Saturday, August 15, 2020

Government not interested in working with Elephants Without Borders

You need to understand what happened in 2018 to decode a set of three questions and answers that the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism give in a frequently asked questions (FAQs) press statement about elephant mortality in the Seronga area. It would seem that these FAQs are actually QJDA – questions journalists didn’t ask – and reveal the extent to which the Ministry is not interested in working with a conservation organisation called Elephants Without Borders (EWB).

Question 5: Does the country have the requisite capacity to investigate these deaths? Answer: Yes. A team of highly qualified and experienced scientists was deployed to the investigation, including wildlife biologist, veterinary epidemiologists and pathologist. In addition, the Ministry has collaborated with law enforcement agencies to assist in forensic investigations. What the country lacks are specialised testing facilities.

Question 6: Is the government working with private researchers in these investigations? Answer: Government is working with CARACAL who are playing a role in sample testing, processing, purification and shipment. Eco Exist is also being engaged to collaboratively do aerial survey in the affected area together with government.

Question 7: Has the government ever engaged or partnered with Elephants Without Borders? If so, what kind of support did EWB offer? Answer: Not in this investigation, however EWB is being acknowledged for providing information with regard to the elephant carcasses they spotted while undertaking their [own] research field work.

In 2018, Dr. Mike Chase, who is the Director of EWB, sent an international alert about the massacre of elephants by poachers. The alert dominated a whole news cycle in the west as CNN, BBC, Sky News, New York Times, Washington Post, The Guardian and other international news outlets reported the massacre. Outrage from the west followed immediately and both here at home and abroad, a veritable fire brigade had to put out fires sparked by this incident. At an event in Hollywood in the United States, an American woman literally screamed at President Mokgweetsi Masisi for not exercising proper stewardship over Botswana’s elephants.

It would later emerge that Chase had passed on information about the dead elephants to the international media before sharing it with the government – which disputed the number of dead elephants that Chase quoted in his report. It also emerged that Chase had sought audience with Masisi but was persistently rebuffed. The whole incident caused huge embarrassment for the government and certainly soured relations with EWB.

A fortnight ago, another EWB report (marked “confidential”) found its way to the international media. While careful in its choice of words, Chase’s report made clear the fact that the government was not moving fast enough and that it didn’t seem interested in taking up EWB on its offer to help with both expertise and material resources – like its plane. In an interview with The Guardian (of London), Mary Rice, executive director of the Environmental Investigation Agency used more direct language to echo what EWB’s report implies: “There is real concern regarding the delay in getting the samples to an accredited laboratory for testing in order to identify the problem – and then take measures to mitigate it,” Rice is quoted as saying. “The lack of urgency is of real concern and does not reflect the actions of a responsible custodian. There have been repeated offers of help from private stakeholders to facilitate urgent testing which appear to have fallen on deaf ears … and the increasing numbers are, frankly, shocking.”

Not only are the three FAQs (5, 6 and 7) designed to push back against what EWB states in its report, they also make clear the fact that the government is not interested in working with EWB. The latter has made an offer of support that the government appears to be in no hurry to take up. In the report, Chase says that EWB has made “numerous offers to support DWNP to address this escalating and concerning mass mortality. With respect, we repeat our determination to work collaboratively with DWNP to understand the cause for this deteriorating situation by committing our resources, personnel and scientific expertise. A coordinated partnership will resolve the growing mystery surrounding these unusual elephant deaths.”

Some of those resources include EWB’s plane, equipment and experienced crew. Even as it makes this offer of expert knowledge, EWB is already sharing it and making recommendations. The report says that if disease is the cause of death, then organ samples from the dead elephants should be collected to determine which bacteria or virus killed them. Last month, Chase met with the Regional Wildlife Officer in Maun and submitted “another letter” offering to work in partnership with DWNP to solve this mystery. While two letters have been sent to both the Ministry headquarters and DWNP, “no formal response to EWB’s correspondence has been forthcoming to date.”

From reading Chase’s report, one gets the impression that the government lacks what EWB is offering: “…committing our resources, personnel and scientific expertise.” Conversely, the government makes clear the fact that it has “the requisite capacity to investigate these deaths”, that its “team of highly qualified and experienced scientists” include a “wildlife biologist, veterinary epidemiologists and pathologist” and that the only thing it “lacks are specialised testing facilities.” EWB doesn’t have such facilities and it is unlikely the government would want to use them even if the former had them..

It is very clear from reading Chase’s report that EWB is keen on working with the government and it is worth noting that in the past, the two parties have worked together. While the government acknowledges EWB for “providing information with regard to the elephant carcasses they spotted while undertaking their [own] research field work”, nothing remotely suggests that it will use EWB’s research findings. Such findings were a result of EWB conducting an aerial survey in the affected area. The answer to Question 6 identifies the private research organisations that the government is interested in working with and one (Eco Exist) is doing work that EWB has already done – conducting an aerial survey in the affected area. Decoded, the government’s acknowledgement of EWB’s work amounts to “thanks but no thanks.” Why else would it partner with Eco Exist to duplicate what EWB has already done? Clearly, the 2018 wounds are still raw.

It is to be expected that the government and EWB will not always be on the same page but there is a seamy underside to the former’s rejection of the latter’s research findings and offer of assistance – politics. The Government Enclave, notably the Office of the President, associates EWB with the Botswana Patriotic Front, a party founded by former president and Masisi nemesis, Ian Khama. The government considers BPF to be antagonistic and hellbent on destroying its credibility and sees EWB as an extension of BPF.

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