Survival International backs Botswana in fight over elephants

10 Sep 2018

It is something that no one could never have predicted but a London-based pressure group that has had a long-running battle with the Botswana government is now firmly in the latter’s corner in an epic international fight that has broken out over elephants.

Last Monday night, the Botswana government was controversially spotlighted by international media outlets after a Botswana and United States-based NGO called Elephants Without Borders basically leaked an incomplete report on a survey it is currently undertaking on behalf of that same government. According to the report, which the government has angrily disputed, some 87 elephants were killed by poachers beginning May this year. This slaughter is supposed to have been the direct result of the government supposedly disarming anti-poaching units – another claim the government denies. As photographic evidence, the report showed three elephants, whose tusks had supposedly been hacked off, lying dead on the ground. The millions of readers and viewers that said international media reach are outraged and already a campaign against Botswana’s tourism is taking shape, with westerners flooding social media platforms with anti-Botswana propaganda. For now, the odds appear to be heavily stacked against the government whose own rebuttal was shunned by the same international media outlets that gave EWB’s report a lot of publicity.

To the rescue has come Survival International, a battle-tested pressure group which has been feuding with the Botswana government over the rights of Bushmen who live in the Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve (CKGR). On Thursday, SI put out a press release in which its states that it supports the government’s assertions that the EWB report is “false and misleading.” History buffs will note that this is the first time in history that “agree” has been used with regard to the views of these two parties on an issue. Part of EWB’s campaign entails the re-arming of game scouts who were disarmed when President Mokgweetsi Masisi took over on April 1. From reading online commentary on this particular issue, it is evident that virtually all the people now threatening to boycott Botswana’s tourism don’t understand the background of this issue.

Under former President Ian Khama and against what the law permits, game scouts were armed to the teeth with weapons of war that they used in anti-poaching operations. Legal mandate to acquire and use weapons of war is restricted to the army through the Botswana Defence Force Act while legislation that establishes the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) doesn’t accord such mandate. The government’s rebuttal, which was authored by the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism, Thato Raphaka, says as much: “…the public is informed that withdrawing weapons from DWNP is in line with the existing legislation which does not allow the Department of Wildlife and National Parks to own such weapons. This action was taken whilst corrective measures are to be undertaken.”

Khama also controversially authorised use of the unlawful shoot-to-kill/shoot-on-sight tactic against poachers and suspected poachers, something that SI reported to the UN when some Bushmen in the CKGR literally found themselves on the receiving end of bullets from an aerial sniper in a police helicopter. Following this incident, SI wrote to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Agnes Callamard, to seek clarification on whether the shoot-on-sight policy that has been adopted by countries like Botswana is lawful. Masisi revoked shoot-to-kill when he took over on April 1 this year over but the nascent campaign against Botswana’s tourism insists on its reinstatement. The memory of the aerial sniper in the CKGR is still fresh in the mind of Stephen Corry, SI’s head. 

“Arming wildlife guards brings more abuses against local people, including extrajudicial executions, with “evidence” then “found” near the bodies – and never any “poachers” left alive to answer for themselves,” Corry writes in an article SI is disseminating globally as part of its support for the Botswana government. “Eco-guards have been the scourge of the Bushmen, beating them up on a routine basis. Disarming them was a step forward for human rights in Botswana, and having spent over 45 years working for tribal peoples’ rights, of course I have a vested interest in ensuring this progressive decision doesn’t get reversed.”

It would be worthwhile to pause on “vested interests” and Corry’s interpretation of it with regard to the matter at hand associates former president Khama with a nefarious international brotherhood. SI’s contention is that far from being a well-meaning conservation NGO, EWB is actually part of an extensive network that promotes “heavily-armed fortress conservation” whose declared policies about “consulting” local people are largely empty sham.

He faults this type of conservation for turning many local Africans into its “angry enemies through its heavy-handed, often clearly racist, practises”, for having potential to increase poaching – thus being a threat to the environment itself and warns that and if not abandoned, would lead to the extinction of protected zones in Africa within a couple of generations.

“Are we really going to let the bloated, colonial conservation organizations lead us towards such a dismal legacy?” Corry poses.

He further contends that the international brotherhood that Khama is part of doesn’t want to give up its control of large areas of Africa, and is still building up protected areas which prohibit local people, many of them tribal, from accessing their traditional territory.

“Conservation, lauded as generally “progressive” in the west, is often despised in Africa as just more (white) colonial land-theft,” Corry contends in his article.

In the next breath, he strongly suggests that the Botswana elephant story could be another pushback from militarized conservation against the rights-based model which the UN, human rights experts, and many African environmentalists are now demanding.

He adds: “After all, the former president, British-born general, Ian Khama, was the key figure in trying to destroy the Bushmen and in imposing “fortress conservation.” He sat on the board of Conservation International, and his brother remains in place as minister for conservation and tourism.” The brother is Tshekedi Khama who essentially contradicted the government’s position by expressing concern that Raphaka’s rebuttal plays down. AFP quotes Tshekedi as saying, "I am very concerned, it's a huge worry. I'm aware that the numbers are in double digit, and for Botswana they are high.” His wife, who, to be clear, is not part of the government but has been construed by some to be channeling her husband’s privately-held views, has been open about her support for EWB.

While they gave EWB report massive publicity, international media outlets have not done the same with Botswana’s rebuttal. Late afternoon Friday, SI’s Communications Director, Jonathan Mazower, told Sunday Standard that his organisation was trying to publicise the Botswana government’s statement that EWB’s story about the large-scale slaughter of elephants by poachers is false and misleading.

He adds: “We’re dismayed by how few of the major media outlets have corrected their story, or reported that there are now serious questions being asked about its accuracy. We believe they have a duty to report that there are now credible doubts both about the original story, and about the motivations of those who first pushed it. We’ve urged them to publish corrections or retractions, and are still working to get them to do so.”

Mazower states that SI, which is based in London, was not coordinating its efforts with the government’s. While a government-SI tag team might give some hope of easy victory, the SI spokesperson has a sobering warning.

“The conservation lobby is extremely powerful, very well-funded, and very well-connected,” he says.