Thursday, October 29, 2020

Western organisations launch smear-sabotage campaign against UB professor

As the trans-Atlantic battle over Botswana’s elephants heats up, two western organisations have published patently false information about Professor Joseph Mbaiwa at the Okavango Research Institute of the University of Botswana.

In an article headlined “Botswana’s Conservation Policies Are Driven By Profit, Not Science”, Jared Kukura of Wild Things Initiatives alleges that Mbaiwa and Jeff Rann, an American entrepreneur doing business in the Okavango Delta, are co-owners of a lodge. That statement is false because while the business interests of the pair intersect, they don’t own any lodge in the Delta. Last October, the Competition Authority published a merger relating to Xudum Okavango River (Pty) Ltd (XOR).

“XOR, the acquiring enterprise, is an entity registered under the Laws of the Republic of Botswana. XOR is controlled by its shareholders namely (i) the Rann Share Trust (held through its nominee shareholder, Christopher John Bray) and (ii) the Mbaiwa Family Trust (held through its nominee shareholder, Joseph Elizeri Mbaiwa). The target is currently not trading. It does not control any enterprises,” the Authority’s notice read.

Wild Initiative Things’ article is hyperlinked to this merger notice – which says nothing about any lodge. As Mbaiwa himself explains, Xudum Okavango River has only applied for aphotographic concession in the Okavango Delta.

“It is still an application to Tawana Landboard and we have not yet received a response. We might be granted or we might lose/get rejected. What we currently have is just a certificate of a company, no assets nor what. We do not have even a teaspoon. If we are granted the concession, we will take it from there. But right now, we just have an idea,” he says in a written response to Sunday Standard’s questions.

We have independently verified that XOR doesn’t own any lodge in the Delta.

The allegations against Mbaiwa are most concentrated in a part that refers to Rann’s involvement in hunting: “Rann held concessions in Botswana before the hunting ban was lifted but was reassured of the government’s plans to change the policy by Mbaiwa back in 2018. The pair have since bought a lodge in the Okavango area in a joint venture. Unsurprisingly, Rann won two elephant hunting packages for the upcoming season during Botswana’s auction. If you’re following along, we have a scientist, whose study was influential in overturning a hunting ban, directly profiting from the decision. This constitutes a conflict of interest questioning the integrity of Mbaiwa’s previous studies.”

Mbaiwa, who through his scholarship has expressed support for hunting, says that what happened at the auction has absolutely nothing to do with him. 

“I have no idea of what transpired at the auction and how the quota was decided and who decided the quota basing on what,” he says. “I read about the auction in the media like most people. Yes, it’s true from long back I was against the hunting ban. In my research, I never supported the hunting ban because to me there was no scientific evidence to support it.”

Similar charges against Mbaiwa are carried in The Canary, a left-wing news website based in theUnited Kingdom. Mbaiwa describes the intention of the writers as “malicious” and on the whole, finds articles of this nature to be disrespectful to Botswana’s sovereignty and its people.

“The people of Botswana have a right to decide on the use of their wildlife resources. Our parliament passed a motion to lift the hunting ban and there was a consultation process headed by the Minister of Local Government and Batswana endorsed the lifting of a hunting ban. So, I am actually surprised that people, especially those residing outside Botswana and have little knowledge on rural livelihoods and state of wildlife conservation in Botswana, will go all the way to attack Botswana. I imagine myself living in Maun (Botswana) castigating the USA government for hunting wolves in California or whichever state while in reality I know nothing about wolves and farmers in that country. Kana those authors are saying Botswana has no right to decide on how best to use her resources. It’s unfortunate that they analyse things that way.”

By questioning Mbaiwa’s credibility as a scholar, the last part of the Wild Things Initiative article is evidently designed to frustrate effort on his (Mbaiwa’s) part to get funding because credibility matters a great deal to donors.

Interestingly, while the stated western organisations seek to demonstrate how Botswana’s wildlife management has been tainted by conflict of interest, they don’t tell the other side of the story. General Ian Khama, who unilaterally imposed the hunting ban with only three years left in his second presidential term, has also been accused of being conflicted on this issue because of his business interests in the photographic safari business. At a press conference in 2018, the Minister of International Affairs and Cooperation, Unity Dow, revealed that Khama’s administration had forked out P600 000 for the care of orphaned baby elephants. This task was entrusted to Elephant Without Borders, a conservation NGO which is based in Kasane and is headed by Dr. Mike Chase. She also revealed that Khama, his younger brother and then Minister of Environment, Natural Resources, Conservation and Tourism, Tshekedi Khama, and Jillian Blackbeard, the former Marketing Manager of Botswana Tourism Organisation, were board members of another conservation NGO called Tlhokomela Wildlife Trust. All are from Serowe. Chase had President Khama on speed dial and when he couldn’t get access to the new president, decided to reveal details of an ongoing study to western news channels.

While the Botswana government and scholars like Mbaiwa have been attacked and discredited by western animal-rights activists, there is one very important stakeholder group whose views don’t seem to matter to the latter – people who live in wildlife areas like the Okavango Delta and Kasane. While these people have inherited indigenous wildlife management knowledge that have served their communities well for centuries, westerners don’t think their views matter. The word “racism” has been used. At a time that Romans were being treated to elaborate spectacles of blood and gore in the Colosseum, their ancestors were using wildlife resources sustainably. The people in the Delta and Chobe are also the ones who suffer the worst effects of the human-wildlife conflict and when they participated in wide-ranging consultative meetings, expressed vigorous support for the lifting of the hunting ban. One other issue that western animal-rights activists seem oblivious to is that hunting is intertwined with Batswana culture and over centuries, Bushmen communities across the country have been using special and fully-developed hunting-based gestural language.

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