Are Botswana’s Park Rangers Outgunned?

Botswana's Park Rangers

Last year, Botswana reappeared as a playground for poachers seeking prized and extremely profitable elephant ivory. The killing of elephants in Botswana captured international media headlines in August of last year after the remains of up to 90 elephants were found in the country and purportedly killed by ivory poachers. The target of the poachers were large tusked elephants carrying tusks of 60-70 pounds. Because ivory is high in demand in Asian markets. There is an ongoing debate whether the surge in slain elephants was due in part to the June 2018 decision of the government to withdraw military-grade weapons from Botswana’s park rangers.

It cannot be understated the value of protecting this endangered species to the Botswana economy, where tourism only falls behind diamond exports as its most important contributor to GDP. In 2016, National Geographic referred to Botswana as the ‘last safe haven’ for elephants’ survival and home to the world’s largest population of elephants and roughly a third of known elephants in Africa. At the time, elephants were fleeing certain death from poachers in Namibia and crossing into Botswana to seek shelter in such renowned areas as Chobe National Park. However, at the same time, the influx of elephants created pressure on the local ecosystem to support them and the obligation of security and park authorities to protect them.

The mass poaching spree in 2018 was first reported using aerial surveying by the charity Elephants Without Borders (EWB) and Botswana’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks. The government called the surveys “false and misleading” and the Ministry of Environment, Natural resources, Conservation and Tourism said in a statement that “At no point in the last months or recently were 87 or 90 elephants killed in one incident in any place in Botswana”. Just prior to the claimed spree of poaching, the government of President Mokgweetsi Masisi, who took office earlier in April 2018, withdrew the military-grade weapons from Botswana’s Park Rangers. It is consistent with what the government claims are in line with existing legislation. One potential reason for the disarmament of anti-poaching units could have been the business interests in arms procurement of the brother to former President Ian Khama, Tshekedi Khama. Another could have been growing tension between the wildlife rangers and Botswana’s neighbours, namely Namibia.

This new policy plays in stark contrast to the alleged unwritten shoot-to kill policy adopted by Botswana’s park rangers against suspected ivory poachers, and at times innocent hunters. This policy received heightened attention in July 2012 when two suspected Namibian poachers were killed in an exchange with four members of the Botswana Defense Forces (BDF) on patrol in Chobe National Park along the Namibian border. According to an inquest report, the BDF, armed with special assault rifles and night-vision equipment, killed one of the alleged poachers with a shot to the chest and one to the back of the head. No elephant carcasses were found on the scene according to the report. The report contradicts the BDF’s original claim that the attackers took a retaliatory position in the confrontation and that the remains of an elephant were found in the area. The four soldiers were eventually cleared of all charges, angering many Namibians and increased border tensions between the two countries.

The open question is the appropriate and effective strategy that the Botswanan government should pursue. While other countries, such as Malawi, have sought outside assistance from the British Armed Forces in their fight against the poaching scourge, the evidence is unclear the effectiveness of this strategy in the short run or if it is sustainable or desirable in the longer term. It seems a balance can be struck between an overly aggressive policy of the BDF shoot-to-kill policy, increasing militarization, and a more preventative intelligence-based security. This can be applied in combination with other supply-side interventions like broader conservation strategies and a ‘rights-based’ approach to address the socio-economic drivers of poaching. A balance needs to be struck in order to protect both the endangered elephants of the region and respect human life.

Image: Peace Parks Foundations (link)

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