When he travels to London in a few weeks President Mokgweetsi Masisi should be prepared to face a barrage of questions from the unforgiving British media and conservationists following recent allegations of rampant elephant poaching in Botswana attributed to his decision to disarm wildlife rangers.
Masisi, who last week told a packed Maun kgotla that he is aware that a lot of attention will be on Botswana following false reports of elephant massacre, will be attending the End Wild Life Crime summit in London in October . “I am prepared to represent Botswana and take other leaders head on regarding conservation and management of wildlife in Botswana,” he declared to the kgotla meeting, ever confidently.
Soon after taking office on April 01, Masisi ordered the withdrawal of ‘weapons of war’ from the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) because such possession is not sanctioned by statute and amounted to an illegality. However, a private researcher on elephants engaged by DWNP in a consultancy to conduct elephant counts in Botswana, Dr Michael Chase and his organisation Elephants Without Borders, recently published alarming reports in international media claiming that almost 90 elephants have been killed by poachers ever since the withdrawal of ‘arms of war’. Dr Chase has since failed to provide proof by showing the 87 carcass of elephants he claimed to have identified when invited to do so by the Anti-Poaching Unit and DWNP in the presence of local and international media. So far only 19 carcasses have been found amongst which only six are suspected killed by poachers in the area where Chase alleged rampant massacre. Countrywide, only 63 elephant deaths have been reported a majority of them killed in human-wildlife conflicts or succumbing to natural causes.
Survival International first cast doubt on the rampant poaching story two weeks ago. Survival International’s Director, Stephen Corry, said midweek: “It’s now proven beyond doubt that the “elephant massacre” didn’t happen. It’s been invented and pushed by those advocating greater militarization of conservation. This is the same failed approach that is alienating hundreds of thousands of local and tribal people around the world – the very people who should be in the driving seat of conservation".
“This false narrative was clearly pushed to coincide with the buildup to next month’s Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference in London. It’s the worst of colonial conservation in action, and if it isn’t challenged, it will destroy conservation itself,” Corry warned.
According to the law, only the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) army is allowed to possess equipment, ammunition and artillery classified as ‘weapons of war’. Last week BDF general, Brigadier Simon Barwabatsile, confirmed to local and international media that their anti-poaching unit, which patrols the northern part of Botswana, is fully armed and ready to take on sophisticated poachers.
On the other hand, Masisi has acknowledged the problem of human-wildlife conflicts, caused by the large numbers of elephant roaming in the wild around the country. He said government appreciates the frustrations of different communities because of the damage to their property caused by elephants and promised that an amicable solution will be reached through engaging all relevant stakeholders including the community, researchers and conservationists. He noted that there are some conservationists who have formed pressure groups who are against the culling of elephants. The consultation process has already kicked in with Masisi meeting researchers in Maun, and this week a Parliamentary sub-committee led by MP Kitso Mokaila addressed public hearings in Ngamiland district.
Masisi has also acknowledged some unresolved land issues in Ngamiland, among them the controversial ownership of Moremi Game Reserve, Maun Educational Parks and challenges over change of land use in the district. He said the issue of Moremi Game Reserve and others cannot be resolved immediately but Government will make sure that they are addressed expeditiously because they have been dragging on for a long time. He said Government is aware of the issues because Member of Parliament for Maun West, Kgosi Tawana Moremi, has been advocating on the matter. “As a president I assure you that we will tackle these issues and resolve them amicably,” he said, adding that a commission of inquiry may be set up to deal with the land issue if need be.
Masisi also revealed that he has ordered the suspension of leases until land issues in the Ngamiland district are resolved. He said no new leases will be awarded until the land issue is dealt with so that communities can benefit. He also promised to address issues of change of land use for communities who reside in Wildlife Management Areas (WMA) such as Ditshiping and Khwai. He said communities in the WMA have to benefit from the natural resources, adding that most of them have ploughing fields which they want to change to tourism related businesses because they are not allowed to plough or rear livestock.