Eighty-seven elephants have been killed close to a famous park in the southern African country of Botswana, conservation group Elephants Without Borders have disclosed. Almost all of the dead animals had their tusks removed suggesting connection to the activities of poachers.
Botswana is home to the largest elephant population in the world, according to the Great Elephant Census, a report conducted by Elephants Without Borders and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. The country holds 37 percent of Africa’s endangered elephant population, but poachers have been breaching its border. According to Dr. Mike Chase from Elephants Without Borders, the incident could have a devastating effect on Botswana’s tourism industry.
“I’m shocked. I’m completely astounded. The scale of elephant poaching is by far the largest I’ve seen or read about anywhere in Africa to date,” he told the BBC. The scientist carrying out the extensive wildlife survey said many of the 87 dead elephants were killed for their tusks just weeks ago, and that five white rhinos have been poached in three months.
“When I compare this to figures and data from the Great Elephant Census, which I conducted in 2015, we are recording double the number of fresh poached elephants than anywhere else in Africa,” he added. That census estimated a third of Africa’s elephants had been killed in the last decade—around 144,000 elephants—from 2007 to 2014, and 60% of Tanzania’s elephants had been lost in five years.
The current deaths are said to have happened weeks back and further in the country close to the protected Okavango Delta wildlife sanctuary. The Okavango Delta is a vast inland river delta in northern Botswana known for its sprawling grassy plains, which gets flood seasonally. Described as Africa’s last Eden, the UNESCO World Heritage site has become a lush animal habitat which attracts tourists from around the world.
Botswana is known for its unforgiving approach to poachers and had largely escaped the elephant losses seen elsewhere due to armed and well-managed anti-poaching units. Despite a lack of fences on the international border, data from tracking collars showed elephants retreating from Angola, Namibia and Zambia and deciding to stay within the boundaries of Botswana thought to be safe.
However, Botswana disarmed its anti-poaching unit in May, one month after President Mokgweetsi Masisi took office. The country previously had a shoot-to-kill policy against poachers.
“The poachers are now turning their guns to Botswana. We have the world’s largest elephant population, and it’s open season for poachers,” Chase told the BBC.
On social media, news of the elephants’ untimely deaths has been met with fierce outrage from citizens and foreign celebrities, including actress and singer Vanessa Williams. Some also alluded to President Trump’s recent decision to lift the U.S. ban on importing tusks and other elephant body parts as hunting trophies.
The first signs of change came two years ago when the BBC flew with Mr Chase close to the Namibian border and he discovered a string of elephant carcasses with their tusks removed for the first time.
“Clearly we need to be doing more to stop the scale of what we are recording on our survey.” the scientist continued. “People did warn us of an impending poaching problem and we thought we were prepared for it,” Chase told BBC.
Botswana’s 2018 Wildlife Aerial Survey is only half-way through and conservationists fear the final figure of poached elephants will be a lot higher. “Fresh carcasses” are those lost within the last three months, but many of those recorded had been killed within the last few weeks.
Conservationists fear the scale of this new poaching problem is being ignored and it is bad for the country’s reputation. “This requires urgent and immediate action by the Botswana government,” said Dr. Chase.
“Our new president must uphold Botswana’s legacy and tackle this problem quickly. Tourism is vitally important for our economy, jobs, as well as our international reputation, which is at stake here as being a safe stronghold for elephants.”
The Okavango Delta wildlife sanctuary, a biodiverse international tourist destination of over 22,000 square kilometers is home to more than 2,000 species of animals and plant life, including elephants, rhinoceroses and the endangered African wild dog. Baby elephants, orphaned by poachers, are now being cared for at a new sanctuary in Botswana