President Mokgweetsi Masisi has been asked to dismiss the Minister of Environment, Conservation, Natural Resources and Tourism Tshekedi Khama, due to failure to effectively deal with a scandalous false claim that 90 elephants were recently killed by poachers in Botswana.
The poaching story, promoted by international media, almost broke the internet catching the attention of world leaders and ordinary people alike. Coincidentally, the story was published at a time when President Masisi, who was to arrive back in Botswana yesterday (Saturday), was away on official visit to China and Seychelles. Masisi was scheduled to address an impromptu media briefing immediately upon arrival at the Sir Seretse Khama International Airport in the late afternoon where he was expected to make a firm decision about the scandal, which has tarnished the imange of the country and threatens the tourism industry. Tourism is the second biggest revenue earner for Botswana after diamonds.
As the minister responsible for wildlife, Tshekedi Khama, was expected to defend Botswana from external false attacks which criticised the Masisi administration for a decision to withdraw arms of war from the anti-poaching unit soon after ascending the presidency on April 01. But that was not to be. Instead Khama made controversial statements on local media that support the poaching allegations made by Dr Mike Chase of Elephants without Borders (EWB) to international media. Further Tshekedi failed to restrain his family from meddling in his official duties. Tshekedi's wife, Thea, has been leading an onslaught against Botswana Government on social media using the same argument as Dr Chase -that poaching his increased tremendously due to the withdrawal of arms of war from the DWNP and the abolishing of the shoot to kill policy. His son, Kaedi recently shocked the world when he said farmers should build walls around their properties to keep wild animals out. He was commenting on the controversial debate around human-wildlife conflicts where elephants destroy crops while lions and other predators prey on livestock.
Before Tuesday when the world media was abuzz with reports that Elephants without Borders (EWB) had reported that almost 90 elephants were killed by poachers recently, a security storm was brewing between Botswana Defence Force (BDF), Department of Wildlife and National Parks and EWB. Highly placed sources have revealed that BDF high command requested the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) and EWB to show them the carcasses that were allegedly found as they believe if the issue is left without being addressed it will tarnish their reputation that they are incapable of protecting not only the country’s flora and fauna but its sovereignty.
Appearing before the Public Accounts Committee on Friday, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Environment, Conservation, Natural Resources and Tourism Thato Raphaka revealed that only seven carcasses were found instead of 90 as alleged by EWB. On breaching the non-disclosure clause by Dr Mike Chase of EWB by sharing the research information with the third party, Raphaka said that they have consulted the Attorney General for legal advice.
On Tuesday, The Patriot on Sunday contacted the Minister of Environment, Conservation, Natural Resources and Tourism Tshekedi Khama to enquire about the killing of the elephants and whether it is true BDF had requested DWNP to show evidence. The outspoken Tshekedi Khama through a WhatsApp message refused to comment on the issue but referred this publication to BDF. “Contact BDF if you don’t mind,” he responded.
Early on in an interview with one of the local radio stations, Tshekedi Khama confirmed that indeed some elephant’s carcasses have been found which is allegedly to have been killed by poachers. “When inspecting some of the carcasses one could clearly see that their tasks were removed violently which is sign that it is the works of the poachers,” he said.
It was Minister Khama’s statement that infuriated the BDF command as they felt that they were never consulted before the issue was shared with the international media yet they are in charge of the anti-poaching operations. BDF Command is said to have asked the MWET to release a statement rebutting the allegations or they will handle the release, something that was going to embarrass Minister Tshekedi. Bowing from pressure from the BDF, MWET Thato Raphaka released a press statement dismissing the reports by EWB.
“The Government of Botswana has noted with concern unsubstantiated and sensational media reports on elephant poaching statistics in Botswana carried by some local and international media attributed to Elephants Without Borders (EWB), a non-governmental organization contracted by the Botswana Government to carry out the dry season aerial survey of elephants and wildlife in northern Botswana covering Chobe, Okavango, Ngamiland and North Central District. The stories allege that about 90 elephants have been indiscriminately killed recently. The Government of Botswana wishes to inform members of the public and other key stakeholders that these statistics are false and misleading. At no point in the last months or recently were 87 or 90 elephants killed in one incident in any place in Botswana,” reads part of his release.
On the other hand, BDF Spokesperson Major Fana Maswabi referred this publication to the press release by MWET. “Since MWET has released a statement I think is best you refer to it,” he said.
BDF Anti-Poaching unit is said to have been infuriated by the numbers reported by EWB and summoned the DWNP leadership to explain the numbers. “Last weekend DWNP Director Major General Otisitswe Tiroyamodimo was forced to flow to Kasane and meet with the BDF Anti-Poaching unit as well high ranking BDF officers to explain the numbers and why it was not discussed with them first as they are the ones in charging of anti-poaching operations,” revealed senior BDF officer.
Sources within the security agencies have revealed that the real issue is about the disarmament of the DWNP Anti-Poaching Unit and impression is created that this has exposed the country to poachers. In May this year, weapons of war were withdrawn from the DWNP in order to pave way for the enactment of legislation which will empower the DWNP officers to carry weapons of war.
There has been tension between DWNP and other security agencies who felt that the latter was arming to the teeth and recruiting some of their officers. Immediately after being appointed Minister of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism (MEWT), Tshekedi Khama embarked on an ambitious project of curbing poaching which was threatening the country’s fauna. In order to command both air and ground spaces, MEWT started to equip themselves, procuring four Jabiru J430 aircrafts in November last year. In an interview recently Minister Tshekedi confirmed that his ministry has also bought another aircraft which is used for official business and was quick to add that other ministries have been using it also. The Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) recently procured eight helicopters that will be used for anti-poaching and some are currently in Maun and Kasane. The ministry has been busy on a recruitment drive of pilots, most of them being poached from Botswana Defence Force (BDF) Air wing.
In the past Minister Khama indicated his desire to have their full-fledged anti-poaching unit and stop depending on other security agencies.
Cancellation of anti-poaching camps
Another issue that is said to have infuriated officials at MWET is the halting on the construction of multimillion anti-poaching camps in Kasane, Kang and Maun. The design for the three camps which will each cost P70 million has already been completed. Last year in March former commander of the BDF ground forces who is also MP for Gabane/Mmankgodi Major General Pius Mokgware warned Minister Khama against forming a third military wing. “Let us not have a third army in Botswana through the Anti-Poaching Unit because I understand you have bought some weapons of war which can only be used by soldiers. Now if we arm people who belong to a union as per the Act, I think that is not good for this country,” warned Mokgware. There were some allegations that Minister Khama was using Tourism Intelligence Services to fight his political battles ahead of the retirement of his elder brother President Ian Khama.