Elephants’ doctor cries wolf

23 Sep 2018

The two dozen or so journalists wrinkled their noses and gagged as they struggled to keep down the bacon and eggs breakfast they had just binged on at Kasane Travel Lodge Hotel. Most, however, just covered their noses from the aggressive stench of rotting flesh and jostled for vantage positions around the decomposed elephant carcass.

When the “elephants massacre” story went viral before setting off what Americans call the BS meter, curious news hounds immediately sensed that something was off, but nothing could have prepared them for the nasty pong that assaulted their noses as they set off in search of the truth. For those with a sense for symbolism, this was a fitting metaphor: The truth stinks.

Elephants Without Borders boss Dr Mike Chase and Botswana government presented totally conflicting versions of the truth. Dr Chase claimed three weeks ago that he had discovered at least 87 elephant carcasses during a routine aerial survey of conservation areas, suggesting a sudden spike in killings in recent months. The claims led to global media attention, and questions were raised about Botswana’s anti-poaching efforts.

Before the dust settled even British Prime minister had waded into the debate, offering Botswana Government her two pence worth of advice on wildlife conservation. It was a free for all. And Botswana Government, caught off-guard found their backs against the wall. To make matters worse, President Mokgweetsi Masisi was 12 000 Kms away in China – the global capital market of all poaching.

But Botswana government officials demanded to see Dr Chase’s proof and subsequent visits to the Chobe National Park located just 19 corpses – only six of which were found to be poaching victims.

For scores of local and international journalists who were flown to the sites to cut through the fog, the decomposed elephant carcasses were silent witnesses.They held the key to solving many questions that had been raised about the Elephants Without Borders story.

So what really happened on the Chobe wilderness? Journalists escorted to sites were taken behind the decomposed carcasses for a glimpse of events surrounding their death and how long they had been dead.

At one of the sites, they found a decaying carcass of a giant bull elephant with its tail cut off, a deep cut on its back and tucks brutally hacked out, a ritual suggestion of jumbo’s grisly end at the hands of money-chasing poachers. The animal was slashed on his back by poachers to de-mobilize him, most likely after a single shot before being robbed of his tusks, possibly while still breathing. His remains became dinner for scavengers. All in all half a dozen were confirmed poached. Another half a dozen or so died of natural causes, probably starvation, thirst or anthrax before Wildlife Officers came and removed their tusks. The balance took their secrets to the grave with them. Churchill Collyer, the deputy Director of the Wildlife Department said the cause of death was inconclusive.  With only 19 elephants confirmed dead, Dr Chase’s numbers do not add up. Whichever way you cut it, 19 dead elephants fall far short of Dr Chase’s 87 elephants’ massacre version.

With evidence from the Chobe wilderness far more consistent with the government’s version, Dr Chase’s story failed the smell test.

“Last year, the whole year, we lost about 81 elephants. So I can say it’s just normal, like any other year, we haven’t recorded any mass killing,” said Collyer. Officials added that since the start of the year, a total of 63 elephants had died across the country and there had been no noticeable increase in elephant poaching.

As emerging evidence suggests that the elephants’ doctor was crying wolf, the world was this week forced to consider an alternative version of the truth. While most headline writers played it safe with news heds like “Botswana rejects claims of elephant poaching surge” British Guardian, “Botswana fights claims of rampant elephant poaching” The Japan Times  “spree “Channel NewsAsia, and “Botswana Disputes Claims of Unprecedented Elephant Slaughter” OCCRP, the most telling headlines that the tide is turning against Dr Chase came from the South African Citizen  newspaper : “Wildlife charity lied about 87 elephants poached in Botswana” and Survival International’s “Botswana elephant massacre” story now proven false”. The Citizen story was syndicated from AFP News which is one of the world biggest wire feeds with 4.827 million customers throughout the world 74% of the clients being newspapers, television stations, online news agencies and radio stations while the remaining 26 % are non media customers. The AFP wire feed reported that “some in the conservation community have suggested that Elephants Without Borders made such alarming claims because of ‘vested interests’.”

The other stories which questioned Dr Chase’s story were gleaned from Reuters which reaches 1 billion readers every day.

But by far the most damning was a rebuttal by a group of researchers based in Maun. They said the story was simply wrong and not supported by empirical evidence.

With the glut of news suggesting data manipulation against Dr Chase, which constitutes serious professional misconduct, Elephants Without Borders issued a statement last week trying to talk up its credibility. “EWB has been working in partnership with the Government of Botswana (GoB) conducting aerial wildlife surveys since 2010. Our team, which includes members from the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) and other professionals, is perhaps the most experienced wildlife aerial survey team in Africa.

“Our current survey adheres to the highest international standards for counting wildlife, the same standards employed for the surveys EWB conducted in collaboration with the GoB in 2010 and 2014. Dr Michael Chase is recognised for his knowledge and dedication having received the Botswana Presidential Merit of Service Award and was also bestowed the Global Conservation in Action Award, a prestigious international conservation honour. Dr Chase is a fourth generation Motswana and is a citizen of Botswana by birth.”

But would Dr Chase tweak data in favour of vested interests? The outcome would be anything but pretty. Being found guilty of manipulating data has dire consequences which range from loss of researcher’s credibility to retraction of research from journal publications. So why would Dr Chase risk falsifying data in the first place – and with that blight his professional reputation?

The reasons are not far-fetched. We live in a world of evidence. Fund granting organizations and the government all want evidence. These funding agencies most of the times need “the desired result” to continue to fund a project. This puts pressure on researchers. If results are not in sync with predictions, it might make them cut funds. On the other end, researchers need funds to keep their labs open and running. There comes the “researcher’s curse” - dilemma of choosing between integrity or keeping their labs running. Unfortunately, some researchers succumb to this pressure and choose the former.

One Cabinet minister went so far as to suggest that EWB funds were drying up and the story was meant to attract donor money. AFP, a leading global agency on the other hand reported that, “some in the conservation community have suggested that Elephants Without Borders made such alarming claims because of ‘vested interests.”

While most countries have strict laws about conflict of interest in research, Botswana is still lagging behind. The term “conflict of interest in research” refers to situations in which financial or other personal considerations may compromise, or have the appearance of compromising a researcher's professional judgment in conducting or reporting research. 
According to the NAS Integrity in Scientific Research, "a conflict of interest in research exists when the individual has interests in the outcome of the research that may lead to a personal advantage and that might therefore, in actuality or appearance compromise the integrity of the research."

Whether Dr Chase passes the conflict of interest test or not, the jury is still out there.

“EWB is not able, until further notice, to release detailed information concerning the survey in general, nor potential cases of elephant poaching. We trust that concerned citizens of Botswana, the media and the international conservation community can respect these constraints and await the dissemination of the final survey report,” he wrote on his EWB website.

Dr Chase was commissioned to do the controversial 2014 research which informed former President Ian Khama’s hunting ban. Although he did not mention names, a local researcher dismissed the trophy hunting ban as a self serving political decision which is not informed by scientific research. 
Since the introduction of Botswana’s hunting ban policy, a Researcher and Director at Okavango Research Centre (ORC) Professor Joseph Mbaiwa has been a loney voice against it.

From the beginning Dr Mbaiwa has been adamant that all indications on the ground were that the decision was motivated by politics and not science.

As Dr Chase became the darling of the powerful elite, Professor Mbaiwa paid a price by being pushed to the sidelines.

But still Mbaiwa remained resolute insisting that the survey conducted by Dr Mike Chase about the decline of wildlife species was not thoroughly conducted, which raises questions on how the government took a far reaching decision on the basis of such a survey. Professor Mbaiwa’s argument was backed by two studies in South Africa, one by the Professional Hunters Association of South Africa and another by the North West University, both of which showed that sustainable trophy hunting and private ownership of game has allowed South Africa’s wildlife to flourish, with private game reserves growing from four to about 10,000 in 50 years, covering 20.5-million hectares. Game headcount rose to 16-million from only 500,000 in the same period. By comparison, national parks cover only 7.5-million hectares and are home to 4-million head.

Dr Chase’s 2014 survey report ensured victory to a powerful international network of photographic safari operators with financial interest in the Botswana tourism industry. The well connected network has been mobilizing to protect the gains it made in their long battle with trophy hunting safari operators.

Former President Ian Khama, his brother Tshekedi Khama who is also Minister of Environment, Wildlife, and Tourism and Mike Chase of Elephants Without Borders all sit on the Board of Tlhokomela Botswana Endangered Wildlife Trust. The Trust is pushing the photographic safari agenda against trophy hunting safari.

Also defending the photographic safari juggernaut alongside Khama and Chase is the billionaire Microsoft Co-founder Paul Allen who is a major sponsor of Elephants Without Borders.

Allen part-owns Abu Camp in the Okavango Delta, which is managed and marketed by Wilderness Safaris as one of their 'Collection' properties. Both Allen and Khama are part of the Wilderness Safaris “Collection” properties which has brought together champions of photographic tourism.