June, 2020

Elephants Without Borders

Press secretary at Animat Habitat

Botswana has the largest number of savannah elephants in Africa today. While most African elephant populations have decreased due to poaching, urban expansion and landscape fragmentation, the elephant population in an around 115,000 square kilometers range in northern Botswana has remained stable. [1]

Botswana is now home to around 130,000 elephant. This is more than 33 percent of the current savanna elephant population. That is in sharp contrast to less than three percent of the African savanna elephants living in Botswana fifty years ago. Plummeting elephant populations elsewhere and the safety provided by Botswana has attracted a steady migration from neighboring countries, where expanding rural communities and rising poaching levels are putting regional elephants under increased pressure and stress.

Once upon a time… in Botswana.

The recent history of elephants in Botswana has taken on a greater significance for the future of elephants in Africa.

History: Making a safe haven. [2]

In his chapter, ‘Making a safe haven’, in a book that he co-authored with Don Pinnock, The Last Elephants (2019), Colin Bell tells a history of elephants in Botswana:

“In the decades leading up to the 1980s, […] security was non-existent along Botswana's porous, unfenced borders and in the country's wilderness, poachers had free reign. Elephants in those days were jittery, reclusive and most often very aggressive. The 1980s ushered in escalating poaching levels, resulting in even angrier elephants.”

“But the situation was turned around in the early 1990s when, as a result of the carnage, CITES up-listed all of Africa's elephants to Appendix I, creating a worldwide ban on ivory trading. This embargo ushered in the ‘golden years’ for elephants. Demand for ivory was largely eliminated and syndicates that fueled poaching moved to more lucrative products and activities. Elephant populations across Africa stabilised and began increasing for the first time in many decades. During this time Botswana's elephants began to relax as they learnt that people in vehicles no longer posed a danger.”

“However, the resumption of elephant hunting […] in 1996 and the downgrading Botswana's elephants by CITES to Appendix II change much of that. Regulated international commercial trade in ivory was now legal. Furthermore, hundreds of elephant-hunting licenses were issues annually to Botswanan hunting companies. [After] the first bullet was fired at the start of that hunting season[,] etiquette around elephants suddenly had to be much more circumspect.”

“Then, in September 2013, Botswana made the boldest move yet, banning all hunting on state lands and game reserves. Elephants were largely safe again and have calmed down progressively ever since.”

“Years of breathtaking […] elephant sightings, has helped enhanced Botswana's tourist reputation, driving up demand while creating even more jobs in the rural areas. The wildlife and tourism sector is now the second-biggest contributor to the Botswana economy, after diamonds.”

“The core of Botswana's safari industry is based around its vast, pristine wilderness areas and its magnificent elephants.”

Close history: Making a safe haven. [2]

Botswana has become a refuge for elephants in a time of crisis.

Elephants clearly have a cognitive ability to understand where they are threatened and where they are safe. In this case they're seeking refuge and sanctuary in Botswana where they are well protected. — Michael Chase (PhD), director and founder of Elephants Without Borders


Kavango-Zambezi [kavangozambezi.org]

Kavango-Zambezi

The elephant population in northern Botswana forms part of a continuous elephant population within southern Africa, as individuals move between bordering countries: Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia and until recently, through to Angola. [2] These countries comprise the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA), one of the largest conservation areas in the world. Now, there is an increased urgency for those neighboring countries to open protected corridors so herds can return to their traditional ranges.

The reality is that elephants share the landscape with an ever-increasing human population. The result is more frequent incidents of human-elephant conflict. This conflict reflects competition not only for resources such as water and vegetation, but also for space, especially as an estimated 78 percent of the elephant range occurs outside of national parks. [2]

Elephant movements in (and out of) northern Botswana are long-range, temporally complicated, seasonally variable, and closely linked with rainfall. [3]

Elephants numbers in Botswana are in sharp contrast with numbers in Angola, which has fewer than 4,000 elephants in a fertile country almost double the size of Botswana. The contrast is similar with Zambia, which has only around 22,000 elephants. Yet both Zambia and Angola have vast tracks of traditional elephant habitat lying dormant and underutilized. This unbalance holds an answer to any question of whether or not Botswana can sustain its current elephant population.

Kavango-Zambezi [kavangozambezi.org]

This is where the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area initiative comes into the picture. KAZA is an agreement signed by Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, binding these countries to create a transfrontier park straddling their national borders and covering the size of roughly France or Texas. The center of KAZA is at the confluence of the Chobe and Zambezi rivers, where the borders of Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe meet. Chobe National Park, Hwange National Park, the Okavango Delta and Victoria Falls are all contained within KAZA. The vision: ‘to establish a world-class transfrontier conservation and tourism destination in the Okavango and Zambezi river basin regions […] within the context of sustainable development.’ The crux will be whether KAZA stakeholders have the political will to open up ancient elephant corridors to connect Botswana's elephants to those well-stocked food pantries waiting for them to the north in Nambia, Zambia and Angola. If these corridors can be recreated, it will be a win-win situation for all member countries and their rural communities.

The next step involves a closer look at Elephant Conservation in Caprivi.

Elephants are an umbrella species. They're ambassadors for conservation, helping to locate and connect key conservation areas in Africa's largest wilderness area. — Kelly Landen, The Last Elephants (2019) ‘Botswana's sanctuary’ p. 225.

© Elephants Without Borders [elephantswithoutborders.org]

Botswana Without Borders

By 2007, Michael Chase and Kelly Landen had co-founded Elephants Without Borders (EWB) and managed nearly fifty fitted satellite collars on elephants in northern Botswana, Namibia and Zambia. In 2007, this was the largest telemetry study of elephants. These telemetry studies, coupled with population assessments and trends brought to light in the aerial surveys undertaken by EWB, were used to delineate the boundaries of the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area — the agreement under which Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Angola formally acknowledged that wildlife conservation transcended national boundaries.

By 2011, an aerial survey commissioned by the Botswana department of wildlife and national parks, conceptualized and lead by Michael Chase and Kelly Landen of Elephants Without Borders, “[made evident] a catastrophic loss of wildlife,” according to Chase, eleven species were in serious decline in the delta. The declines were a result of a complex mix of local causes: human encroachment, game fences and poaching, fires and drought and so on. Elephants, however, were bucking the trend. Chase had an explanation:

“We found the number of elephants in northern Botswana has stabilised at about 130,000. One reason is that they're returning to Angola. The country is remembered by a generation of elephants still alive today. They recognise the pathways to food and water and the timing of seasons. They remember where the hunters are. In a sense, they're Angolan refugees returning home.”

“The bulls are the scouts, leaving the vicinity of Botswana's conservation areas on exploration journeys. They move from the delta up the Kwando River, streak across the Caprivi at night and into Angola. They find it's pristine, with few people. There are thought to be millions of landmines in south-east Angola. I don't know how they avoid them – probably by smell – but they do. Then they return and fetch the family herds. […] They look for food and water, but they're also searching for peaceful sanctuaries far from humans.”

The story of Botswana's elephant population has been a bright spot in a sometimes bleak landscape. Outside of Botswana, the African elephant is in crisis. Habitat loss, competition for resources, civil unrest, terrorism, human-wildlife conflict and escalated rates of poaching for ivory threaten their very existence. — Kelly Landen, program manager and co-founder of Elephants Without Borders

© Elephants Without Borders [elephantswithoutborders.org]

Botswana-based Elephants Without Borders went on to lead a ground-breaking initiative to survey elephants and animals across Africa. The results of the Great Elephant Census (GEC) painted a bleak picture of the pan-African situation in 2014: fewer than 400,000 savanna elephants survived in Africa. During the previous seven years, ivory poaching had reduced elephant populations across the continent by 30 percent. 144,000 individual elephants. Poaching, human-elephant conflict, climate change and habitat loss are so intense that elephant populations are shrinking by eight percent each year, continent-wide. 28,000 elephants a year. 76 elephants a day. One elephant every 20 minutes. So it goes.

Today… in Botswana

Once again from his chapter on Botswana in The Last Elephants, ‘Making a safe haven’, Colin Bell sets the stage for the state of elephants in Botswana today:

“[…] with elephant populations in East Africa now at less than fifteen percent of what they were, the syndicates are switching their attention southwards. Botswana's long, unmanned, unfenced border with Namibia and Zimbabwe (with Zambia close by) is difficult to monitor. Poaching is rising despite the country's stringent anti-poaching laws.”

History: Postscript. [2]

Don Pinnock added a postscript to that chapter on Botswana.

“President Ian Khama reached the end of his two terms as head of state in March 2018 and handed over the presidential reins to his vice-president, expecting his handpicked successor to continue with his policies. President Mokgweetsi EK Masisi is now firmly in charge of the country and has surprised the Khamas (and just about everyone) by rapidly reversing many of the previous administration's revered wildlife policies and oversights.”

“While Khama's anti-hunting policies created a photo-safari boom, one of his biggest mistakes was not to fill the voids created when he banned hunting at the end of the 2013 safari season. For some unknown reason, most of those ex-hunting concessions have been lying dormant ever since, even though offers were made by photo-safari companies to lease many of these areas.”

“Communities that received meat and cash from hunting were left with empty stomachs and drained bank balances. Furthermore, a number of rural Okavango communities had the revenues they earned channeled away from them into the new Land Bank that was set up and controlled by central government. These communities are understandably discontented at their losses and in an election season their voices get heard.”

“There has also been little clear policy direction on how communities can effectively deal with roving elephants that destroy crops and harass – even kill – people. These incidents are reported in the press and reach the ears of politicians and the pro-hunting lobby, which has been relentlessly exploiting them to persuade the Botswana government to reverse the ban on sport hunting.”

Close history: Postscript. [2]

In a twist of fate in 2018, an interim president of Botswana decided to lift a five-year ban on hunting elephants and so on.

The Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) was split when former president Ian Khama opposed his appointed successor and acting president, Mokgweetsi Masisi, for departing party values. Despite Khama coming out of political retirement to unite the opposition parties, the BDP was re-elected in 2019. The BDP has governed ever since Botswana's independence in 1966.

The decision to lift the ban on hunting elephants was considered popular among rural voters. Today in Botswana, there is indeed a large and stable population of elephants living on the fringe of more and more farmland. Don Pinnock considers the motives for a sudden shift in wildlife policy:

“Questions being asked are whether President Masisi's wildlife policy changes are out of genuine concern for the well-being of rural communities and elephants, out of embarrassment at the unanticipated surge in poaching under his watch – or simply to consolidate votes. It is not clear whether he (or his advisors) fully realise that the high regard in which Botswana is currently held by the international safari tourist market could be irreparably damaged by opening sport hunting of elephants.”

The real solution is to allow these elephants safe passage to past, now underutilized home ranges in Angola, Zambia and Zimbabwe, and safe passage back to Botswana with the change of season. The solution is to protect the wild places in the Kavango-Zambezi area for elephants. This solution calls for a reconsidered land management plan in Caprivi. This solution requires the recreation and preservation of wildlife corridors across Botswana's northern border and throughout managed farmland and so on. This solution has the potential to spark a tourism industry that can benefit local communities with revenue and employment in all five KAZA countries. Today, the future of elephants in Botswana is once again up for debate and this time there is farther reaching implication for the future of elephants in Africa.

We recognize the data collected by EWB as a fundamental support structure for elephant conservation in Botswana and across the continent. Animat Habitat has named Elephants Without Borders as an official selection to receive a percentage of revenue from scene one: White Elephant. This is part of our mission to support wildlife conservation projects on the ground (and in the air) in Africa.

For the latest on elephants in Botswana, we look to Elephants Without Borders.

You can also donate directly to support studies by EWB: elephantswithoutborders.org.

For elephants to survive, we need to identify safe corridors, linkages between areas, networks, dispersal areas, transfrontier parks. There's not much time left. Their future is in our hands. We have to get it right and do it now, while we still have the opportunity. — Michael Chase (PhD), director and founder of Elephants Without Borders

1 Adams, T.A., Chase, M.J., Attard, A., Leggett, K. A preliminary study of stakeholders’ opinions and perceptions of elephants and elephant management in Botswana. Pachyderm, No.58 2017. Download PDF

2 Bell, C., Pinnock, D. The Last Elephants (2019) ‘Making a safe haven’, p. 211-221. Smithsonian Books.

3 Cushman, S.A., Chase, M.J., and Griffin, C. Elephants in space and time. Oikos, 109:331-341. 2005. Download PDF

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