Sunday, February 28, 2021

Conservation debates threaten to turn Kasane into a latter day “rumble in the jungle”

Gordon Bennett does not want to waste his time thinking too much about the Government of Botswana.

Questions about the state of his relations with the Government of Botswana and events that led to him being effectively banned from Botswana have a stultifying effect on the conversation with the British barrister.

His primary concern, he says is the welfare of Basarwa (he prefers to them Bushmen) who he says are ill-treated by Botswana Government.

His effective banning from Botswana after a long series of legal victories against Government is something that pains him. But still he does not want to talk about it.

It gives him no consolation that the banning was in effect a reluctant show of tribute to him by Botswana Government after he defeated the state at all his court appearances.

“It gives me no happiness to win court cases against Botswana Government. Ultimately the problems facing the Bushmen in Botswana will be resolved not by the number of cases I win at courts but by negotiations. In fact that much has been recognized by the High Court and I agree,” he says when we meet at hotel in Norwood, north east of Johannesburg where he had just finished addressing a press conference.

The fact that the ban was also applied to his school going teenage son pains him all the worse.

He says he is deeply worried that Basarwa still have nothing to show for all their legal victories that ultimately nudged Botswana Government to place him on a list of people that need a special clearance to enter Botswana, a system that would not for instance be applied to a Briton like him.

“I have applied to go into Botswana and I was rejected. I was not told why,” he says.

At that moment he had wanted to enter Botswana represent Basarwa who had been resettled by government from Ranyane, next to the Ghanzi Township.

We meet him at a hotel in Johannesburg.

It is not a coincidence that Bennett is addressing a media conference in Johannesburg.

In a few weeks time, Botswana will host two wildlife conservation related conferences. The Kasane tourism enclave will play host to the international conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade.

In addition there will also be the African Elephant Summit. The who is who of the wildlife conservation lobby will as a matter of fact descend on Botswana for the duration of that week.

And as in other such previous events hosted elsewhere, tempers are likely to run high.

They are not a homogenous lot. But more pronounced is the opposition they receive on the other side.

The Botswana conferences come at a time when there is consensus among the global conservation lobby that poaching levels have reached a crisis levels.

Conservationists are calling for a united response and as it is everything is on the table.

Rights groups on the other hand, especially those talking for indigenous tribes hold a different view.
They are worried at growing use of force to counter poaching.

They are also concerned at the lack of distinction by law enforcement officials on just who a poacher is.
Because he cannot be in Botswana, the closest that Bennett can be to action is Johannesburg.
And he is there to drum up support for the Bushmen.

He talks nonstop about militarization of Botswana’s national national parks.

“Increased militarization will lead to further oppression of the Bushmen who will be caught in the crossfire. We have seen that happen in such countries like Cameroon. This much princes William and Harry should know. As should their father Prince Charles,” Bennett says in reference to the British Royals, the global patrons of the conservation lobby and among whom at least one is expected attend.

Not to be outdone, Survival International, a London based NGO that speaks for tribal people and with which Bennett has extensive ties has already thrown in a salvo that has all the hallmarks of a preemptive strike ahead of the Kasane conference.

Survival International says tribal victims are invariably accused of poaching, when in actual fact people like the Bushmen are only hunting for the pot. SI says calling everybody a poacher is counterproductive and is inconsistent with views held by many conservation organizations including WWF (World Wildlife Federation.) SI adds that it is double standards to call Bushmen poachers and yet allow the rich to hunt for a fee.

“Many conservations organizations including WWF, don’t oppose fee-paying big hunting. On the contrary they profit from it, even quietly whispering that it’s a vital ingredient in conservation.”

To push their case, SI cleverly narrates the recent story of a Spanish King, an avowed environmentalist who was recently exposed for killing an elephant in Botswana, a country known the world over as the poster kid of conservation.

“Senior environmentalists are not averse to having a shot themselves. The former president of WWF-Spain ÔÇô the previous King of Spain ÔÇô was recently photographed in Botswana with his elephant kill. The resultant scandal forced him to step down, but only because the picture was leaked. Kings can hunt elephants, which we are told are threatened, but the Bushmen can’t hunt to eat, not a single one of the plentiful antelope they’ve lived off sustainably since time immemorial. If they’re even suspected of it, they’ll be beaten and tortured like the Baka [Cameroonian indigenous people]. This has been going on for decades, as the President of Botswana, Ian Khama, has tried to force all Bushmen out of their Central Kalahari region. Last year he banned hunting throughout the country ÔÇô except for paid safari hunting of course. It was another illegal act in the guise of conservation.”

Particular scorn is however reserved for President Ian Khama; an avid environmentalist and long serving board member of Conservation International, an American based conservation organization.

“In March, General Khama is due to host the second United for Wildlife meeting ÔÇô a consortium of the world’s major conservation organisations, including WWF and Conservation International. A British royal will doubtless turn up and join the cry against ‘illegal poaching.’ The assembly of conservationists, who routinely violate the law in their treatment of tribal peoples will be hosted by a president guilty of trying to eradicate Bushman hunters. No doubt the hypocrisy will be lost in the sanctimoniousness with which the press will afford the photo ops. The first United for Wildlife meeting was also hosted by Princes William and Harry ÔÇô both had returned the previous day from hunting in Spain.”

At a media conference this week the minister responsible for wildlife Tshekedi Khama could not hide his contempt when asked if any of the British royals would be coming. The minister had wanted to drum Botswana’s success as a conservation haven.

While the British royals give the gathering the much needed international profile, for the local audience, questions about their attendance is a distraction the minister could do without.

“That is an issue that is handled by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” he said clearly signaling that the question was a digression from an issue at hand.

“Botswana is doing very well on its anti poaching initiatives. Anti poaching is not only about money; it is also about political will and community buy in. Botswana has all those ingredients. It is so because we can and we are doing it. Our neighbours have not been good and the figures show. At the moment Botswana has a population of over 200 000 elephants, South Africa has 35 000, Zimbabwe 40 000, Zambia 20 000, Tanzania 20 000. Our success is a result of multiple strategies ÔÇô shooting poachers, intelligence gathering, education and tightening borders. You have to engage communities to succeed,” said Minister Tshekedi Khama.

The Minister also takes exception to any inference that the Bushmen in the Central Kalahari are hunting because it is part of their long held tradition to get food.

“What tradition are you talking about? It did not start that way. It’s all out of convenience,” he sniped at a journalist. “It was not always like that. What did they eat before hunting?” he asked before calling on journalists present to show patriotism by putting Botswana first. He ended by saying that before the hunting ban was imposed, Botswana Government carried a thorough scientific analysis of the numbers of wildlife species. The decline was clear for all to see, he said.

Gordon Bennett cannot disagree more: “There is no evidence that species in Botswana are on the decline. The hunting ban in Botswana is not evidence based. It seems to be based on global figures which do not apply to Botswana, much less to the CKGR [Central Kalahari Game reserve.]”

Why then did Botswana Government go ahead with such a hunting ban? We ask Bennett.

“There seems to be a genuine belief that everybody should join the mainstream. Government of Botswana is saying that the Bushmen way of life has to come to an end. That is not for Government to say. The Bushmen will have to decide on that,” he said.

He ends by pointing out that the Game scouts often act with impunity when dealing with the Bushmen they suspect of poaching.

“The conference in Kasane is likely to end up by calling for more weapons to be used against so-called poachers. No research has been done to determine what impact this will have. Our view is that increased militarization of parks will be counterproductive. In the CKGR for example local people will be demonized as they always have been. Inevitably they will end up joining opposition which is where real poaching is taking place,” said Bennett.

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