Unprecedented ‘Poaching Frenzy’ in Botswana Leaves Nearly 100 Elephants Dead

By George Dvorsky on at

In news that can only be described as horrific, at least 90 elephants have been killed in Botswana over the past several weeks, the result of a mass poaching spree that conservationists say is the worst ever recorded in Africa.

The remains of the dead elephants, surveyed from the air by conservation group Elephants Without Borders and members of Botswana’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks, were spotted near the protected Okavango Delta wildlife sanctuary, a popular tourist attraction, the BBC reports. All elephants had their tusks chopped off, and were shot with high calibre rifles near their watering holes. The poachers covered some of the carcasses with branches and bushes in a feeble attempt to disguise their crimes.

Mike Chase of Elephants Without Borders surveys an elephant killed by poachers. (Image: Elephants Without Borders)

Elephants Without Borders has now documented 90 incidents of elephant poaching, along with six poached white rhinos, since its aerial surveys began on 10 July. Mike Chase, the Founding Director of the organisation, said he “has not seen so many dead elephants anywhere else in Africa,” adding that “the varying classification and age of the carcasses is indicative of a poaching frenzy which has been ongoing in the same area for a long time.”

In nearby Zambia and Angola, elephants have been poached to the verge of local extinction, which may explain why poachers have set their sights on Botswana, which is home to the largest population of elephants in all of Africa. The most recent Great Elephant Census estimates that 135,000 of Africa’s 352,000 elephants live in Botswana (though estimates from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) place the total number of elephants living in Africa between 415,000 to 567,000). The IUCN says the population of elephants in Africa has fallen by about 110,000 over the past decade, and that about 30,000 elephants are killed annually for their ivory tusks. That’s nearly four elephants poached in Africa each hour.

Another factor has to do with politics and rule of law. Botswana’s new government, which took over in April, decided to “withdraw military weapons and equipment from the Department of Wildlife and National Parks,” effectively ending the country’s stark “shoot-to-kill” policy against poachers. No doubt, poaching sucks, but killing suspected poachers, even in flagrante delicto, goes against the norms of civilised society and the right to be tried in a court of law. Furthermore, the “shoot-to-kill” policy wasn’t effectively addressing the overarching systemic reasons for the illegal trade, both in Africa and elsewhere.

That said, the new government, led by President Mokgweetsi Masisi, hasn’t fully explained why it decided to disarm its rangers. The disarming of park rangers, however, has likely empowered poachers.

A strong military presence exists within the Okavango Delta region, but as Elephants Without Borders stated in a preliminary report filed in early August, the government of Botswana cannot work alone to put an end to the poaching:

It is incumbent upon all tourism companies to take responsibility to conserve these areas—to start putting their money where their mouths are and invest into protecting what they profit from—Botswana’s natural heritage.

That’s all good, but authorities in Asia—where demand for ivory tusks largely originates—need to do their part as well. Tusks, according to AFP, are currently selling at around $1,000 (£775) per kilo, and China’s trade ban hasn’t stopped traders from selling their illegal wares on the black market using such tools as social media.

Indeed, elephants are being poached for their ivory in Africa, but the solution likely resides with the places these products are being consumed. [BBC, AFP, NYT]