Hoax or Threat: Elephant Poaching in Botswana


Botswana is now home to a third of Africa’s 415,000 remaining elephants. In recent years, the protected wilderness areas in the north of this expansive country have welcomed the large mammals in huge numbers. This is because the government’s strict anti-poaching laws and rejection of the ivory trade, plus huge areas of suitable land.

However, the end of 2018 saw reports of an unprecedented rise in the number of hunted elephant carcasses found in the north of the country. According to conservation group Elephants Without Borders, nearly 100 poached elephant bodies were found in one region during a survey in October 2018. A similar survey in 2014 found zero evidence of illegal elephant hunting.

The Botswanan government, however, denies the uptake in poaching is as big as charities claim. In fact, when Mike Chase (author of the EWB report) released some of his findings before completing his survey, Botswanan president Mokgweetsi Masisi attracted controversy when he called it ‘the biggest hoax of the 21st Century”. So, is elephant poaching really on the rise in Botswana, and can the government do more to help? Let’s take a look at the evidence.

Ivory Towers

BOTSWANA , Gaborone 16 July 2015, Botswana president let Gen. Seretse Khama Ian Khama officially unveils the live size Elephant Sculpture of ivory at the Sir Seretse Khama International Airport in Gaborone on 16 July 2015. The ivories comes from the elephants which died naturally. (PHOTO/MONIRUL BHUIYAN)

Elephants are hunted across Africa for their ivory tusks, which are then exported to Asia and other markets as decorative material or for use in shamanic or occult practices. This is a known, although mostly illegal, practice. Around 40,000 elephants a year are killed across the continent in the manner. Although, that is down on the 1980s, when over half of Africa’s million-plus elephant population was killed off in that single decade.

This led to the worldwide protests, culminating in the Kenyan government burning its entire ivory stockpile in 1989. However, that pushed the value of ivory up as it became rarer. Add to that increased economic growth in China, one of the biggest ivory markets, and the perfect conditions were created to drive an uptake in elephant poaching in the 2010s.

Not in Our Name

Not in Botswana though. For many years, the country has had reputation as a protector of the African Elephant. As a relatively stable country surrounded by often warring or fractured nations, Botswana’s wilderness areas were relatively easy to protect from organised incursion by poachers. The government made trophy hunting illegal in the Chobe River area and assigned an armed military task force to deal with those breaking the law.

Nearly 100 suspected poachers were shot or arrested in just one year of the law’s operation, creating an effective deterrent. As mentioned previously, this combination of factors led to Botswana receiving zero reports of poaching in 2014. However, times change.

Threat & Menace

President Masisi, who took over in early 2018, seems to have a different take on conservation to his predecessor Ian Khama. Mr Masisi wants votes from rural farmers, who have real concerns about elephants encroaching onto their land. The relative safety of Botswanan land for elephants has encouraged them to increase their roaming ranges, meaning they now sometimes come in contact with humans – and often not with a positive outcome. Some Botswanan officials are now calling for the hunting ban to be repealed, and Mr Masisi has disarmed the anti-poaching taskforce.

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