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In recent decades, as African elephants have been decimated by poachers, Botswana has emerged as a rare success story. The country is home to the world’s largest elephant population, and elephant numbers have remained stable there for the past 15 years. So it came as a particularly jarring blow when the bodies of 87 elephants were recently found near a wildlife sanctuary in Botswana, as Alastair Leithead of the BBC reports.
The dead animals were recorded near the Okavango Delta wildlife sanctuary, a sprawling protected area in northern Botswana, during an aerial survey by the conservation group Elephants Without Borders.
“I'm shocked, I'm completely astounded,” Mike Chase, an elephant ecologist and the director of Elephants Without Borders, tells Leithead. “The scale of elephant poaching is by far the largest I've seen or read about anywhere in Africa to date.”
Most of the animals appeared to have been killed within recent weeks, and they bore gruesome injuries suggesting that they were slain by poachers for their ivory.
“[A]ll of them had their skulls chopped to remove their tusks,” Chase wrote in a report obtained by Emily Sullivan of NPR. “Poachers tried to hide their crimes by concealing the mounds of rotting flesh with drying bushes.”
“The varying classification and age of carcasses is indicative of a poaching frenzy which has been ongoing in the same area for a long time,” the report adds.
Three white rhinos, killed within the past three months, were also found in the area.
Prior to the recent incident, Botswana had been largely “successful at protecting [its] elephants,” according to the Great Elephant Census, an expansive survey released by Elephants Without Borders in 2016. The same report documented some 350,000 elephants in 18 African countries; Botswana was home to more than 130,000 of them.
Botswana’s aggressive approach to protecting its elephants—the country upheld a “shoot to kill” policy against suspected poachers—was believed to be keeping the animals safe. But in May, one month after President Mokgweetsi Masisi was sworn into office, Bostwana disarmed its anti-poaching units. According to the BBC’s Leithead, senior officials did not explain why the step had been taken. In June, officials announced that they would consider lifting a wildlife hunting ban in areas that are not designated game reserves or national parks, reports Allyson Chiu of the Washington Post.
This apparent softening of Botswana’s anti-poaching measures has conservationists concerned. “We have the world's largest elephant population and it's open season for poachers,” Chase tells Leithead. “Clearly we need to be doing more to stop the scale of what we are recording on our survey.”
Sadly, the death toll in Botswana may prove higher than 87 elephants. The current aerial survey is only half finished, and conservationists worry that more dead elephants may be found in the future.
In 1989 the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) ruled international trade in ivory illegal. But not everyone was happy with the decision. In particular, the nations of southern Africa including Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana, which currently hosts the largest population of African elephants in the world, have pushed to allow a “sustainable” trade in ivory to help the economies of those impoverished countries.
So it was a big surprise at the CITES wildlife conference currently taking place in Johannesburg that Botswana announced a complete change of heart on the ivory trade and the status of its 130,000 elephants. “There is a clear and growing global consensus that the ivory trade needs to be stopped if elephants are to be conserved effectively,” Tshekedi Khama, Botswana’s Minister of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism told the assembly, reports Adam Cruise at National Geographic. “We now support a total and permanent ban on the ivory trade, everywhere,” he writes in an article for Medium.
Khama argues that elephants are an integral part of his nation’s tourism industry which employs 10 percent of Botswana and brings in a significant amount of foreign currency. The alarming rise in poaching in the last decade—which has slashed elephant numbers by 30 to 50 percent in southern and eastern Africa—is not sustainable. Attempts to create a sustainable market for ivory, he says, have simply whetted the world’s appetite for ivory, increasing poaching. “Put simply, a threat to elephants anywhere is a threat to elephants everywhere,” he writes.
In particular, he points to programs in 1999 that allowed sales of ivory stockpiles to Japan and 2008 that allowed sales to China and Japan from southern Africa. A recent study from The National Bureau of Economic Research indicates that those sales simply whetted the appetite for ivory and jump started demand, leading to large increases in poaching.
Still, Namibia and Zimbabwe put forth a proposal at the CITES conference to allow some ivory sales. According to Rachel Bale at National Geographic, the nations argue that if local villagers see the elephants as an economically valuable commodity, they are more likely to protect them and create a sustainable herd.
But experts don't think it works that way. “African elephants are in steep decline across much of the continent due to poaching for their ivory, and opening up any legal trade in ivory would complicate efforts to conserve them,” Ginette Hemley, the head of the CITES delegation for WWF tells Ed Stoddard at Reuters. “It could offer criminal syndicates new avenues to launder poached ivory.”
That proposal was voted down as was a proposal by Swaziland to allow the sale of rhino horn. But, surprisingly, a proposal to add protections to elephants was also voted down. A proposal to add all elephants to CITES Appendix I, which would prohibit all commercial trade in elephant products and offer permanent protection was not passed. Neither the European Union nor the United States voted for the change, reports Bale. One reason is because Namibia and Zimbabwe have threatened to resume ivory sales illegally if stronger protections are passed.
“[The] United States voted no on this proposal because it opened up the potential that member nations would take a reservation and use a victory on Appendix I uplisting as a back door to resume trade,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says in a statement. “We are unalterably opposed to resumption of commercial trade, under any terms. Therefore because of the risk it represented, we felt compelled to oppose a proposal that we would otherwise support.”
There was other bad news. Bale reports that while China made an announcement last year that it intended to close its ivory markets and even backed a resolution to close all remaining global markets just a few days ago, the nation reversed course and advocated a limited legal market for ivory in the future.
More than 500 endangered vultures died in northern Botswana after feasting on elephant carcasses laced with poison, the country’s government announced last week. Conservationists say that poachers targeted the birds—two tawny eagles and 537 vultures comprising five different species—because their scavenging activities, particularly circling carrion, can alert authorities to hunters’ presence.
According to the government statement, the dead include 468 white-backed vultures, 28 hooded vultures, 17 white-headed vultures, 14 lappet-faced vultures and 10 cape vultures. (White-backed vultures in particular were once common across Africa but they're now among the most threatened of the continent’s vulture species, with mere thousands remaining in the wild.) Per the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List, all of these species are endangered or critically endangered.
As the Telegraph’s Catrina Stewart notes, it’s likely that the ramifications of this event will extend far beyond the initial death count. Given the fact that it is currently vulture breeding season, many of the deceased were new parents; now, they leave behind orphaned youngsters ill-equipped to survive on their own.
“[Since] vultures are late maturing and slow breeders, the magnitude of losing just under 600 vultures in one week is incomprehensible,” Wolter says to BBC News’ Alastair Leithead. “The species cannot withstand these losses and it is impossible to recover the disappearance of these individuals and breeding pairs in our lifetime.”
While vultures may pose an obstacle to poachers, the African Wildlife Federation explains that they are essential for maintaining a healthy ecosystem. Ella Hurworth of CNN further writes that the scavengers help keep the environment clean and minimize the spread of contagious disease. In India, where vultures have “all but disappeared,” according to De Greef of The New York Times, rat and feral dog populations have skyrocketed, leading to an increased likelihood of severe disease outbreaks.
As De Greef reports, the birds were found in a wildlife management area near the border of Botswana and Zimbabwe. Although the mass killing isn’t the first of its kind—in 2013, some 400 to 600 vultures died after dining on a poisoned carcass in Namibia’s Caprivi Strip, and between 2012 and 2014, researchers catalogued 2,044 poaching-related vulture deaths in seven African countries—it is the first to be widely reported in lieu of Botswana’s recent decision to lift its five-year suspension of elephant hunting.
The reversal, which has been criticized by conservationists but lauded by locals who say wild elephants are wreaking havoc on their livelihoods, could pave the way for increased poaching activity in the region. Previously, Rachael Bale points out for National Geographic, Botswana “appeared to have largely escaped the recent ivory poaching crisis,” but in 2017 and 2018, according to the Telegraph’s Stewart, poachers reportedly killed around 400 of the country’s elephants.
If elephant poaching becomes more prevalent in Botswana, vultures will pay part of the price, falling prey to poison left by illegal ivory hunters hoping to evade detection. For now, however, authorities are focusing on decontaminating the area where the birds were found and sending samples of the animals’ carcasses for laboratory analysis.
“The public in the vicinity ... is [requested] to report any wildlife mortalities which may be spotted in their areas,” the government statement concludes. “The Department is concerned with the habit of some individuals who deliberately poison animals, as this is dangerous and harmful to the environment. Furthermore, the public is encouraged to desist from engaging in such illegal acts and report any suspicious activities which may suggest environmental poisoning to the nearest wildlife office or the police.”
Qauqaua : a San folk story from Botswana told by Coex'ae Qgam / published by the Artists' Press, Johannesburg, South Africa, in collaboration with the Kuru Art Project, Gantsi, Botswana
"The book was hand printed ... in a limited edition of 100 plus 20 artists' proofs"--Colophon.
Traditional music of Botswana, Africa [sound recording] : a journey with tape recorder along Southern Botswana from Mochudi to Kang / recorded and annotated by Elizabeth Nelbach Wood
Recorded in Botswana between 1975 to 1978.
Botswana, home to the world’s largest African elephant population, has lifted its five-year suspension of elephant hunting, attracting the ire of conservationists while placating those who argue that the land giants, known to kill livestock and destroy crops, are wreaking havoc on locals’ livelihoods.
In a statement detailing the reversal, Botswana’s Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism cited the increasing prevalence of human-elephant conflict, the Department of Wildlife and National Parks’ inability to respond to animal control reports in a timely fashion, and the toll on communities ill-equipped to handle the unimpeded roaming of these roughly 12,000-pound creatures. The ministry further said that reinstatement will be performed “in an orderly and ethical manner.”
The exact nature of this “ethical” implementation remains unclear, as do the long-term ramifications of the decision for both Botswana’s human and pachyderm residents. But in the meantime, here’s what we do know:
Why a hunting ban was first issued
To protect these creatures from trophy hunters and ivory poachers, former President Ian Khama imposed the hunting ban in 2014. An ardent conservationist, he also introduced a highly controversial “shoot to kill” policy for stopping poachers, which included arming anti-poaching units with military-grade weapons and approved shooting known poachers on sight. (Both policies have been eliminated under the current administration.)
The elephant hunting ban helped Botswana emerge as a “conservation success story,” write The New York Times’ Kimon de Greef and Megan Specia. Although the Great Elephant Census of 2016 found that Africa’s elephant population dropped by at least 30 percent between 2007 and 2014, the southern country has supported a relatively stable population of more than 130,000 for the past 15 years, according to IUCN researchers’ estimates. Depending on who you ask, Pauline Bax writes for Bloomberg, this figure shifts dramatically, citing a member of Botswana Parliament who claimed—allegedly based on government data—that the real number is closer to 230,000.
According to the Conservation Action Trust’s Louise De Waal, disparities in population estimates stem partly from the fact that some 216,000 African elephants migrate freely between Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, making it difficult to classify them as residents of one specific country. Most of Botswana’s elephants live in the country’s northern region, though National Geographic’s Rachael Bale notes that the species’ range has expanded considerably as drought conditions drive them further south—and therefore closer humans already living on the land. Still, Cara Anna reports for the Associated Press, Botswana has “more space than many other countries for animals to roam.”
How the hunting ban got lifted and its political implications
Soon after taking office, Khama’s successor President Mokgweetsi Masisi tasked a committee with re-evaluating the ban. A committee of local authorities, affected communities, non-profits, tourism organizations, conservationists and other so-called “stakeholders” was created to assess the ban’s status.
In February, the committee released its recommendations, which included lifting the ban, implementing “regular but limited elephant culling,” and, most controversially, establishing the practice of canning elephant meat for pet food—a suggestion that has since been abandoned. Rather than advocating for outright culling, Masisi’s government now prefers the term selective “cropping.”
The Botswana government’s statement says that “the general consensus from those consulted was that the hunting ban should be lifted.” Indeed, the move is likely to prove popular with the country’s rural residents, who bemoan the animals’ destructive encroachment on human territory. Elephants can destroy a season’s worth of crops in just one night. Even though the government compensates farmers for losses or injuries, many locals argue that these measures are inadequate.
“The only solution is for the elephants to be reduced,” Twaemango Ndoze, a deputy headman of Seronga, a village in the Okavango Delta, tells Bloomberg’s Bax.
As Bax writes, the new ruling is in step with Masisi’s decision to suspend his predecessor’s “shoot to kill” poachers policy and Masisi’s removal of military-grade weapons from Botswana’s anti-poaching units.
It’s worth noting that many critics have decried the decision as a political gamble designed to win voters to Masisi’s Botswana Democratic Party. General elections are set to take place in October, and the resumption of hunting is sure to resonate with locals who are struggling to keep elephants off of their fields.
In a statement, Jason Bell, vice president for conservation with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, says, “This is a political move and not in the best interests of conservation in Botswana.”Photo captured during a safari in Xigera Camp in Okavango Delta, Botswana. ( Marka/UIG via Getty Images)
Who is for a hunting ban?
Those in favor of a hunting ban are led largely by conservationists, arguing that legalized hunting will exacerbate threats posed to the already vulnerable species and transforming the one refuge left on the continent into an active danger zone. Some members of this group also cite ethical concerns.
As elephant expert and WildlifeDirect CEO Paula Kahumbu writes on Twitter, “There’s no such thing as ‘ethical hunting.’ It’s an oxymoron.”
Africa loses some 30,000 elephants to ivory poaching every year, but Botswana, according to National Geographic’s Bale, has so far “largely escaped” the crisis. (Last August, conservation group Elephants Without Borders claimed it had conducted an aerial survey that identified the bodies of 87 poached elephants by a nature preserve in northern Botswana, but the government soon refuted this story as a gross exaggeration; Kimon de Greef of The New York Times later wrote that critics, including scientists, believed the group overstated the situation in an attempt to influence policymakers’ assessment of the hunting ban.)
An elephant is killed on the African continent once every 15 minutes, as Don Pinnock, a conservation journalist and author of “The Last Elephants,” tells The New York Times’ de Greef and Specia. And Botswana is not immune to the the lure of illegal ivory trade; it is one of several African countries that has previously appealed for loosened restrictions on raw ivory trade. Still, Pinnock says, “Botswana is the last refuge for these elephants, and suddenly that refuge is going to start hunting them.”
Many environmentalists fear that the lifted ban is simply a precursor to renewed efforts aimed at legalizing the ivory trade. If this were to happen, WildlifeDirect’s Kahumbu explains to the Guardian’s Jason Burke, it would have a “catastrophic effect on elephants across Africa.”
Many supporters of the ban also cite ethical concerns. After all, National Geographic’s Bale writes, “There is no doubt that elephants are capable of empathy and emotion.”Hundreds participated in the Global March for Elephant, Rhinos and Lions on October 7, 2017 in Gaborone, Botswana. (MONIRUL BHUIYAN/AFP/Getty Images)
In purely economic terms, suspending the ban carries the risk of hurting Botswana’s tourism industry, which is the country’s second highest source of foreign income after diamond mining. Currently, Botswana markets itself as what BBC News deems a “luxury safari destination,” attracting wealthy visitors eager to interact with elephants and other exotic animals in their native habitat.
“Our tourism has been really booming in recent years, and the elephant probably stands out above anything that people want to see,” Botswana's former-President Khama tells Bloomberg’s Bax. “If you’re going to start hunting and getting rid of them, you’re going to start devaluing that resource.”
Adding to the pressure is outrage from prominent international celebrities: Ellen DeGeneres, for example, has previously spoken out in support of boycotting Botswana unless the ban stays in place. Following this week’s announcement, the comedian tweeted, “President Masisi, for every person who wants to kill elephants, there are millions who want them protected. We’re watching.”
Who is against a hunting ban?
Proponents of lifting the ban point to the elephants’ negative impact on Botswana’s human communities. According to the IUCN, close human-elephant interaction in limited territory finds the towering behemoths killing local farmers’ livestock; stomping over crops; damaging grain stores; houses and water supplies; and even injuring or killing those who get in their way. Freely roaming elephants can also damage local ecosystems by tearing down trees.
Some 27,000 elephants live outside of the country’s wildlife management areas and regularly enter into conflicts with rural farmers, says Erik Verreynne, a wildlife veterinarian and consultant based in Gaborone, Botswana, in an interview with The New York Times’ de Greef and Specia.
The results can be devastating: As Gail Potgieter, a carnivore conservationist based in Botswana, writes in an editorial for local news outlet the Patriot, elephants roaming the country have killed 36 people over the past two years. The father of one victim, a man who was trampled to death while returning from a night out with friends, told reporters, “I used to like elephants, [but] they did a cruel thing to me.”A man was trampled to death by an elephant while on his way to work in Kasane on April 26, 2019. Here, his mother holds his picture. (MONIRUL BHUIYAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Potgieter says that many local farmers have lost their annual harvest in the span of just a few nights. The elephants’ presence has “effectively impose[d] a curfew on any human movement after dark,” she adds, so simply visiting a friend’s house at the end of the day can become life threatening.
“Sharing their lives with a five-ton animal that threatens their lives, destroys their crops, damages their properties—I share their anguish,” as Mike Chase, director of Elephants Without Borders, tells National Geographic’s Bale. “When you’ve tried all kinds of alternatives … and they’re still dangerous, the animal has to be destroyed. At least the communities should be able to benefit by letting a hunter come in and pay to do it.”
Expanding on this sentiment, Verreynne points out that rural villages rarely benefit from income generated by safari tourism, but instead bear the highest costs of human-elephant conflict. Although hunting probably won’t “meaningfully reduce the number of elephants,” as Bloomberg notes, an influx in revenue could help cover damage and otherwise provide financial support for local communities. On average, a legal elephant hunt in neighboring countries costs about $45,000. Comparatively, a night in a luxury safari lodge runs closer to $355.
If hunting profits are high enough, it’s possible—however paradoxically—that some of the money will go toward conservation efforts. “By sacrificing 700 elephants per year,” Verreynne says, “we’re likely going to save more.”
A final point raised by advocates of legal hunting, particularly those based in Botswana, is the country’s authority to regulate wildlife within its own borders. Dan Ashe, former head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, tells Bale he doesn’t personally support trophy hunting, but adds that Botswana “always enjoyed a very good standing, … a reputation for professional management and relatively corruption-free government.”
According to the World Wildlife Foundation, agriculture and land development have driven African elephants into an increasingly smaller area over the past several decades. Between 1979 and 2007 alone, the species’ range shrank from three million square miles to just one million. Factor in competition for and conflict over land and resources, not only among elephants but also with humans, and the situation’s seriousness is apparent.
Poaching, meanwhile, hasn’t impacted southern Africa to the extent seen in eastern, central and western Africa but is becoming a growing regional threat. Crucially, a 2015 survey of 133 experts based in 11 African countries placed poaching at the top of concerning threats to wildlife. Trophy hunting, on the other hand, finished next to last.Colonel George Bogatsu of Botswana Defence Force (BDF) marks a dead elephant which was recorded as killed by the poachers in Chobe, on September 19, 2018. (MONIRUL BHUIYAN/AFP/Getty Images)
As Bale of National Geographic writes, Botswana’s reversal may not actually result in the desired influx of trophy hunters. Although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced plans to lift the ban on imported elephant trophies in 2017, the organization soon decided to shift to a case-by-case assessment model. It has since opted not to issue any relevant permits, making it unlikely that American hunters will even be able to bring their trophies home from Botswana.
It remains to be seen whether the move will bring in added revenue and curb the country’s level of human-elephant conflict—or, alternatively, lead to a decline in international tourism and pave the way for the legalization of ivory trade. For what it’s worth, Burke notes for the Guardian, some experts argue that widespread hunting will actually exacerbate conflict with local residents, as hunting makes elephants “fearful and aggressive.”
In an interview with Bloomberg’s Bax, Ronald Shamukuni, a member of Parliament whose cousin was recently killed by an elephant, concludes, “As much as we live with wildlife, there has to be a way of benefitting from them. Outsiders just don’t know what is going on.”
Botswana’s High Court in Gaborone voted unanimously on Tuesday to overturn colonial-era laws criminalizing homosexuality, a landmark ruling that is being hailed as a victory by LGBTQ activists in Africa.
According to CNN’s Kara Fox, the verdict stemmed from a case brought by Letsweletse Motshidiemang, a 21-year-old student at the University of Botswana, who argued that laws prohibiting homosexuality violated his constitutional rights. Ultimately, the judges of the high court agreed.
“What compelling public interest is there necessitating such a law? There is no victim,” said Justice Michael Leburu, according to Christian Science Monitor's Ryan Lenora Brown, who was at the courthouse, as Carl Collison of the Mail & Guardian reports.
Leburu also maintained that “[a] democratic society is one that embraces tolerance, diversity and open-mindedness,” and that the now-defunct laws were detrimental to the nation as a whole.
“Societal inclusion is central to ending poverty and fostering shared prosperity,” Leburu said.
Botswana’s penal code had previously defined homosexuality as “carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature,” and made it punishable by a maximum sentence of seven years imprisonment. Kimon de Greef of the New York Times reports the country first outlawed homosexuality in the late 1800s, when it was under British rule. "From 1860 onwards, the [British Empire] spread a specific set of legal codes and common law throughout its colonies, among them laws proscribing male-to-male sexual relations," according to the Conversation.
Britain’s own anti-homosexuality laws date back to the 16th century. In 1861, British Victorians drafted Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which made homosexuality a punishable crime and was “a model law in more ways than one,” according to a 2008 Human Rights Watch report.
“It was a colonial attempt to set standards of behavior, both to reform the colonized and to protect the colonizers against moral lapses,” the report continues. “Its influence stretched across Asia, the Pacific islands, and Africa, almost everywhere the British imperial flag flew.”
The United Kingdom began decriminalizing homosexuality in the 1960s, and some of its former colonies—among them Australia, South Africa and Belize—have struck down their own anti-sodomy laws. India overturned Section 377 last year. But LGBTQ policy around the world remains impacted by the British Empire's legacy of criminalizing homosexuality. As de Greef reports, “Of the more than 70 countries globally that criminalize homosexuality, more than half were once under British dominion.”
Just last month, Kenya’s high court voted to uphold a colonial-era law banning same-sex relationships. And across Africa, LGBTQ groups have struggled to gain acceptance. More than 30 African countries have laws prohibiting homosexual relations and in some nations, including Sudan and parts of Somalia and Nigeria, homosexuality is punishable by death. A 2013 Pew survey found “widespread rejection” of homosexuality on the continent.
Against this backdrop of discrimination, the recent ruling in Botswana has been praised by LGBTQ activists, who say that the judgement can help improve the community’s access to vital health and legal services.
“This judgement can make a massive change for our lives,” Anna Mmolai-Chalmers, coordinator of the Botswana-based LGBTQ rights group Legabibo, tells CNN’s Fox. “The court has upheld our dignity, our privacy, and our liberty... It means freedom.”