Elephant poachers are turning their attention to Botswana herds and one possible explanation for this is the recent disarming of anti-poaching units in May this year.
An independent conservation group, Elephants Without Borders (EWB), claims to have counted 87 carcasses of recently poached elephants. The count was conducted as part of a census regarding elephant numbers.
“It came as a complete shock that we were discovering elephants that were poached deep within Botswana, within some world-renowned tourist concessions,” said Mike Chase, the organisation’s director. “It was completely unexpected.”
Botswana has long been viewed as a sanctuary for elephants and is home to some 130,000 elephants, which is about one third of Africa’s savannah elephants.
However, Botswana’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks issued a statement on Wednesday September 5th disputing the numbers presented by Chase. According to a National Geographic article, the department called Chase’s findings “false and misleading.” Their statement said departmental staff only counted 53 carcasses.
EWB maintains that poachers are killing elephants in the Southern African country in growing numbers after wiping out large numbers of elephants in nearby Zambia and Angola.
Following his election into the presidency, President Mokgweetsi Masisi took the decision to disarm the anti-poaching unit. Shortly before his election it was found that there was no legal framework regarding the arming of the anti-poaching unit. Dereck Joubert, a wildlife filmmaker and National Geographic explorer-in-residence based in Botswana, said this is the reason behind the disarming of the anti-poaching unit. The Department of Wildlife and National Parks has described the act as a “corrective measure.”
Botswana has traditionally taken a tough stance against poaching, with an unofficial policy of “shoot to kill” coming into effect in 2014. While the policy shoot-to-kill has been controversial, the act of arming the rangers has not. Some conservationists, including Chase, believe the act of disarming the unit has at the very least, contributed towards the increase in poaching within Botswana.
“I find it very difficult that any government would send its citizens out to the front lines to fight highly-organized criminal networks who are armed to the teeth, without weapons,” said Chase.
Of course, there are other factors at play. Another possible reason for the rise in poaching could be linked to tougher conditions in other countries. Conditions making it harder for poachers to operate include a lack of elephants to kill after widespread poaching or crackdowns on trafficking syndicates.
There have been some notable successes in the fight against elephant poaching. One such victory was the ban on ivory trade in China, which is the world’s largest consumer.
According to the Associated Press, Botswana's security forces have also had a reputation — and faced criticism from neighbouring countries — for allegedly being quick to open fire on suspected poachers. There are claims that this tendency has extended to Namibians and Zimbabweans killed after crossing the border illegally.