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Poaching aside, elephants destroy lives

Publishing Date : 15 October, 2018

Author : ENOLE DITSHEKO

London: Two of my elder sisters have established their homes in the New Stands Kazungula. Paved roads and basic amenities like electricity and water have turned the thick Chobe forest into a residential hamlet.
 

But New Stands Kazungula is not habitable, even after twenty years down.  Still, the residents have devised all assortments of warding off wildlife especially elephants and buffaloes from invading their homes: they parry hands, rev engines until fuel runs out; they encircle homesteads with chili-pepper and keep the flames burning throughout the nights.


Over time, the big five became accustomed to all these techniques, and in a calculated move of revenge, the beasts have bullishly adapted where their invasion is the surest way to visit destruction on human life, livestock, crops, and property.
Just this past weekend, my sister returned from attending a burial of a church colleague and her exasperated voice, shrieked out:

“Yet another person has been killed by an elephant,” she cried out. It is the excruciating fear in her voice as she counts the losses of human life that refuses to vanish from my mind as I ponder the animal-human conflict amidst the raging campaign of massive elephant poaching that dimmed Botswana’s conservation lights last month.


“We hardly ever get any news on Botswana. But recently, we saw that your government has disarmed the wildlife rangers. As a result, poachers have killed close to 90 elephants,” Lorna Henkel, a friend in Secaucus, New Jersey greeted me during my recent visit.


Clearly, elephants have set the sun on residents who live in pristine areas of wildlife conservation such as the Chobe, Okavango, Mashatu, and Kgalagadi. The Monday incident adds to five the telling tragedies of people that I personally knew, whose demise happened in the last three years only. About a decade ago, I was among the mourners at Kananga-Kazungula, whereupon my great uncle was stomped by an elephant in broad-daylight while tracking down his cattle.


However, the truth is that residents in places where animals freely reign in the range have become prisoners in their habitat against the backdrop of an imposed conservation strategy that lacks a basis of scientific research, or social dialogue with the communities to ban hunting of dangerous animals. By the time the wildlife rangers arrive to put the animal down, always, it is at the cost of human life – more like compensation to the grieving family. But in Botswana, human life is priceless and the respect for its sanctity cannot be comparable to any species, no matter how its ivory or tusk can sell.


As the economy saw the need to diversify, tourism has arguably made a persuasive case as an alternative engine for growth, given the unpolluted wildlife resources across Botswana’s main game reserves. Tourists with the dollars and pounds buying-power continue to supply oxygen to the bloodstream of our economy.


If the answers are hard to come by, we need to go back to the drawing board and strategize on how the increased population of elephants can be brought under control to avoid the constant conflict between animals and people in which the mightier species always destroys the weaker vessel. My sister tells me that the lady who got stomped in the head by the elephant’s gigantic foot this week was simply crossing the road in a residential area, albeit at dusk when the beast that enjoys the limitless freedoms cut her life short.


President Mokgweetsi Masisi aptly captured the sentiments of those who live in these elephant-infested areas, that is, while supporters of conservation chant from a safe distance without feeling the after-effects of interacting with the biggest land animal; they need to start borrowing the lenses of those who on a daily basis are burdened by the free movement of wildlife. These losses of human life come with trauma and far-reaching effects for families.


“When I assumed office, immediately I made a pronouncement that I shall uphold the governance ideal of respect for the rule of law as a republican democracy. I did just that by disarming the anti-poaching unit of the wildlife department. The rule of law obtains where there is respect for human life. I find it laughable that we would profess to be a stickler to the rule of law, and yet enable our anti-poaching officers to carry dangerous weapons that they could use to fire at alleged poachers.


If they killed such people, as the government, we would not have a leg to stand on because they were using weapons they shouldn’t be in possession of. The arms and ammunition act prescribes who should have what weapons, when and how to use such weapons. It was authoritatively reported to me that they were in possession of weapons they shouldn’t be using in their patrols.


I did not hesitate to order that they be confiscated and deposited into the armoury. In correcting the anomaly, I instructed the commissioner of police, who by virtue of this act is the custodian of all ammunition, and has access to the inventory, to lock them up in safe custody and redeploy the army where the wildlife rangers encounter sophisticated poaching techniques.


If the wildlife department should need to use these weapons, they should document such requests by following due process – do not defile the law. This administration will not permit any officer to be in possession of ammunition that he should not. This decision I took to safeguard our officers and indeed the government from the probable, but unnecessary pitfall.


Our wildlife officers are armed-to-the-tooth, despite the widely circulated media report of 87 killed elephants. Over and above, all our security forces are involved in the protection of the wildlife species including the prisons, the police, the army, and the DIS and they are armed, legitimately and within the law. It is true that we are a leader in the conservation of wildlife, and have been in the longest time. I am not a leader of a fake government that oversteps its bounds,” Masisi explained last month during a public address in Maun.


His thrust is the respect for the rule of law in a democracy. Masisi in defining the wildlife conservation strategy is of the belief that it cannot exist outside the observance of the prescribed law. But then there is also the unwritten, yet the integral rule that has borne the bedrock for our democracy – consultation with the people. This reason is why it is important to ask the question about the ban on elephant hunting; was there any scientific research carried out, and what were its findings? If no scientific research was ever done, could there have been engagements with the communities and what did they voice out that informed the ban on elephant hunting in the previous years?


In the absence of answers, the policy was ill-conceived and therefore, Masisi is right in postulating that whoever banned hunting together with animal rights activists from the West might have something to explain in the grand scheme of things, should they be probed further as to their stake to link the alleged disarmament of the anti-poaching unit and the carcasses of elephants whose tusks have been cruelly removed.


Straight up, the fact that Mike Chase, a Botswana-born wildlife conservationist salaried by the taxpayers could circulate a damning report about his country behind the back of his employer smacks of dishonesty, and should not surprise anyone as to the ulterior motive to be in cahoots with the enemies of the state. If this liaison with external partners to turn the spotlight on Botswana cannot pass for treason under the sedition law that saw Outsa Mokone prosecuted, Masisi with all his presidential prerogatives would go into the history books as a unique pedigree. This is outright subversion!


Indeed, illegal wildlife trade involves the very conservationists and rather than view poaching as a conservation issue, Botswana’s strategy that marshals all her security apparatus to clamp down on the illicit transaction as an act of crime remains the solution. The conservationists themselves are the gatekeepers and intermediaries with logistics-type businesses at their disposal. They kill for profit. These networks are highly organized.


Illegal wildlife trade must squarely be treated for what it is – a crime and assigned to the police, detectives, spies, border protection officials, rangers and money laundering experts in the place of conservationists and animal rights activists. There is no place for people like Mike Chase who has his interests vested somewhere else. John Sellar tells The New York Times; “Governments in poor countries often do not share information or effectively collaborate. If the genie in the bottle were to grant me just one wish to combat international wildlife crime, I would ask that everyone work more collaboratively.”


As the president candidly cast it for his audience in Maun, our sovereignty should not be treated lightly by outsiders who have vested economic interests in the photographic tourism hatched out from a liaison with sons of the soil who aren’t bothered to mortgage our land to the highest bidder, so long they benefit monetarily, while the masses of Batswana live under the cloud of despair and grief from the swarming elephants that understand too well that human beings don’t have any rights and freedoms.


“As I draw to a close, I will attend the illegal wildlife trade summit in London where I am informed they will be waiting to face off with me. I am bold in my decision and I will not hesitate to make our position clear to the West. It is high time they understood that we are a sovereign nation whose agenda is to manage our affairs, and that includes management of our wildlife, which by the way, we have done with magnanimity over these decades.


I will tell them that Botswana prides itself in upholding the rule of law. AK47 guns belong to the army and not even our police officers carry them. I will tell them that in Botswana, we don’t protect animals at the expense of human life; citizens come first in my administration, and I will not leave my people behind and talk animal rights. I will consult with the communities where these animals coexist with the view to address the animal-human conflict.


I will listen to your concerns and appropriate measures will be taken. I will tell them that while they promote wildlife conservation at the expense of human life, you are living under constant fear and suffering, that your poverty is worsened daily by the destruction caused by these elephants, whose population boom is out of control.


If we have come up with methods to control human birth rates, what is impossible to bring down the birth rate of these animals so they don’t come into repeated conflict with the people? We are a democracy that is built on consultation from time immemorial, and that won’t change under my charge,” he emphasized. Twelve thousand kilometres away from home, Masisi told the American public that the recently circulated media report was, but a smear campaign.


“Like every campaign, this one was not different – the truth was the first casualty. When the news broke about 90 poached elephants linked to the disarmament of the anti-poaching unit, we were shocked. This was a shocker – the biggest hoax of the 21st century. Rest assured that not in Botswana will poachers have a field day; they may not come back, please warn them. Our anti-poaching officers are armed legitimately, and so are other security personnel including the army – all redeployed to patrol our game reserves and national parks,” he explained.


While heads of government and conservation enthusiasts started deliberating in London yesterday and today (11-12 October) on how the world’s fauna and flora can be preserved for future generations; forget poaching as a conservation topic in the ugly campaign against Botswana – the reality that those speaking animal rights need to reckon with is that ordinary citizens get killed by these animals regularly.


Masisi must drill in their minds that unlike the elite class that takes an aerial view of these dangerous animals or zooming in on them from the secure comfort of safari vehicles; in Botswana, innocent children walking back from school, mothers, and fathers going about their daily errands die from unprovoked attacks. Ordinary farmers cannot raise livestock and graze them in a free range without counting losses.


A subsistence farmer watches in defeat as her crops are destroyed.  The barbed fence, reed homesteads and mud huts are brought down by the mighty elephant. We are under siege because of the wildlife that we love and have coexisted with for ages. Can someone care enough to host a summit on Africans’ rights, or must we appeal to the #BlackLivesMatter movement to be heard?

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