Any thought that the coronavirus outbreak and supposed clampdowns in China and other East Asia countries on illegal wildlife trade and markets will cut demand for rhino horn is misplaced.  Chinese traditional medicine purveyors are now reportedly selling rhino horn-based medicines to treat the virus, and these have even been recommended by some Chinese health officials.

One result is that there will be no let up in Botswana’s struggle to cope with a wave of poaching of rare black and white rhinos in and around the Okavango Delta, the country’s most important wildlife habitat and lucrative tourist destination.  In the last 11 months, at least 46 rhinos (mainly white but some black) have been killed by poachers.  It is impossible to give a precise figure as more are likely to have been poached and their carcasses not found. 

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People are dying, too. On 11 March 2020,  the country’s main newspaper reported that a Botswana Defence Force (BDF) soldier and a poacher had been killed in a gunfight on Chief’s Island, the centre of the tourist and wildlife zone in the Moremi Game Reserve. The paper added that 11 poachers were killed in clashes with BDF anti-poaching patrols in 2019.

Four days later, five suspected poachers escaped a BDF patrol after an exchange of fire in the Shaile area of Chobe National Park. This led to recriminations between the BDF, the police and wildlife officials. 

Factional fights amidst speculation of insider involvement

The BDF Director for Protocol and Public Affairs, Colonel Tebo Dikole, fiercely criticised the police for sharing details of this latest clash with the media. No one, he said, should discuss BDF operational matters publicly, an indication of the strains between the different agencies involved in combating poachers. According to well-placed conservation workers, such tensions have seriously reduced the ability to deal with poaching by lending the impression that some are suspicious of their operational counterparts. This has fuelled speculation that the poachers may have inside information and perhaps even cooperation in certain areas.

There is also speculation about the possible role of intelligence and military personnel in poaching. Major General Gaolatlhe Galebotswe, a former BDF commander, told the media that the problem of dealing with sophisticated criminal gangs did not stem from a lack of weapons for the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP), but from an intelligence service that served “individual interests”.   Botswana’s president, Mokgweetsi Masisi, sacked the head of security of his predecessor Ian Khama, soon after assuming the presidency in April 2018. The official concerned, Isaac Kgosi, has since been charged with corruption

Local media have also reported that the BDF, which has denied that the alleged recent rise in rhino poaching and the failure of the BDF and APUs to stop it, was because it was an “an inside job”, notably involving the Special Forces Unit popularly known as the ‘Commandos’. These reports suggest that this BDF unit has been working under ‘protest’ because they did not benefit from the salary increases of certain members of the armed forces in 2019.

Conservation specialists in Botswana also have told me of factional struggles between Khama loyalists still within the DWNP and Masisi’s appointees in the environment ministry and the wildlife department since the presidential change. This has apparently led to a loss of direction coupled with an inability to deal with this new wave of poaching, especially given the problems of cooperation between the BDF and police. This was not the case before the hunting suspension, when Botswana’s anti-poaching operations were seen as successful.

Botswana Defence Forces and the Department of Wildlife and National Parks are both engaged in armed protection against poachers. (Photo: Rhino Conservation Botswana)

Masisi versus the Khamas

The arming of the wildlife department’s APUs had been a controversial issue before Masisi came to power given its policy of shooting suspected poachers on sight. This had led to the killing of dozens of Zambian, Namibia and Zimbabwean citizens in northern Botswana, where they were suspected of being poachers and significantly soured relations with neighbouring states. 

On taking office, the new president immediately moved to take away the military grade automatic weapons from the APUs. This was bitterly opposed both by Khama and his brother Tshekedi, who remained Environment Minister during the opening months of the Masisi presidency, despite his fierce opposition to the leadership’s new conservation policies. In March 2020, Tshekedi Khama said that APUs should remain fully armed. “The purchasing and carrying of guns by wildlife officers is legal,” he said, demanding that the government return their guns in order to fight poachers. “Disarming wildlife officers is political,” he added.  Khama ignored the fact that APUs are still armed, but with the semi-automatic weapons they had traditionally carried.

During the previous administration, the two Khama brothers had completely changed Botswana’s conservation policies. They had introduced a moratorium on commercial and trophy hunting, which de facto broke a social contract between rural communities, the DWNP and the BDF, which had ensured community support for anti-poaching. The Khamas ardently opposed hunting, arguing that conservation policy should rely solely on income from high-cost tourism, and not on a combination with trophy hunting. Ian Khama, we can note, has lucrative investments in companies involved in luxury tourism, which included operations such as Wilderness Safaris, a company originally started in Botswana in 1983, which was at the heart of rhino relocation programmes ahead of the current poaching crisis.

Foot prints and tusk drag marks made by poachers in the Linyanti River area near the Namibian border. (Photo: Keith Somerville)

According to Botswana wildlife officials and researchers with the Kalahari Conservation Society, who first spoke to me in 2015 a year after the suspension was put into place, the ban led to rural communities failing to report poaching because of the substantial income from selling hunting quotas they lost with the moratorium. Instead, some guided Zambian poaching gangs and helped smuggle poached ivory and other wildlife products out of the country. I saw direct evidence of this – also in 2015 – while visiting a former hunting concession in the Linyanti along the Namibian border. I encountered Batswana fishermen illegally walking through a game reserve and found footprints and drag marks, where tusks had been drawn down to the Linyanti River from where they were taken by boat to Namibia.

Khama’s policy not only impoverished rural communities, but also aggravated human-wildlife conflict. At the request of MPs and after a nationwide consultation, Masisi reinstated legal hunting with mechanisms to ensure local communities benefitted financially from the substantial income from hunting.  Hunting is now legal and auctions have been held to sell hunting licences for a limited quota of elephants – but hunting operations have now been halted by the coronavirus regulations introduced by southern African governments.

Figures provided by Save the Rhino programme.

A poorly-planned rhino relocation programme

The poaching crisis of the late 1980s almost exterminated the rhino population of Botswana.  The demand for rhino horn, particularly in Yemen and the Arabian peninsula, led to a wave of poaching across Africa. This hit Botswana particularly hard.  By the time the BDF was deployed in 1987, it was too late. This was the second time that Botswana’s rhinos had been brought to the brink of extinction. Over-hunting in the late 19th century had produced the same result. Only a few black rhino and probably no white rhino could still be found.

The populations, however, managed to recover through the introduction of 156 southern white rhino from South Africa in 1980. These were then mostly poached out during the 1980s. When I made a radio documentary on wildlife conservation in Botswana for the BBC World Service in 1993, I was told there were fewer than 30 rhinos left in northern Botswana. A year earlier, the Khama Rhino Sanctuary had been established near Serowe to try to save the country’s few remaining rhinos. When I visited the new sanctuary, six white rhinos had already been transferred there from Chobe National Park; a few more individuals were shipped in from Pilanesburg National Park in South Africa.

Southern White Rhino in Botswana. (Photo: Keith Somerville)

The plan, I was told, was to breed from these animals and provide a safe sanctuary until they could be released in Moremi and Chobe. There was a BDF camp situated nearby to provide protection. Erick Verreynne, a wildlife vet and co-ordinator of the Research and Veterinary Working Group in Botswana, says that at the end of the 1990s the few remaining wild rhinos in the north increased in numbers, as poaching was being contained.  These were supplemented with the relocation of 33 white and six black rhinos from Zimbabwe and South Africa into the Wilderness Safari’s Mombo reserve in Okavango Delta in 2003. Some dispersed out of the region. One was poached in Botswana’s Nxai Pan National Park south of the Okavango Delta.

After 2009, the regional rhino poaching problem grew rapidly. This was partially through the South African ban on the rhino horn trade that same year coupled with the rising demand in China and Vietnam.  This led to a massive and sustained growth in poaching throughout southern Africa, notably South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe. Between 2013 and 2017, poaching increased almost out of control. Rhino Without Borders, a South African NGO, received permission from the Botswana government, despite concern within the DWNP, to relocate 87 white rhino from South Africa to the Delta. This was deemed more secure than keeping them in Kruger National Park and other South African reserves, where they were only attracting poaching gangs.

Relocating rhinos in Botswana. (Photo: Rhino Conservation Botswana)

Wilderness Safaris then relocated a significant number of black rhinos to Mombo from South Africa and Zimbabwe in 2015. An NGO called Rhino Conservation Botswana (RCB) was established to monitor the relocated rhinos. These took place amid the rhino poaching crisis throughout southern Africa and as elephant poaching increased across Botswana. Amos Ramokati, the regional wildlife officer for the DWNP in Maun, and Michael Flyman, the DWNP’s wildlife census head, both maintained that following the 2014 hunting suspension, there had been an increase in the number of local people assisting poachers.

The relocated rhinos soon became targets for poachers infiltrating both Mombo and the Delta.  Rhino horn was fetching $60,000-65,000 per kilo (nearly twice the price per kilo of ivory). In addition, South Africa was gradually succeeding in reducing poaching in Kruger, while Namibia was doing the same in its own parks, primarily because of community conservancy policies. The result was that Botswana increasingly became the focus of poaching gangs, taking advantage of the effects of the hunting ban and the growth in factionalism following Masisi’s ascendance to the presidency in 2018. With Khama seeking to undermine his successor, problems also arose with BDF and APU operations coupled with probable collaboration with insider information and the poachers. At least five gangs are believed to be operating within the Mombo reserve run by Wilderness.

What next?

In 2018, an estimated 250 rhinos were considered to roam in northern Botswana, according to conservationists. The Zimbabwe-based Bhejane Trust concurs with this view and believes that there are 200 or even fewer now.  Many, however, believe that the figures for recent losses are probably a low estimate. Perhaps no more than 195 white rhinos and possibly six black rhinos currently exist in the Okavango reserves. 

These are now being targeted by Zambian gangs who enter Botswana through the former hunting concession areas called NG11/NG12 on Namibian border. They then join up with local trackers and poachers from the Gudigwa district north of Mombo and Moremi Game Reserve. One source told me that the district houses former members of the South African 32 Battalion which fought in southern Angola during the civil war there.  During the occupation of parts of southern Angola by the South African army in the 1980s, there had been huge poaching of rhino and elephants by the South Africans and the UNITA rebels movement..

With both the BDF and APUs having to patrol a huge border area and hinterland because of increased elephant poaching, protecting the rhinos at Mombo and other parts of the Delta would be hugely difficult, even if perfect cooperation existed amongst the BDF, DWNP and police. When there are rivalries or a lack of cooperation, the task becomes almost impossible, as is evident today.

In South Africa, the number of rhino poached within Kruger and other reserves has been cut. But no census has been released since 2017, so the reductions may be the result not just of better security but the fact that there are far fewer rhino to poach. Another reason may be rhino have been concentrated within areas that are easier to police. Xolani Funda, Kruger’s Chief Ranger, told me in September 2016, that this was bearing fruit through the establishment of an “intensive protection zone” in the centre and south of the 19,485 km² park, which had reduced the number of killings.

Erick Verreynne argued much the same in his perceptive analysis recently published in the South Africa Daly Maverick. What needs to change first is the risk to poachers,” he suggested. This can only be achieved by concentrating the population in smaller areas, where more focused security can be provided. This concept has been successful in the private and community-owned southern population of Botswana, he noted. This is where “the other half of Botswana’s rhinos are looked after with assistance of the BDF in sufficiently sized units as semi-wild populations. Only five rhinos were lost to poaching in 2018 in these populations and none in 2019.”

This approach parallels a view I have argued from analysis of the successes in protecting rhinos in Namibia’s community conservancies, that if you benefit local communities “as custodians of the rhinos” you avoid the risk that rhinos become worth more dead than alive. This is what happens if local populations lose their sense of ownership and receive no income or other benefit from the presence of an animal that only enables safari companies to cash in by saying they have the Big Five. If you forget communities, you can over time forget the rhinos.

Professor Keith Somerville is a member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation at the University of Kent, a Fellow of the Zoological Society of London and a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies.

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