Update, Sept. 13: The bottom of this article has been updated with a statement from the Botswana government.
At least 87
elephants were killed for their tusks near the Okavango Delta wildlife sanctuary in Botswana—the largest scale of poaching deaths ever seen in Africa, according to conservation nonprofit Elephants Without Borders.
They “discovered the alarming rate while flying the Botswana government aerial [elephant] census,” the organization
said in a Facebook post.
The carcasses were found during aerial surveys over the past three months but many of the animals were killed in just the last few weeks.
“I’m shocked, I’m completely astounded,” Mike Chase, the director and founder of Elephants Without Borders, told
BBC News. “The scale of elephant poaching is by far the largest I’ve seen or read about anywhere in Africa to date.”
— BBC News (World) (@BBCWorld) September 3, 2018
Botswana is known to have the largest elephant population on the African continent and is considered a haven for the pachyderms. The government estimates the county has around 230,000 elephants, but conservationists say the number is closer to 130,000.
The country previously had a controversial “shoot-to-kill” policy to deter poachers but the new president Mokgweetsi Masisi disarmed the anti-poaching unit in May soon after taking office as part of larger efforts to withdraw military weapons and equipment from the Department of Wildlife and National Parks.
Chase said the disarmament of the anti-poaching unit will encourage more elephant kills.
“The poachers are now turning their guns to Botswana. We have the world’s largest elephant population, and it’s open season for poachers,” he told BBC News.
The findings of the 2016
Great Elephant Census, an aerial survey of African savannah elephants by Elephants Without Borders and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, showed the animals’ population decreased by at least 30 percent to 144,000 individuals from 2007 to 2014. Their decline of 8 percent per year is primarily due to poaching, the report says.
“While we had elephant poaching in the country before this year, it certainly wasn’t of the magnitude that we’re seeing now. It’s completely unprecedented,” Chase told CNN.
The Botswana government issued a statement Sept. 4 calling Elephants Without Borders’ announcement “false and misleading,” The Washington Post reported.
The statement said that Elephants Without Borders only reported 53 carcasses during July and August, and that a verification mission had found that most had not been poached, but had either died of natural causes or been killed as retaliation for conflicts with humans.
The government statement also denied that disarming the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) had anything to do with any poaching increase.
“It should be noted that the Government of Botswana has from the 1980’s directed all security agencies to commit resources towards anti-poaching, a practice that continues to this date. Therefore the withdrawal of weapons from DWNP has not created any vacuum in anti-poaching operations as the anti-poaching unit in DWNP continues to play a pivotal role in combating wildlife crime through other strategic interventions,” the statement said.
Chase, however, told National Geographic that the 87 number was correct. He said there was a GPS location and multiple witnesses for each carcass and that voice recordings from the surveillance flights would also confirm his statement.
“I am an objective scientist, with no political agenda. I am sad that our government has responded in this way,” he told National Geographic.
Environment and Tourism Minister Tshekedi Khama told The Associated Press Monday, Sept. 10, that Botswana was investigating the alleged deaths and would report to the government Wednesday.
On Sept. 12, the Botswana government posted another statement suggesting that Elephants Without Borders’ decision to go public with its findings was motivated in part by the group’s opposition to the fact that the Botswana parliament voted in June to recommend that the government reconsider its ban on hunting elephants.
— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch) March 16, 2018