Thursday, July 9, 2020

Dark secrets of Okavango Delta ivory trade tumble out

As high-powered rifles come out of cabinets ahead of a long-awaited hunting season, so are dark secrets about how one premier safari company has basically picked the pockets of international clients in its conduct of the lucrative ivory trade. 

Startling allegations are made in an explosive letter written to the Minister of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism by a former professional hunter with multi-year work experience in the Okavango Delta. 

Deep-pocketed tourists from all over the moneyed world (like the Spanish king who broke his hip in the Okavango Delta in 2012) come to Botswana for hunting safaris. After killing the animals, they fly back home and the trophies are sent to them shortly thereafter. Those trophies have to be processed in terms of what the law prescribes and according to what is alleged in the whistleblower’s letter, the safari company in question doesn’t always obey the law. 

The company is accused of fiddling with elephant tusks in order to increase their weight and thus drive up their price. The whistleblower says that while an employee at this company, he noticed that the ivory in stock was “far too heavy for the size of the tusks.” What he would discover later upon enquiring from junior hunters was that the nerve endings were packed with fine Bakers salt. The salt was first dampened a little bit and then tamped in with a round-ended stick. When the salt had dried, the nerve endings were filled with grass and the tusks weighed in the presence of the clients to give an impression of above-board business dealing. (The killing and hacking off of the tusks happens in the bush and so blades of grass on tusks wouldn’t look out of place.)

As regards why this was done, the junior hunters are supposed to have explained: “If the ivory weighs, say 45 pounds and we can build it up to weigh 50 pounds, then the client will pay for the ivory taken.” They added that there is a standard increase in price ($5000) as the weight goes up.

Before being exported, the ivory has to be registered and weighed by a government-appointed dealer who is based in Maun. The letter to the minister says that this dealer “reweighs the ivory and records the weights before shipment.” It goes on to state that in almost all cases, the salt falls out and that this is not seen as an anomaly.

“Often after clients receive their ivory, they complain about the ivory now weighing less. They are told by correspondence and at the various shows verbally that ‘oh no worries mate, ivory shrinks as it dries out and you are bound to lose some weight … It’s normal.” The hunter-author-whistleblower claims to “have witnessed this on a number of occasions in the USA whilst on marketing trips.”

Allegation Two is that in some cases, when hunters come across elephant carcass with bigger tusks than a clients has already harvested, the company switches the ivory, keeping the larger pair and handing in the lesser-weighing one as state trophy.

“I personally witnessed this when [name of alleged culprit] changed the ivory for his client,” the author alleges, adding that while a game scout reported this matter, no action was taken.

The latter allegation implicates the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) because the scout was a civil servant and would have reported the matter to another civil servant. The Department is also being faulted for what sounds like unlawful preferential treatment for some safari owners. The author says that generally, securing a hunting licence from the bush by two-way radio is not a difficult thing if you happen to have the right connections upstairs. He mentions an instance when a client had booked a buffalo, among others, but had no hunting licence for it. He (the author) was instructed to take the client “several hours drive away” to a neighbouring concession area to hunt the buffalo. He had checked with the Operations Manager, whom he names in the letter, “and there were in fact three buffalo permits still available in our area.” Indeed, when his hunting party returned to his employer’s concession area the following day, it sported “a truly magnificent buffalo bull, a world record for sure estimated to be easily 56 inches.” The author says that he would not let the client shoot the buffalo until he obtained a licence for it from the DWNP offices in Maun. He marked the spot with toilet paper and returned to the camp to speak to both his employer and operations manager on radio.

“I emphasised just how big the trophy was and how good this would be not only for [company name] but also Botswana,” he writes.

When the party finally resumed the hunt for the buffalo, it ended up locating and shooting not “Mr Big but a good 44-inch bull.” Upon arrival back at the camp, he received belatedly written instruction from his employer “not to shoot the buffalo in our area” and to mark the trophy as having been shot in a neighbouring area. The owner of the latter area would later report the matter to the police. The author claims that generally, “trophies would be moved from one area to another, often neighbouring areas to make use of unused permits, falsify records etc.” His employer would, in the dead of night, send two runners (whom the letter mentions by name, “with trophies that had been shot in one area where there was no licence to another which had licence. The licenses would be filled in as though the trophies were taken in that area and no one would know the difference.” With specific regard to the buffalo, the author claims that he was ordered to sign the permit stating we had hunted and shot the buffalo on the neighbouring concession area and that “I was told that if I did not do this, I would NOT be paid for the safari.” To stress his helplessness in the latter situation, the author states that he was due to travel abroad on the day in question.

Another allegation is that the “big boys” bend of rules with impunity. In one such instance, a big boy (his own employer), is supposed to have led a hunting team that positioned itself downwind of an elephant and gunned it down as a group. The author says that this is “totally unethical and unsporting and definitely unbecoming of an African professional hunter.” In another instance, this big boy shot had an elephant simply because he was “pissed off.” 

The Okavango Delta is Botswana’s most lucrative tourist asset and one part of the letter suggest that the author did move on up and now owns a safari operation of his own. The object of writing the letter, as he explains in it, is to alert the minister about entrenched criminal conduct could return as the hunting season starts.

“We obviously need to be extremely careful of the hunting operations that are allowed to operate in our country,” he adds.

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Sunday Standard July 5 – 11

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of July 5 - 11, 2020.