By MBONGENI MGUNI – Mmegi Online
President Mokgweetsi Masisi, currently in the US most likely fending off battalions of animal rights lobbyists, has issued a global invitation to any country willing to adopt some of Botswana’s elephants.
Botswana’s elephant population of about 130,000 and above has not only impacted negatively on biodiversity, but also led to higher human animal conflict. This has taken the form of more frequent damage to crops and infrastructure, as well as more injuries and loss of human life.
Last week Masisi lifted the five-year suspension on elephant hunting, basing the decision on an extensive national consultation and engagement with Africa’s biggest elephant states, who also happen to be Botswana’s neighbours.
In Kasane, at the recent summit for the biggest elephant states, Environment minister, Kitso Mokaila reiterated that he was happy to transfer Botswana’s “problem”.
And Angola has put its hand up.
By some estimates, the formerly war-torn country believes it could accommodate up to 100,000 elephants, which most researchers agree was the number Angola had prior to the outbreak of the war. Angola’s civil war, which broke out shortly after its independence in 1975 and lasted nearly 30 years, saw the collapse of the elephant population and the escalation and entrenchment of poaching, particularly in the wetlands where the pachyderms were largely based.
With landmines, conflict and lawlessness rife, elephants fled that country over the years and are today part of the reason Botswana – a legislated safe haven for the giants – has so many.
Although Angola has been slowly building its elephant population since the end of the war, it presently still has fewer than 10,000.
By comparison, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Namibia have anywhere up to 250, 000, easily the largest concentration of elephants anywhere in the world. Botswana and Zimbabwe jointly account for more than 200,000.
Together the five countries, including Namibia are grouped under the Kavango–Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA TFCA) a 520,000 square kilometre paradise in every sense of the word, boasting both the Okavango Delta and the Victoria Falls, forests, wetlands, some of Africa’s greatest river systems and a natural beauty that is among the world’s wonders.
“In Angola we are saying, especially for Botswana, please return our elephants,” Tamar Ron, a consultant to the Angolan Environment ministry, tells Mmegi in an interview.
“These are Portuguese speaking elephants that moved to Botswana long ago!
“Please help all the Portuguese elephants to come back home because you have too many.”
Ron, a respected biodiversity expert and long-time policy advisor to the Angolan government, says where the fight for resources is heightening human wildlife conflict in Botswana, Angola has plenty for elephants to enjoy sustainably.
Other experts, including Mokaila agree. The vision is of elephants increasingly retracing their routes from overpopulation in Botswana and Zimbabwe to the welcoming arms of Angola, a country rich in lush greenery and the headwaters that feed both the Zambezi and the Okavango Delta.
So what’s the problem?
In a nutshell, the problem is a 20-kilometre wide and 400 kilometre-long stretch of land the elephants need to go through to get from Botswana’s northwest, where they mostly are, to Angola. The Caprivi Strip is a hotbed of elephant killings and general lawlessness to the extent that it has essentially sealed off the migration corridor for elephants from Botswana back to Angola.
The hazards for elephants in the Caprivi Strip, which is also where the borders of four of the KAZA states meet, are best seen in National Geographic’s award winning documentary, Into the Okavango.
In the documentary, when the researchers traverse the Caprivi Strip, they pick up the overpowering scent of putrefying flesh. The documentary next shows carcass after carcass of elephant, in varying states of
decomposition, some clearly fresh.
“Elephants know that it’s dangerous here,” remarks a researcher.
The Caprivi Strip, which was the scene of a bloody secessionist battle some 20 or so years ago, is no safe ground for elephants. During the war, Angola’s southeast region was an UNITA stronghold that was heavily mined and still has thousands of active landmines. Being of some intelligence, elephants naturally migrate away from areas they have encountered threats before.
Ron says this must be the first part of solving the challenge. Another part is resolving the enduring threats in Angola, where even if elephants migrate across the Strip today, they would still find themselves in difficulties.
“We have to work towards opening the corridors between Angola and the rest of the region for the elephants to come back through the Caprivi which is very possible. “The way to do it is to remove the threats. What are the threats?
“We still have landmines which are pushing elephants away and we have also have high poaching.
“Angola is under the attack of international poaching syndicates. “What we need to do is for the five countries of KAZA to prioritise equalising the capacity across all five to fight poaching together because if there are any discrepancies in capacities across them, the syndicates immediately identify the weaknesses and put the pressure more on that.
“The whole idea is to think of corridors, facilitate them, facilitate movement, equalise the anti-poaching and enforcement capacity across the five countries.”Another part of the challenge is to prepare Angola for higher elephant numbers, which includes enabling the community to benefit from elephants, changing land use patterns and restructuring agriculture. “We have to do it properly, with communities and with the thinking that we are not just moving one problem to another country, but we are preparing to mitigate human wildlife conflict through strong engagement with the communities and proper land use planning,” Ron says.
The other KAZA states say they are ready to help.
“We are ready to raise funding for de-mining and opening up of the corridors,” Mokaila told Mmegi at the recent Kasane summit.
“As KAZA we have discussed how to help Angola repopulate and we are committed to raise these funds for capacity building.
“Botswana has already offered wildlife training for rangers there, as well as training in anti-poaching and community-based natural resource management. “The idea, from the other countries, is that we help Angola catch up so that we transfer our problems to her.” Mokaila’s opposite number in Zambia, Tourism minister Charles Banda told Mmegi that Lusaka was ready to help Angola with land use planning.“We want to be more visionary in our planning. They must not make the same mistakes we did and one of the first steps is to make sure they have safety guards for sustainable use of the resource,” he said in Kasane.
Namibia’s Environment minister, Pohamba Shifeta told Mmegi the country’s help to Angola would be in empowering communities.
“A major issue is raising awareness.
“Local communities in Angola must understand elephants and accept them, not see them as a ‘huntable’ asset, but one that can be used for the future.
“We are trying to see how to help them restock and ensure that the range that has been created allows elephants to roam freely.” The political will is on board and for now at least, the nations with the biggest elephant populations are coming up with their own solutions to ease their challenge.