Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Botswana evacuates rhinos in response to extreme poaching

Rampant poaching over the past five years has forced the Botswana government to evacuate rhinos from the Okavango Delta to private reserves with higher security. 

Since 2018 rhino poaching has escalated, with most of the black rhino population being poached and the remainder relocated outside the Delta.

This is contained in a 2022 Botswana government report submitted to the World Heritage Committee in response to the decisions adopted during the Extended 44th Session of the Committee, held in Fuzhou, China from July 16 – 31, 2021.

The report says white rhinos were also being poached at such a high rate, such that rhinos will be locally extinct in the Okavango Delta landscape within a few years if poaching continued at its current rate. 

“In recent years, Botswana has taken a decision to dehorn all rhinos to reduce their appeal, but this has not had the desired effect, since the small amount of horn left by the dehorning procedure is still worth a large amount of money.” 

The report says the 2019 drought also opened access to poachers since there was less water in the delta to hinder them. The Covid-19 pandemic, the report says, also presented an opportunity for poachers due to reduced tourism activities in 2020, which led fewer people moving around in the concessions leading to poachers moving undetected. 

“The Botswana Defense Force, Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP), Rhinos Without Boarders (RWB) and Rhino Conservation Botswana (RCB) have maintained their presence, including using aerial and ground patrols to monitor rhinos and respond to any carcasses located.”

Rhino population numbers are never made public by the government as the information is considered sensitive data. 

“Two organisations have been working with Department of Wildlife and National Parks and BDF to monitor and protect rhinos. Rhinos without Borders, supported by Great Plains and Beyond safari operators, imported approximately 70 white rhinos into Botswana when poaching was lower in the Okavango Delta than elsewhere in the rhino range,” the report says. 

But since 2018 to date Botswana’s status as a safe haven for rhinos has been almost completely eroded. 

The World Heritage Committee had requested Botswana to submit an updated report on the State of Conservation Report of the Okavango Delta World Heritage Property.

The report, which has never been made public, forms part of the annexures in court documents in a case in which the Botswana government, through the Ministry of Minerals & Energy, is being sued by a local mining company Gcwihaba Resources (Pty) Ltd over the former’s refusal to renew a mineral prospecting license within and outside the buffer zones of the Okavango Delta heritage site. 

“The coordinates submitted in the application for renewal of Prospecting License No 020/2018 are encroaching into the buffer zone. Prospecting and mining activities are prohibited within the buffer zone of the Delta, or if permitted, they are to be subjected to stringent Environmental Impact Assessment,” the Ministry said when refusing to grant the prospecting license. The report ‘State of Conservation Report, Okavango Delta World Heritage Site’ states how poaching continues to be one of the major threats to the integrity and Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) of the Okavango Delta.  The report also references elephant poaching, saying they are some of the most targeted animal species. 

Botswana is home to approximately a third of the global population of African elephants, which the government says are under huge poaching pressure throughout most of their range. 

“The population in Botswana is therefore vital to the survival of the species, but there is a growing opinion that the pressure exerted by such a large population of elephants could be having detrimental effects, particularly on large tree species. Elephants de-bark and knock over adult trees, while browsing on younger individuals, thereby reducing recruitment rates and preventing replacement of adults.” 

This, the report says, could have severe consequences for other species that rely on large trees, and for the functioning of the Okavango Delta overall, which requires large trees to filter nutrients and concentrate salinity into islands, thereby maintaining low salinity in the waters of the Okavango. Ideally, the large elephant population in Botswana could be spread out over the Kavango-Zambezi landscape through restored connectivity between protected areas in neighboring countries, but these movement routes are currently disrupted by human activities, including developments and poaching pressure.” 

Botswana has been carrying out an elephant aerial survey since late 2022, the results of which have yet to be released.

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