Elephants drink water in the Chobe National Park in Botswana.
Image: AP

In news that can only be described as horrific, the BBC reports that some 90 elephants have been killed in Botswana over the past several weeks, the result of a mass poaching spree that conservationists say is the worst ever recorded in Africa. The government of Botswana is disputing that claim.

The remains of the dead elephants, surveyed from the air by conservation group Elephants Without Borders and members of Botswana’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks, were spotted near the protected Okavango Delta wildlife sanctuary, a popular tourist attraction, the BBC reports. All of the elephants had their tusks chopped off, and were shot with high caliber rifles near their watering holes, per the AFP. The poachers reportedly covered some of the carcasses with branches and bushes in a feeble attempt to disguise their crimes.

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Mike Chase of Elephants Without Borders surveys an elephant killed by poachers.
Image: Elephants Without Borders

Elephants Without Borders has now documented 90 incidents of elephant poaching, along with six poached white rhinos, since its aerial surveys began on July 10. Mike Chase, the Founding Director of the organization, said he “has not seen so many dead elephants anywhere else in Africa,” adding that “the varying classification and age of the carcasses is indicative of a poaching frenzy which has been ongoing in the same area for a long time.”

In nearby Zambia and Angola, elephants have been poached to the verge of local extinction, which may explain why poachers have set their sights on Botswana, which is home to the largest population of elephants in all of Africa. The most recent Great Elephant Census estimates that 135,000 of Africa’s 352,000 elephants live in Botswana (though estimates from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) place the total number of elephants living in Africa between 415,000 to 567,000). The IUCN says the population of elephants in Africa has fallen by about 110,000 over the past decade, and that about 30,000 elephants are killed annually for their ivory tusks. That’s nearly four elephants poached in Africa each hour.

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Another factor has to do with politics and rule of law. Botswana’s new government, which took over in April, decided to “withdraw military weapons and equipment from the Department of Wildlife and National Parks,” effectively ending the country’s stark “shoot-to-kill” policy against poachers. No doubt, poaching sucks, but killing suspected poachers, even in flagrante delicto, goes against the norms of civilized society and the right to be tried in a court of law. Furthermore, the “shoot-to-kill” policy wasn’t effectively addressing the overarching systemic reasons for the illegal trade, both in Africa and elsewhere.

That said, the new government, led by President Mokgweetsi Masisi, hasn’t fully explained why it decided to disarm its rangers. The disarming of park rangers, however, has likely empowered poachers.

A strong military presence exists within the Okavango Delta region, but as Elephants Without Borders stated in a preliminary report filed in early August, the government of Botswana cannot work alone to put an end to the poaching:

It is incumbent upon all tourism companies to take responsibility to conserve these areas—to start putting their money where their mouths are and invest into protecting what they profit from—Botswana’s natural heritage.

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That’s all good, but authorities in Asia—where demand for ivory tusks largely originates—need to do their part as well. Tusks, according to AFP, are currently selling at around $1,000 per kilo (2.2 pounds), and China’s trade ban hasn’t stopped traders from selling their illegal wares on the black market using such tools as social media.

Indeed, elephants are being poached for their ivory in Africa, but the solution likely resides with the places these products are being consumed.

[BBC, AFP, NYT]

Update 9/20: The Guardian reports that Botswana’s government is disputing Elephants Without Borders’ report of a surge in elephant killings in Chobe national park this summer. Subsequent surveys of the park turned up 19 corpses rather than 90—of which only half a dozen appear to have been victims of poaching, per the Guardian. Other conservation groups are suggesting EWB’s report may have been exaggerated, but EWB is standing by its findings.

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Update 9/21: EWB released a statement in response to “many questions and comments” the organization has received regarding the alleged elephant poaching frenzy. The statement reiterates that EWB’s survey recorded an “unusually high number of elephant carcasses,” however the statement does not back up the claim of approximately 90 dead elephants first reported by the BBC. Earther has reached out to EWB for further comment on the matter.

The headline and copy of this article have been updated to reflect the Botswana government’s dispute of the reported ‘poaching frenzy’.