date Published

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The number of fresh carcasses among Botswana’s elephant population has gone up by 600 per cent in four years, according to a wildlife census, a rise largely due to poaching.

The country’s new president is considering reintroducing trophy hunting along with regular culling of elephants, with the meat being canned for pet food.

While Botswana is home to approximately 30 per cent of Africa’s elephants, more than any other country, the four-month survey by Elephants Without Borders (EWB) found that since 2010 the overall population has stabilised or even dwindled.

Mike Chase, director of EWB, used an aerial survey to conclude that the poaching outbreak was the largest recorded in the southern African state since the 1970s, with 104 fresh or recent carcasses, representing a 593 per cent increase since 2014 when almost none were found.

Iain Douglas-Hamilton, a British conservationist, said that the trend seen in the poaching data “raises the possibility that further escalations are possible”.

Mr Douglas-Hamilton, who was among the first to alert the world to industrial-scale ivory poaching in east Africa and who has endorsed the survey’s findings, said: “From a number of studies elsewhere in Africa, an initial increase in elephant poaching similar to that now seen in Botswana has often been a precursor to major [population] reductions subsequently.”

Botswana has rejected EWB’s conclusions. The government wants the raw data to be reanalysed by an independent body. President Masisi, who came to power last March, has described reports of a rise in poaching as “blue lies” perpetuated by “certain people with ulterior motives to tarnish the good name of Botswana”.

Mr Masisi, 57, has moved to reverse a number of wildlife policies implemented by his predecessor, Ian Khama, who armed rangers with automatic weapons and operated an unofficial shoot-to-kill policy against poachers. Conservationists fear that the country’s animals have become embroiled in a power struggle within the ruling Botswana Democratic Party.

According to the EWB report, gangs using consistent methods have been operating in four hot spots in the north, including within the Okavango Delta, a Unesco world heritage site.

Older bulls aged 35 to 55 carrying the heaviest ivory were targeted at remote watering holes by poachers armed with high-calibre rifles.

Any survivors were immobilised by axe blows to their spinal cords, enabling the poachers to hack off their tusks and often their trunks. Carcasses were concealed by tree branches, the pictures show, so they could not be spotted easily from the air.

The EWB count covered 40,000 square miles, about a sixth of the country, which is roughly the size of France. It estimates Botswana’s elephant population to be 126,114, although some politicians claim it is double that number and presents a danger to lives and livelihoods of the rural population, an important cohort that will vote in national elections this year.

A parliamentary committee reviewing Mr Khama’s 2014 moratorium on trophy hunting claimed that hunting would boost tourism while “managing” the elephant population. It called for “regular but limited” elephant culling.

Along with South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe, Botswana has applied to the wildlife trade body Cites to be allowed to trade its ivory. Mr Douglas-Hamilton fears that such a move would weaken the ivory trade ban imposed by China and elsewhere. “When you have legal ivory trade it is mirrored by a huge illegal trade,” he said.