Botswana is not the only Third World country to have adopted a controversial (and illegal) policy through which game scouts are authorised to shoot suspected poachers on sight.
Last week, a BBC documentary revealed that behind what on the surface looks like an incredible story of conservation success at Kaziranga National Park in India, is a dark tale of long-running extra-judicial killing. Scouts at the park protect the wildlife by shooting suspected poachers dead. That will sound familiar to people here because the government has also adopted a controversial shoot-to-kill policy. Given how long this park has existed, it could well that Botswana copied its policy from India.
The BBC says that there were just a handful of Indian one-horned rhinoceros left when the park was set up a century ago in Assam, in India’s far east: “Now there are more than 2,400 – two-thirds of the entire world population.” For some time now and especially after banning hunting, the Botswana government has been using a controversial shoot-to-kill policy. The BBC uses the term “shoot-on-sight” but from the manner in which the Minister of Environment, Natural Resources, Conservation and Tourism, Tshekedi Khama, has described Botswana’s own application of this policy, the purpose is to kill, not apprehend. Additionally, no suspected poacher seems to have survived what one might charitably call shoot on sight. As far as can be ascertained, Namibians and Zimbabweans have been victims of this policy. It has been widely reported in the media that this was one of the burning issues that Namibian president, Hage Geingob, discussed with his Botswana counterpart, Ian Khama, when he visited Gaborone last year.
After a police helicopter crashed in the Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve (CKGR) last year, Survival International told the world that police snipers wanted to take out a group of Bushmen down below who were “hunting antelope to feed their families.” The crash occurred during an anti-poaching operation. In the past, Tshekedi Khama has told Tom Hardy, a British film-maker, that Botswana citizens are not exempt from the shoot-to-kill policy and the CKGR incident could be evidence of an anti-poaching operation that targeted citizens.
This unwritten policy is shrouded in secrecy and to date the source of its legality as well as the identity of the person who authorised it also remain a secret. However, what Tshekedi Khama described in the documentary sounds every bit like extrajudicial killing. The minister said even if suspected poachers surrendered, they will still be killed. Speaking about this policy and its specific application to foreign poachers, Tshekedi, who is the president’s younger brother, stated: “That is a position we adopted to send a clear message to say, if you want to come and poach in Botswana, one of the possibilities is that you may not go back to your country alive.” What is even more tragic is that parliament, which makes all laws in the country, has not raised substantive questions about this policy.
Like India, Botswana is seeing a dramatic rise in rhino population due to the shoot-to-kill policy. In 2015, Statistics Botswana reported that from only 26 rhinos in 2005, the number rose to 153 in 2014. The rhino horn is said to have a lucrative market in Asia, especially in Vietnam and China, where it is sold as a miracle cure for everything from cancer to erectile dysfunction.
“Street vendors charge as much as $6,000 for 100g – making it considerably more expensive than gold. Indian rhinos have smaller horns than those of African rhinos, but reportedly they are marketed as being far more potent,” the BBC report says.
Botswana’s policy may spawn as controversial a cottage industry. Across the border in South Africa, where institutional and legal safeguards would make it absolutely impossible to kill poachers on sight, rhinos are being brutally slaughtered at an alarming rate. In 2014 alone, some 1215 rhinos were killed by poachers. Two conservation groups, andBeyond and Great Plains Conservation, have joined forces and together have committed to moving 100 rhinos to safety at a total cost of US$4.5 million. With India being so far away for an operation that requires airlifting the heavy animals, Botswana seemed the more appealing destination.
“Botswana has been carefully selected for its extremely low poaching rates, thanks in part to its “no tolerance” policy when encountering potential threats. Each rhino, when translocated, will be fitted with specially design telemetry devices for ongoing research and monitoring purposes,” reads the Rhinos Without Borders website.
The organisation’s description of the situation is remarkable for its sanitising of state-sponsored crime. There is absolutely no detail about why Botswana has “extremely low poaching rates” as well as what the “no tolerance” policy actually is. As part of this operation, the first batch of rhino have been successfully translocated from “from a high-risk poaching zone” (South Africa) to the Okavango Delta in Botswana. Rhinos Without Borders says that this translocation has “significantly decreased the likelihood of these endangered animals being killed.” This is said to have been the largest airlift of rhinos in recorded history.
It is likely other countries will use this unique protection service ÔÇô which they will have to pay for. However, as Botswana becomes an international sanctuary for endangered wildlife, its rule of law would be severely compromised. There is also the likelihood of the country’s politics and commerce being complicated in ways that may prove hard to undo. At a time that diamonds are being mined out and the process of economic diversification is not gaining traction, the shoot-to-kill policy could ensure a lucrative revenue stream that future governments (including those of parties that are currently in the opposition) may think twice about shutting down.
Botswana’s shoot-to-kill policy is being executed not just by the army but also by a game-scout contingent that is now said to have enough firepower to qualify as a defence force.