Wednesday, November 29, 2023

BDF invested millions in useless anti-poaching technology

The pula figures are not immediately available but the high-speed swamp boats, infrared radar and military version of the Cessna 337 aircraft that the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) bought to aid its anti-poaching operations in the early days were a terrible waste of money.

That information was prised out of BDF officers by Dan Henk, a former American soldier who served a stint at the United States Embassy in Gaborone as military attaché. In 1987, President Sir Ketumile Masire approved a plan to send an elite strike force after commercial poachers who were killing animals and terrorizing communities in wildlife management areas. The patrolling and tracking worked wonders but the BDF decided to experiment with technology in its anti-poaching operations. Resultantly, it bought Bell (and later, its French-made Ecureille) utility helicopters for troop lift, troop supply, and surveillance. Later it bought Panther Airboats (which are high-speed swamp boats), surplus 0-2a Skymaster light observer aircraft – a military version of the Cessna 337 as well as infrared radar designed to detect body heat at night.

“The airboats were intended for rapid movement on the rivers and swampland of the northern wildlife conservancies, primarily in the Okavango Delta,” writes Henk in The Botswana Defense Force in the Struggle for an African Environment. “The U.S. surveillance aircraft were equipped with a Forward-Looking Infrared Radar (FLIR) designed for nighttime surveillance and supposedly providing a capacity for ready identification of human bodies during hours of darkness.”

The BDF also purchased limited numbers of global positioning systems (GPS) and night vision devices for troop use, investing at the same time in state-of-the-art tactical radios. One set of technology worked just fine but “BDF leaders told the author that most of the other technology proved disappointing.”

The GPS allowed quick and accurate determinations of location; night vision goggles provided a good short-range capacity to detect and identify poachers; and the helicopters became particularly important for air lifting troops and supplies into remote sites and were well-suited to rapid reaction in fast-moving engagements with poachers. On the other hand, poachers easily recognized the distinctive sound of the engines long before the 0-2a Skymaster light observer aircraft were in visual range. Generally, poachers in Botswana proved “very adept at evading visual detection from the air.” Engines of the Panther Airboats “were so loud that poachers were alerted well before the boats were anywhere near their intended targets” and the infrared radar proved disappointing “because of the fragility and expense of the equipment, which could not be repaired in Botswana.”

Ultimately, “BDF leadership concluded that the most effective counter-poaching technique was a highly visible presence on the ground to deter the poaching if possible, complemented with ambushes and foot patrols by small, stealthy, disciplined teams backed up by rapid-reaction helicopter-borne forces when interception was required.”


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