Damning allegations have surfaced over processes at the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP), suggesting serious loopholes especially in dealing with independent researchers for predators and other endangered species in the country.
Skeletons are tumbling out of the closet as highly placed sources at DWNP allege that although there is an independent research policy in the department, no proper monitoring is done to ensure compliance. DWNP is accused of issuing permits for researchers but failing to monitor if they are adhering to the Independent Research Policy. Every year, DWNP issues research licenses on various animals predominantly predators and endangered species to researchers around the world and according to sources, they do not report to DWNP veterinarian upon completion of their studies. “One specific example is the data that was never availed to Department of Wildlife and National Parks by one Christian Winterbach and his team after conducting lion surveys in 1998 and 2000. Even up to date no progress report has been submitted,” the source alleges.
Sources further claim that for the past ten years, DWNP has been issuing independent researchers with research permits which are ambiguous, creating room for unscrupolous conduct of rampant stealing of specimen and blood plasma from wildlife. Information from inside sources even suggests that during radio tracking and telemetry, animals could be immobilized and transported to neighbouring South Africa for captive breeding. “Most of the vehicles used by these researchers are written "RESEARCH VEHICLE DO NOT FOLLOW", thus giving them ample time to collect specimen which is thereafter trafficked out of the country to respective institutions,” the source said.
DWNP denies that Botswana is fast becoming a hub for stealing blood plasma from elephants and rhinos. "DWNP has never lost any specimen. All specimen leaving the country require the Director’s permit and are only issued for scientific research and not commercial purposes. Specimen for CITES listed species are applied for through CITES following their procedures. Any researcher applying for a permit completes a standard research form which requires detailed information such as their full particulars, purpose of research, institution they represent, specimen required and country where it will be analyzed. The receiving country will require copies of all the above documents upon entry. Since research is a professional field it is guided by ethics which we expect all researchers to follow," reads a statement from DWNP.
Notwithstanding the denial, sources insist that wildlife officials find it difficult to carry out patrols and search for illegal activities among these independent researchers because they were ordered by the highest office in the land not to interefere. DWNP denies the allegation saying wildlife officers are authorized by section 73 of the Wildlife and National Parks Act to stop and search any person they suspect to be committing or to have committed an offence under the Act. "No Wildlife officer in good standing will take instructions that are against the provisions of the Act. Any instruction given that is against the provisions of the Act will be unlawful, and wildlife officers are aware of their rights to report such attempts of giving them unlawful instructions," reads a DWNP response.
Under normal procedure, according to a veterinarian biologist, after collecting specimen from wildlife independent researchers are supposed to send it to Botswana Vaccine Institute for analysis and only take the results with them but not the specimen. Alternatively, the DWNP should be a contracting partner with the chosen university or research institution and not the independent researcher. Even more damning is that there are no records of such data at DWNP, the source bemoans.
Out of frustration and concerned about being overlooked in preference of foreign researchers, biologists at the DWNP are said to be leaving in large numbers, with over 20 resigning within a period of three years (2008-2010). Some are said to have become independent researchers while others joined research institutions. “Even more frustrating is that most of these biologists have vast experience in measuring and monitoring wildlife populations but are overlooked. Instead government contracts researchers from outside DWNP and with questionable motives who end up giving these alarming figures about poaching connecting it to the hunting ban,” revealed another source, adding that most of the researchers who quit were capacitated at PhD level during Botswana Norwegian Cooperation on wildlife management. Information gathered from DWNP suggests that in the recent past, no single Director ever stayed for more than three years in the post, as they could not submit to anti-conservation antics.
DWNP denied knowledge of any researchers that have resigned due to frustration or have been treansferred to a different ministry or department. "Research is open to all scientists and not just citizens, but remains regulated through the issuance of permits and observance of laid down rules," part of the DWNP response reads.
According to DWNP, all researchers doing work on wildlife species in Botswana are engaged after vetting and issued with a conditional permit. The Department said researchers are given some protocols under which they must operate. Sources had alleged that to compound the problem of specimen theft independent researchers do not go through any vetting process to verify if indeed they are veterinarian researchers. In addition the sources alleged that these foreing researchers employ their own veterinary doctors, and usually undertake chemical immobilization of the animals without the input of DWNP personnel.
"During the project of Spoor Density in KTP, there were allegations that lion cubs are being exported to South Africa, which led to one of the attached wildlife officers being transferred to Gumare on suspicion of being involved in this. Some of the researchers are sponsored by organizations which deal with cloning and our efforts to alert the authorities fell on deaf ears,” said the DWNP source, adding that universities and institutions that have teaching modules on conservation and management of predators and endangered species are said to be conducting extensive research on cloning of wild animals.
In recent years wildlife conservationists are also said to be adopting Artificial Insemination as a strategy to save endangered species and Botswana has proven to be an easy target for sourcing of such specimen, which is taken for free and sold to Biobanks in developed countries. Infact in August 2018, two first ever lion cubs born via Artificial Insemination were conceived at the Ukutula Conservation Center & Biobank in the North West Province of South Africa. They were conceived using non-surgical artificial insemination using fresh semen collected from an adult male lion by an international team of veterinarians led by Dr Isabel Callealte from the University of Pretoria – the first time such a feat has ever been mastered.