In his confidential report to the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources, Conservation and Tourism about elephants that have been dying mysteriously, Dr. Mike Chase, the Director of Elephants Without Borders, had hoped for “swift action and disclosure … in order to avert a potential public relations fiasco.” In another part of the report, he states that mindful of the sensitivities of elephant conservation, EWB has been “discreet” and made all information available to the Department of Wildlife and National Parks timeously.
“We are mindful of the increasing elephant deaths, coincident with media attention, and suggest a transparent and more collaborative approach,” the report says.
It turns out that the public relations fiasco that Chase feared would happen has happened. On Wednesday, international media houses had somehow gotten their hands on the confidential report and were reporting and interpreting its contents. At 1808 hours, The Telegraph, a London newspaper, published an online article headlined “Nerve agent fear as hundreds of elephants perish mysteriously in Botswana.” Many more international newspapers followed suit as “a potential public relations fiasco” becomes real. This necessarily means that in addition to battling COVID-19, the Botswana government will also be battling environmental activists from across the globe.
What is happening now has echoes of 2018 when the death of elephants became the subject of controversial international focus on Botswana. Then as now, CNN, BBC, Fox News, Sky News, Guardian, New York Times, Washington Post, Economist, The Times of London and other international media houses carried the story that portrayed the government in extremely bad light. Online, some westerners called for the boycott of Botswana’s tourism and when he visited Britain and appeared on a BBC programme, President Mokgweetsi Masisi had to field questions on this issue. On another official trip to the United States, a woman yelled at him at a Hollywood event where the dead elephants were a subject.
The net result was that the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources, Conservation and Tourism Officials and those of EWB butted heads over this incident – with the former accusing the latter of leaking information to western media outlets for an ongoing commissioned project. In a race-tinged battle online, ordinary Batswana also butted heads with western conservationists. Chase, who is white, himself came under vicious attack from some Batswana who asked him to “go back home.” He is actually a Botswana citizen and descendant of Jack Chase, a British colonial officer who worked as chief veterinary officer. Upon retirement, Chase founded the riverside Chase-Me Inn, which latter became Mahalapye Hotel and until not too long ago, was called Ozone Nightclub.
Early indications are that another battle at both official and unofficial levels, as well as both online and offline, is getting underway. At press time, an online petition headlined “Elephant Mortality in Botswana” was gaining momentum. An open letter addressed to Masisi expresses concern about “the recent and as yet unexplained deaths of allegedly (one speaks of already) 400 elephants in the Okavango region.” The letter says that Botswana has the means and ability to determine the cause of these deaths.
“The Botswana National Veterinary Laboratory located just outside Gaborone is a leading regional research institution and has established connections across the SADC region and with leading western veterinary research institutions. We would therefore appeal to you, Mr. President, to take a personal interest in this very important matter of world conservation concern and ensure that these elephants’ deaths are investigated fully, transparently, and with the best scientists available in Botswana and their collaborators abroad.”
Already Facebook pages of Botswana news media organisations, especially the government-owned bwgovernment, are being flooded with demands from the west for an investigation.