Are Botswana’s Park Rangers Outgunned?



    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. The remains were of up to the authorities finding 90 elephants in the country and purportedly killed by ivory poachers. The poachers’ target was giant elephants carrying 60-70 pounds of tusks. Because ivory is high in demand in Asian markets. There is an ongoing debate. Was the surge in slain elephants due in part to the June 2018 decision of the government to withdraw military-grade weapons from Botswana’s park rangers?

    The value of protecting this endangered species to the Botswana economy cannot is immense. Tourism only falls behind diamond exports as its most important contributor to GDP. In 2016, National Geographic called Botswana the ‘last haven’ for elephants’ survival. Botswana is home to the world’s largest population of elephants and roughly a third of known elephants in Africa. At the time, elephants were fleeing inevitable deaths from poachers in Namibia. They crossed into Botswana to seek shelter in renowned areas like Chobe National Park. The influx of elephants created pressure on the local ecosystem to support them. It also made it an obligation for security and park authorities to protect them.

    Mass Poaching Spree: Botswana’s Park Rangers

    The mass poaching spree 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”. The Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources, Conservation and Tourism made quite a statement. “At no point in the last months or recently were 87 or 90 elephants killed in one incident in any place in Botswana”. Just before they claimed a 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 the government’s claims and aligns with existing legislation.

    One potential reason for the disarmament of anti-poaching units could have been the business interests in arms procurement. This came from the brother of 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 contrast to the alleged unwritten shoot-to-kill policy adopted by park rangers against suspected ivory poachers. At times, these were innocent hunters. This policy received heightened attention in July 2012. That happened when four members of the BDF killed two suspected Namibians 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.

    According to the report, there were no elephant carcasses on the scene. The report contradicts the BDF’s original claim that the attackers took a retaliatory position in the confrontation and that authorities found the remains of an elephant in the area. Authorities cleared the four soldiers of all charges. This angered 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. Other countries have sought outside assistance from the British Armed Forces in their fight against the poaching scourge. The evidence of the effectiveness in the short run or the desirableness in the longer term is unclear. It seems the government can strike a balance between an overly aggressive policy of the BDF shoot-to-kill policy, increasing militarization, and more preventative intelligence-based security. Broader conservation strategies and a ‘rights-based’ approach to address the socio-economic drivers of poaching are good examples. Authorities need to find a balance to protect the region’s endangered elephants and respect human life.

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