Shortly before midnight on Friday night I was torn from my sleep by the repeated crack, crack of a rifle, which sounded only a few hundred metres away from my hotel in Kasane, Botswana.
Kasane is in the north of Botswana, on the Chobe River, close to where Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe meet. The borders here are defined by the Chobe and Zambezi rivers, and the area has a large transient elephant population which moves between the countries at will. As do poachers allegedly. The Botswana Defence Force who assists to protect the wildlife in Chobe National Park, one of the cornerstones of Botswana’s wildlife estate and close to Kasane, will most likely tell you that most of the poachers of Botswana’s elephants are Namibian. Recently two Namibians were shot by the BDF for being suspected poachers and this has caused much anger amongst Namibians. But in Namibia, you will hear that any poachers are Zambian, and in Zambia, the Angolans are named as the poachers in this frontier area.
Increase in elephant poaching
But regardless of who is doing it, incidences of elephant poaching in this part of Botswana seem to be on the increase. At least 19 carcasses of elephants have been found in the Kasane area in Botswana since mid-July, killed for their ivory. And since the beginning of this year, 18 elephant carcasses have been found in the Caprivi Region, the narrow strip of land in Namibia which borders Angola, Botswana and Zambia. This may not seem to be a lot given the 100 000+ elephants said to be in this area, but it is cause for concern if it is not curbed.
In the midst of this gunfire and poaching there are people. As I lay secure in my room, my thoughts ran to the rural communities who had hosted us over the previous few days: communities from Botswana, Zambia and Namibia who have formed community organisations to manage their resources on their demarcated land, and are working at a local level to sustainably manage the resources in their own areas.
On their own initiative, these communities had made contact with their counterparts in the neighbouring countries and had established trans-boundary community forums to promote harmonised natural resource management across borders and to cooperate on issues of mutual interest and concern, such as livestock theft and uncontrolled burning. These forums are also a means to give communities a voice in regional/high level conservation activities, and also to facilitate the sharing of skills in activities such as chilli growing, a method to prevent elephants eating crops, and crafting.
Poaching – a threat to both wildlife and people
These communities face many challenges – limited infrastructure and transport, distance from public services, limited resources to fund their activities, human wildlife conflict, political decisions over which they have often have little control being so far from the centres of power, and in some cases a lack of political will to grant communities real authority over resources. Yet they are committed to looking after their natural resources, in part because these resources provide income and employment opportunities which supplement their existing subsistence livelihood activities, but also in many cases, because of the empowerment and pride engendered in making decisions over their resources and benefits generated.
The increase in demand for illegally sourced ivory is an added threat to their efforts to improve their livelihoods and to maintain their natural resources, compounding these other challenges. Increased poaching also means increased personal risk for those living in these areas. They may be caught in crossfire, or, if fishing at night, be mistaken for poachers. Poaching and illegal wildlife trade is therefore not just a threat to wildlife; it is also a threat to the lives and the livelihoods of rural, and often poor, people.