Botswana, long considered a safe haven for elephants in Africa, has “a significant elephant-poaching problem,” according to a conservationist group that carried out an aerial wildlife survey in the country.
Elephants Without Borders said it witnessed a spike in the number of elephant carcasses found in northern Botswana which show “obvious signs” of poaching, according to the final results of the survey, which has been seen by CNN.
Mike Chase, the director and founder of Elephants Without Borders, told CNN halfway through the survey in September that the level of poaching was “unprecedented” after nearly 90 elephant carcasses were found.
Chase now says his full report shows that the “weight of evidence is indisputable and supports our warning that elephants are being killed by poachers at worrisome levels in four poaching hotspots near a world-renowned ‘wildlife sanctuary’ where gangs of poachers are operating.”
The government of Botswana disputed Chase’s findings in a statement, saying it had “concerns over the blending of several different techniques” in the writing and analysis of the report.
Thato Raphaka, permanent secretary of the country’s Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism, said that the report by Elephants Without Borders actually showed the elephant population in Botswana had remained stable since 2014, the last time a similar survey was conducted.
Raphaka said the report verified only a portion of dead elephants observed during the aerial survey.
He added: “The authors report that only 33 out of a total 128 suspected poaching events were actually confirmed by ground verification.”
But Chase, the lead author of the report, told CNN that Elephants Without Borders confirmed 94 freshly poached carcasses using helicopters and found 157 in total.
Chase puts the number of poached elephants in the past year at more than 400, but says they were unable to verify all these cases due to a lack of time and resources.
The government, however, admits it was “under no illusion that poaching remains a threat” to its elephant population, which is the largest in Africa.
Botswana is home to an estimated 130,000 elephants and accounts for about a third of the total African population.
It is an obvious target for poachers and the country has put measures in place to deter poaching, including a hunting ban imposed by former President Ian Khama in 2014.
But the country is expected to lift the ban and allow the canning of elephant meat as pet food, after a recommendation from Cabinet ministers.
“I can promise you and the nation that we will consider it. A white paper will follow and it will be shared with the public,” President Mokgweetsi Masisi, who took office last year, told the BBC last week after receiving a report from the committee tasked with evaluating the ban.
Chase says a hunting quota will not have a major effect on the elephant population of Botswana but would adversely affect the country’s global reputation as a safe haven for the animals.
“I don’t – for one second – think that President Masisi or the government of Botswana will allow elephant culling in Botswana and to can elephant meat for pet’s food,” Chase said of last week’s proposal by Cabinet ministers.
“Our communities must begin to benefit directly from our rich wildlife heritage – sustainable hunting, some argue, is the solution to fostering an ethos of long-term conservation among communities who live with these intimidating five-ton animals.”