The National Anti-poaching Committee (NAC) led by Brigadier Simon Motswana Barwabatsile, and the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) have dismissed claims of rampant poaching in Northern Botswana made by director and founder of Elephants Without Borders, Dr Michael Chase.
Government of Botswana through the Office of the President (OP), the Directorate of Intelligence and Security (DIS), DWNP and the NAC organised a two-day tour of the area for the media to appreciate first-hand information to test the veracity of Chase’s claims.
Briefing a group of local and international journalists on Wednesday morning NAC Coordinator, Barwabatsile, said after the story broke they invited Chase to lead them on a visit to the referenced locations of alleged poaching. Other independent stakeholders, among them EWB representatives and Rhino Conservation Botswana were involved, he said. “So far only 19 carcasses were identified from the coordinates provided by Dr Chase. Of these only six (6) were found to show evidence of poaching while the remainder did not. In fact, one of the carcasses was found with tusks intact. In the rest of the coordinates supplied by Chase that make up the 87 alleged in the media, there was either no indication of a carcass or only very old bones were found,” said Barwabatsile, with a pensive look on his face.
The Botswana Defence Force (BDF) Chief of Staff (Barwabatsile) is an experienced army officer who boasts of many years as a serviceman and has undertaken dangerous missions at home and abroad by his own admission. He said although they have recorded poaching incidents over the years, reports of 87 elephants recently massacred by poachers in a ‘sanctuary’ in northern Botswana are an exaggeration. He said current statistics, from January to September 2018, collected by the multi-disciplined anti-poaching committee he leads shows that only 63 elephant deaths have been recorded throughout the country. This compares to an average of 80-90 deaths annually, he explained.
“These deaths could be attributed to natural causes like old age and disease (anthrax), human-wildlife conflicts where farmers shoot elephants that destroy their properties and poaching incidents. Note that poaching only accounts for a small percentage of all deaths and cannot be said to be growing since May. We are in control here,” said the ever energetic Barwabatsile, with an expert on wildlife intelligence DWNP Deputy Director (Operations) Churchill Collyer on hand to support his assertions.
Collyer said there has been an increase in reports on human-wildlife conflict, especially in Chobe, Ngamiland and Tuli block where elephant population is high. He said in turn farmers retaliate by shooting elephants to protect themselves and their property, which has led to more deaths reported to DWNP offices around the country.
For two days, a group of almost 20 local and international journalists was flown in six helicopters to Mababe Depression, Savuti Marsh, Linyanti, Kwando and Khwai by a team of BDF pilots led by Lt Colonel Daniel Masimega. Journalists were shown carcasses of elephants in different stages of decay and decomposition, with some devoured by scavengers while in some instances only old white bones were scattered around. Due to the dense forest and overgrown shrubbery, most parts of the areas visited were inaccessible by road or air transport. Army officer, Colonel George Bogatsu, who has been working with anti-poaching unit in the area for the past six years, said the BDF have camps in strategic places throughout the area. “Our patrol teams, on rotation every seven days, are on the ground 24/7 throughout the year,” said Colonel Bogatsu.
Explaining to journalists the modus operandi and trickery used by poachers, Bogatsu said evidence has shown that they usually form groups ranging from four to 11 members. Every member of the poaching team is given a specific task among them tracking, marksmen (shooters), cooks and carriers (of supplies and tasks).
Poachers travel long distances on foot (usually at night) tracking the movement of elephants and after selecting one with large tusks highly skilled marksmen will bring it down by shooting the front legs. They will then cut its spine to neutralise it before quickly removing the whole front part of the head with improvised tools like an axe. For some reason poachers always cut off the tail from the carcass. They will then cover the carcass with tree branches to prevent detection by vultures or from an aerial patrol by anti-poaching unit before they escape leaving everything they brought along behind. “Carcass of elephants that die from other causes will not have these clear indicators,” said Colonel Bogatsu, declining to reveal the nationalities of poachers they have encountered in the past or if they have had to shoot any. The information is highly classified, he said.
The Patriot on Sunday is reliably informed that the anti-poaching unit has engaged in fierce shootouts with unrelenting poachers. In most cases the poachers were either killed or outnumbered and captured by the well equiped patrol teams. Most of the poachers are said to be from neighbouring Zambia and Namibia who cross into Botswana illegally through the shared borders. In fact, Collyer confirms that they have gathered sufficient intelligence to immediately deduce if the poachers are from outside the country or locals, just by studying the evidence around the carcass. A group of poachers spend days and nights, sometimes spanning about three weeks, tracking the movement of elephants before identifying one to kill. In some instances local farmers/ residents pounce on a dead elephant and steal tusks, in which case the evidence differs with professional poachers' kill. In other cases tusks were recovered from dead elephants suspected to have died from natural causes.
Most of the carcasses, Colonel Bogatsu explained, are older elephants that are likely to die of natural causes like diseases and starvation (inability to migrate to food and water sources in drought). Older male elephants are also targeted by poachers because they would have grown large tusks which fetch huge returns in the illicit ivory trade markets of Asia.
When asked why Dr Chase was not joining the media tour to explain his side of the story, OP Deputy Director of Communications Osesenaqa Lekgoko said they had extended an invitation to him but he never responded. His whereabouts were unknown. Attempts by journalists to find him at his house on Thursday morning failed as only a menacingly huge dog answered the call at the gate. Interestingly, through his organisation EWB Chase would release a statement the same day claiming that he was never invited to the media tour. Further EWB said they are not in a position to make any comments until they have concluded the elephant survey for which he has been contracted by the DWNP. He however repeats that an unusually high number of elephant carcasses were seen by the survey team during this survey. He does not explain why he made a premature release of findings to international media instead of engaging DWNP, his employer. "EWB is not able, until further notice, to release any detailed information concerning the survey in general, nor potential cases of elephant poaching. We trust that concerned citizens of Botswana, the media and the international conservation community can respect these constraints and await the dissemination of the final survey report," reads part of the statement from EWB.
When asked how they feel about Chase disregarding DWNP and sharing information on the alleged poaching with international media, Collyer could not hide his disappointment. He would not say what action they would take against Chase in view of such conduct, save that the matter is being considered by legal experts for possible breach of confidentiality as prescribed in the elephant survey contract. “We don’t know what motivated him to do that. As a researcher contracted by DWNP he must report first to us; then we can take decisions and action based on the findings. He was not authorised to publish such damaging allegations, which he has failed to substantiate when we asked him,” said Collyer.
Barwabatsile further dismissed claims of any disarmament taking place in the wildlife conservation areas. He explained that disarmament is a very strong military terminology which cannot be used interchangeably with withdrawal of some weapons from DWNP. He reiterated that as the army, BDF soldiers carrying out anti-poaching operations are well equipped and remain fully armed to contain sophisticated poachers.
The false disarmament allegation was sold to international media by Chase and perpetuated by Minister of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism (MCNRT) Tshekedi Khama, his wife Thea and their supporters. Despite an explanation from President Mokgweetsi Masisi that the only equipment withdrawn from DWNP anti-poaching operations were ‘arms of war’, which only the Botswana Defence Force is legally authorised to have in their custody. As Masisi explained, and corroborated this week by Collyer, DWNP anti-poaching unit continues to use weapons provided for in the Wildlife Act.
Notwithstanding such explanation, the international media is hooked on the disarmament story and refuses to let go. On Tuesday, journalists from outside the country kept harping on the same questioning demanding to know why Botswana took such a drastic decision. “The area to the northern part of Botswana, where rampant poaching is alleged to have occurred recently, is patrolled by officers from the Botswana Defence Force anti-poaching unit and not the DWNP. As you have seen our officers on the ground remain fully armed as provided for by the law and have never been relieved of their weapons,” said Barwabatsile, matter-of-factly.
Surprisingly, in all their alarming reports the international media never bother to question Botswana government or DWNP about any of the allegations of disarmament. This raises suspicion that such biased reporting is deliberately calculated to cause alarm in the international community and damage Botswana’s reputation as a safe haven for elephants and wildlife in general.