By Dr Pieter Kat
Elephants first. Dead elephants that is
The most recent ‘mysterious’ deaths of at least a dozen elephants falling over dead in the Mombo area of northwestern Botswana, deep in the Okavango Delta. Pre-COVID, a major tourism destination populated with luxury camps. These unexplained deaths follow on from the 350? 400? 700? elephant deaths to the north of Mombo some months ago. Despite claims of this and that cyanobacterial toxin in waterholes, the real reason for those very many deaths has not been satisfactorily explained.
Now a dozen more, reported at the end of January. The Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks indicated they had sent ‘teams’ of veterinarians and DWNP officers to the site to ‘collect samples’ to determine cause of death.
It seems not to have happened. While we in the northern hemisphere struggle to keep warm, Botswana now experiences very warm temperatures. The window of opportunity to collect the crucially required ‘fresh’ samples passed, and whatever can be collected now (unless more fresh carcasses can be discovered) will be useless in any comprehensive postmortem analysis. It’s the same with the original mass deaths of elephants, the critically important samples were not collected. Sure, the Botswana DWNP is restricted by COVID shutdowns and financial constraints. But they could have called on ready and willing NGOs with expertise and operational capabilities to lend assistance, as well as donors within the world public to contribute to expenses. This did not happen, sadly.
The world media might have reported on elephant deaths, but has not yet cottoned on to major rhino poaching mortalities in Botswana.
My information from a great number and diversity of local sources indicates rampant and unrelenting rhino poaching. Around 70 to 80 rhinos were found dead in 2019, scores of rhinos poached in the same Mombo area where elephants are now dropping dead.
Botswana embarked on a ‘dehorning’ effort last February to ‘protect’ against poachers. Botswana has historically not had an easy time with rhinos and poachers. The current rhinos in Botswana result from commercial and exchange deals to ‘bring back’ the species by safari companies and the government. At one time in the late 1990’s, Botswana decided to round up and capture all remaining wild rhinos and place them into the Khama rhino sanctuary near Serowe. Then safari companies bought rhinos from South Africa to release them into their tourism areas of operation.
A well-intentioned man, Map Ives, became the ‘rhino coordinator’ for the Botswana government and the Wilderness Safari company heavily invested in tourism. Map resigned five years ago. Now, within the last few days, five more rhinos killed in the Mombo area. Poached – because whatever remained of their horns after dehorning’ was chopped out and calves killed as well. These poachers seem to be well-settled into the Mombo area and seem to operate with impunity.
I cry for Botswana’s wildlife as very many others will do. Previously a haven for animals and a tourism heaven, I can only hope that Botswana will restore a semblance of stewardship.
Pieter Kat is an internationally acknowledged expert on lions and is regularly consulted by African governments on lion and other conservation issues. He is the Director of LionAid, a UK-based charity working globally to save lions and end the decline of wild lion populations.