Saturday, May 28, 2022

Government threatens the survival of Chobe National Park

The decision to allow construction of eleven (11) safari camps inside the Chobe National Park (CNP) has raised concerns about whether or not personal interests have prevailed over environmental concerns.

It has also raised more questions about the government’s commitment to wildlife conservation.

In 2018 (under the previous administration) the Department of Environmental Affairs turned down a proposal for an elephant orphan sanctuary that was proposed in the Chobe National Park on account of environmental consideration. It was also under the same administration that the government turned down a request by Botswana’s telecommunications regulator to erect a communications tower, citing environmental concerns.

Now conservationists and locals benefiting from the CNP tourist activities are up in arms over the proposed developments that will likely have devastating effects on the Park’s diverse ecosystem.

Chobe National Park is one of the best wildlife parks in the region largely because of its biodiversity which has remained largely untouched. 

It has become a true wildlife paradise that has mesmerized tourists from across the globe. It is extremely lush because of the many waterways and the main Chobe River which flows through the park and draws countless animal species.

Perched on the border line between Botswana and Namibia, the Park is accessible by boat and driving safaris during the day from dawn till dusk providing excellent photographic experiences. Rampant poaching on the Namibian side has turned CNP into a safe haven for wildlife.

Movement within the CNP is strictly prohibited after 6PM. That is however about to change following the decision by the government to flight an ‘Expression of Interest’ advert calling for safari companies to bid for the sites.

“The development of the proposed magnitude will put untold pressure on the environment and biodiversity of our national jewel that is Chobe National Park. It will also have dire socio-economic impacts on existing businesses, and individuals, already battling a growing market discontent of the over-crowded Chobe experience,” reads a petition by a concerned pressure group. 

“The proposal not only has potential to irrevocably downgrade an already stressed tourism product, but could permanently tarnish the country’s hard-earned conservation reputation, which would quickly ripple beyond Chobe to the Okavango and beyond.”

The petition says any action or development that threatens the existence of the Park has to be subject to an intense and independent Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) by a qualified entity with no ties to any concerned parties.

However, speaking in Parliament this week the Minister of Wildlife and Tourism Philda Kereng said Ministry was allocating sites without requiring EIAs with the aim to fast-track initiatives geared towards allocation of land in Botswana and ultimately ensuring that Batswana have access to land.

This was in response to area Member of Parliament Dumelang Saleshando who questioned the motive behind the government’s decision. The petition says the decision comes in spite of the USAID funded 2020 CNP Management Plan Review stating that there should be no more lodges in the Park. The Minister did not dispute this fact, stating “the government developed the Management Plan with support by USAID.

In March 2021, the USAID-funded consultants submitted the technical document to the Department of Wildlife and National Parks. Following this, My Ministry through the Department of Wildlife and National Parks consulted further within the Government and revised the technical document to align it with the policy direction provided by the current Government.”

The petitioners say wildlife corridors will be impinged and human-wildlife conflict will increase necessitating mitigations like fences.

“Wildlife behaviour will be negatively affected leading to increases in dangerous encounters. The loss of up to 8km of wildlife viewing roads (fenced off lodge sites), and a further 8km of interrupted wildlife corridors, in a park with an already limited road network will further degrade the tourists’ wildlife experience that is already under severe crowding pressure.”

The impact of increasing an already high traffic volume by an estimated minimum of 50 game viewing vehicles will likely have devastating effects to the quality of the tourist experience and will change wildlife behaviour and distribution, the Petitioners says.

“It is our opinion that no amount of mitigating measures can be undertaken to offset the disastrous impact that one riverfront lodge would have on the Park.”

The Petitioners say as the sites are bounded by the main road to south and annually flooded plains to the north, expansion can only occur laterally east and west, consuming more river frontage and exacerbating the degradation of the ecosystem.

They also question the process by which the public was made aware of the proposed development saying it was anything but transparent. “The proposal was ‘flashed’ up on the government website and quickly removed. The rushed time frame offered on that brief public notification to participate in the Expression of Interest was unrealistic and provides ample speculation to the legality and inclusiveness of the process. It begs the question, had select participants already been established or offered the chance to tender before the all-too-brief public notice was made?”

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