COVID-19 increases the pressure: Botswana’s Rhino-Poaching Crisis


Since 2014, rhino poaching has been increasing in Botswana, a country once considered dangerous for poachers. Factionalism within the government now appears to be behind this, and today COVID-19 is making it worse. Keith Somerville updates us on the crisis. 

Any thought that the coronavirus outbreak and supposed clampdowns on illegal wildlife trade and markets in China and other East Asian countries will cut demand for rhino horn is misplaced. Chinese purveyors are now selling rhino horn-based medicines specifically to treat the virus—and reportedly some Chinese health officials have even recommended them.

One result of this is that there will be no letup in Botswana’s struggle to cope with a wave of rhino poaching in and around the Okavango Delta, the country’s most important wildlife habitat and most lucrative tourist destination. In the past 11 months, at least 46 rhinos (mainly white rhino, but some black as well) have been killed by poachers. It is impossible to give a precise figure as some carcasses likely have not been found.

People are dying, too. On March 11, the country’s main newspaper reported that a BDF—Botswana Defense Force—soldier and a poacher had been killed in a gunfight on Chief’s Island, the center of the tourist and wildlife zone in the Delta’s Moremi Game Reserve. The report added that 11 poachers were killed in clashes with the BDF in 2019.

Four days later, five suspected poachers escaped after an exchange of fire with a BDF patrol in the Shaile area of Chobe National Park. This led to recriminations between the BDF, the national police and wildlife officials.

Strains & accusations

The BDF Director for Protocol and Public Affairs, Col. Tebo Dikole, fiercely criticized the police for sharing with the media details of this latest clash, an indication of the strain between agencies involved in combating poachers. According to conservation workers, such tensions are seriously reducing Botswana’s anti-poaching capability as some law-enforcement officers are suspicious of their counterparts elsewhere and there is speculation that poachers may be getting inside information and perhaps even cooperation.

There is also speculation about the possibility of direct involvement in poaching by intelligence or military personnel. Maj. Gen. Gaolatlhe Galebotswe, a former BDF commander, told Africa Sustainable Conservation News that the problem in dealing with sophisticated criminal gangs was not a lack of weapons for the DWNP’s (Dept. of Wildlife and National Parks) Anti-Poaching Unit, but an intelligence service that served “individual interests.”  (Botswana’s President, Mokgweetsi Masisi, sacked the head of intelligence of his predecessor, Ian Khama, soon after assuming the presidency in April 2018. The official, Isaac Kgosi, has since been charged with corruption.)

The story also reported that the BDF denied that recent rhino-poaching was an “inside job” involving the Special Forces Unit popularly known as the commandos—allegedly working “under protest” because they did not get the salary increases that certain other members of the armed forces received in 2019.

Conservation specialists in Botswana also have told me of factional struggles between Khama loyalists still in the DWNP and Pres. Masisi’s appointees, which reportedly are contributing to the poaching crisis and to the lack of cooperation between the BDF and the national police. This was not the case before January 2014, when then President Khama suspended hunting; until then, Botswana’s anti-poaching operations were regarded as highly effective.

The Botswana Defence Forces and the Dept. of Wildlife and National Parks both operate armed anti-poaching patrols. Rhino Conservation Botswana photo

Masisi vs. the Khamas

Given its policy of shooting suspected poachers on sight, arming the wildlife department’s APU, Anti-Poaching Unit, had been a controversial issue before Mr. Masisi came to power. As I reported in CFL’s April issue, this had led to the killing of dozens of Zambian, Namibian and Zimbabwean citizens in northern Botswana, where they were suspected of poaching, and a significant souring of relations with those countries.

On taking office, in April 2018, President Masisi immediately moved to take away the APU’s military weapons. This was bitterly opposed by both Ian Khama and his brother Tshekedi, who—despite his fierce opposition to the new leadership’s pro-hunting conservation policies—remained Environment Minister during the early months of the Masisi Administration. In March 2020, Tshekedi Khama said that the APU should remain fully armed: “The purchasing and carrying of guns by wildlife officers is legal,” he said, and demanded that the government return their guns in order to fight poachers. “Disarming wildlife officers is political,” he added. Khama ignored the fact that the APU is still armed, but with the semi-automatic weapons they had traditionally carried instead of military-issue, full-automatic assault rifles.

During the previous administration, the two Khama brothers had completely changed Botswana’s conservation policies. They instituted a moratorium on commercial and trophy hunting, which de facto broke the social contract between rural communities, the DWNP and the BDF that had ensured community support for anti-poaching. The Khamas ardently opposed hunting, arguing that Botswana’s conservation policy should rely solely on income from high-priced tourism, not safari hunting.

Ian Khama has lucrative investments in luxury tourism companies such as Wilderness Safaris, a venture that started in Botswana in 1983 and was at the heart of rhino relocation programs before the current poaching crisis.

According to Botswana wildlife officials and researchers with the Kalahari Conservation Society, who first spoke with me about this in 2015, a year after hunting was stopped, rural communities were no longer reporting poachers because of the substantial income (from selling their hunting quotas) that they’d lost due to the moratorium. Instead, some community members were now reportedly guiding Zambian poaching gangs and helping to smuggle poached ivory and other wildlife products out of Botswana. I saw evidence of this in 2015 in a former hunting concession on the Linyanti River along the Namibian border. I encountered Batswana fishermen illegally in the game reserve and found footprints and drag marks where elephant tusks had been skidded down to the river to be loaded onto a boat.

President Khama’s anti-hunting policy not only impoverished rural communities, it also aggravated human-wildlife conflict. At the request of Members of Parliament and after a nationwide consultation, his successor, President Masisi, reinstated legal hunting with mechanisms to ensure that local communities would again share in the substantial income from hunting and thus work to protect “their” game. Hunting is now legal in Botswana again and a limited quota of elephant permits have been auctioned off, but hunting has been halted by coronavirus travel restrictions.


Figures provided by African Wildlife Foundation’s Save the Rhino program.


Poorly planned rhino relocation

In the late 1980s, demand for rhino horn, then largely coming from the Arabian Peninsula, led to a wave of poaching across Africa. This hit Botswana particularly hard. By the time the BDF was deployed, in 1987, it was too late.

This was the second time that Botswana’s rhinos had been brought to the brink of extinction. Unrestricted shooting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had produced the same result and by 1970 only a few black rhino and probably no white rhino could still be found. Botswana’s rhinos, however, managed to recover through the introduction of 156 white rhinos from South Africa in 1980. But most of these were poached in the following decade.

When I made a radio documentary on wildlife conservation in Botswana for the BBC World Service, in 1993, I was told there were fewer than 30 rhinos left in northern Botswana. A year earlier, the Khama Rhino Sanctuary had been established near Serowe, in east-central Botswana, to try to save the country’s few remaining rhinos. When I visited the new sanctuary, six white rhinos had already been transferred there from Chobe National Park; a few more were shipped in from Pilanesberg National Park in South Africa. The plan, I was told, was to breed these animals in the sanctuary until they could be released in Moremi and Chobe. There was a BDF camp nearby to provide protection.


Southern white rhino in Botswana. Author’s photo

Erick Verreynnea wildlife vet and coordinator of the Research and Veterinary Working Group in Botswana, writes that at the end of the 1990s the few remaining wild rhinos in northern Botswana were increasing in numbers, as poaching was being contained. These animals were supplemented with the relocation, in 2003, of 33 white and six black rhinos from Zimbabwe and South Africa into Wilderness Safari’s Mombo Reserve in the Okavango Delta. Some of these animals dispersed out of the area; one was poached in Botswana’s Nxai Pan National Park, south of the Delta.

After 2009, there was massive and sustained growth in poaching, notably in South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe—likely due to the South African ban on the rhino-horn trade that year coupled with rising demand and prices in China and Vietnam. Between 2013 and 2017, rhino poaching increased almost out of control across Southern Africa.

In 2015, Rhinos Without Borders, a South African NGO, received permission from the Botswana government—despite concern within its own DWNP—to bring 87 white rhino from South Africa to the Okavango Delta. This was deemed more secure than keeping them in Kruger National Park and other South African reserves, where they were only attracting poaching gangs.


Relocating rhinos in Botswana. Rhino Conservation Botswana Photo

Also in 2015, Wilderness Safaris brought a significant number of black rhinos to Mombo, in the Okavango Delta’s Moremi Game Reserve, from South Africa and Zimbabwe. The Botswana government supported and assisted this because of Ian Khama’s investment in Wilderness Safaris and at the urging of Dereck and Beverly Joubert, wildlife filmmakers close to Khama, to improve tourist potential. An NGO called Rhino Conservation Botswana was established to monitor these relocated rhinos.

All this happened amid Southern Africa’s rhino-poaching crisis and as elephant poaching also was increasing across Botswana. According to Amos Ramokati, the regional wildlife officer for the DWNP, in Maun, and Michael Flyman, the DWNP’s wildlife census head, this followed the 2014 hunting suspension, when there was an increase in the number of local people assisting poachers.

These imported rhinos soon became targets for poachers infiltrating the Delta. By then, rhino horn was fetching $60,000 or more per kilo, nearly twice the price of elephant ivory, and South Africa and Namibia were gradually succeeding in reducing poaching in their national parks. The result was that Botswana increasingly became the focus of poaching gangs, which were taking advantage of the hunting ban and then the factionalism among conservation and law-enforcement agencies that followed Mr. Masisi’s ascendance to the presidency and his reinstatement of hunting. According to a report in Gaborone’s Sunday Standard in January, “at least five groups of international poachers [are] now permanently stationed inside Mombo.”

What next?

In 2018, conservationists estimated that 250 rhinos were roaming northern Botswana. Now, perhaps no more than 195 white rhinos and possibly six black rhinos exist in the Okavango reserves. These are targeted by Zambian gangs that enter Botswana through the former hunting concession areas called NG11 and NG12 on the Namibian border. They are joined by local trackers and poachers from the Gudigwa district, north of the Moremi Reserve. One source told me that the district houses former members of South Africa’s 32 Battalion, “the Terrible Ones,” who were stationed in far northern Namibia in the 1980s and fought in Angola’s civil war. At the time, there was widespread rhino and elephant poaching by the South Africans and the UNITA rebels.

The BDF and the DWNP’s Anti-Poaching Unit already must patrol huge areas of Botswana against increased elephant poaching; protecting the country’s rhinos in the wilderness of the Delta would be hugely difficult even if perfect cooperation existed between the army, the wildlife department and the police. When there are rivalries or conflict, the task becomes almost impossible, as is evident today.

Meanwhile, in South Africa, the number of rhino poached from Kruger Park and other reserves has been reduced. But no rhino census has been released since 2017, so this reduction may not be due to better security alone, but also because there may simply be far fewer rhino to poach. Or the remaining rhinos are concentrated in areas that are easier to police. Xolani Funda, Kruger’s Chief Ranger, told me in September 2016 that the establishment of an “intensive protection zone” in the center and south of the 19,485 square-kilometre (4.815 million acres) park has reduced the number of rhino killings.

Erick Verreynne argued much the same in his perceptive analysis published in January in South Africa’s Daily Maverick. What needs to change first is the risk to poachers,” he wrote, which can only be achieved by concentrating the rhino population in smaller areas where security can be focused. This has been successful in the private and community-owned rhino populations of southern Botswana, he noted, where “the other half of Botswana’s rhinos are looked after with assistance of the BDF in sufficiently sized units as semi-wild populations. Only five rhinos were lost to poaching in 2018 in these populations and none in 2019.”

This parallels a view I have argued from analysis of the successes in protecting rhinos in Namibia’s communal conservancies—that if you allow local communities to benefit as custodians of the rhinos, you remove the perception that rhinos are worth more dead than alive. This is what happens if a local community loses the sense of ownership and receives no income or other benefit from the presence of such an animal. At that point, only safari companies can cash in, by proudly announcing that they have the “Big Five.” Forget the communities and you can, over time, forget the rhino—and the elephant, lion, leopard and buffalo.

Prof. Keith Somerville is a member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation at the University of Kent, a Fellow of the Zoological Society of London and a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. A version of this article was originally published by Global Geneva and is re-published here with permission.

Banner image: Black rhino and calf on community conservancy in Namibia. Author’s photo