Thursday, July 2, 2020

Bad news from Botswana

Michael - Thursday

Okavango delta in flood
Botswana is one of our favorite countries, so it’s sad to see all the issues they're grappling with at the moment. The tourist industry is devastated by the measures put in place to try to control the Covid 19 outbreak. Almost all tourism income (and associated jobs) comes from foreign tourists who can afford the upmarket prices. Quick, firm, action seemed to have nipped the virus in the bud, and the country was slowly opening up, when a sudden outbreak of cases last month forced the capital, Gaborone, back into strict lockdown. Botswana's confirmed cases are only in the hundreds with just a handful of deaths and they want to keep it that way, so they're jumping on any outbreak hard. Meanwhile, the economy is battling on almost all fronts.

Sad looking but safe
Unfortunately, rhino poachers don’t worry about laws or Covid. They’ve been driven towards Botswana by the dramatic changes that have taken place in South Africa over the last twelve months. 

Here, the national parks and private game reserves fought with everything they had to stop the poaching and illegal rhino horn trade. Although they managed to at least contain the poaching, it became clear that the anti-poaching teams were winning some battles but would eventually lose the war. It’s a complex issue that we explored through the eyes of investigative journalist Crystal Nguyen in Shoot the Bastards (Dead of Night outside north America) and she came to the conclusion that no wild rhino would be safe as long as it had a horn. That’s become pretty widely accepted now, and the game reserves have embarked on a massive program to dehorn rhinos. It’s expensive and has to be repeated every few years, but it’s working. So the poachers go further afield.

Illustration for Shoot to Kill,
our Kubu story on poaching in Botswana
Included in Detective Kubu Investigates 2
Artwork by Dylan Coleman

Okavango black rhino
Photo courtesy of Save the Rhino
The new target is Botswana’s wilderness gem – the Okavango Delta. The irony is that rare black rhinos were reintroduced there from more vulnerable parts of southern Africa to try to protect them. The area is remote, patrolled by game guides for the tourist camps as well as the national park wardens, and Botswana’s shoot-to-kill policy scared off even the most hardened poachers. At least as long as easier targets were available elsewhere. But now things have changed. South Africa has slender pickings with all the dehorning, and Covid has driven the tourists out of the Okavango and much of the patrolling with them. Also, the area – after a drought year – has been flooded making it impossible to traverse. There have been fifty poaching deaths already. The wildlife authorities are scrambling to find the black rhinos before the poachers do and move them to safety. Who knows where that is?

Then there are the elephants. There has been a sudden die off of elephants in northern Botswana - their major strong hold left in Africa. Four hundred have been found, many collapsed forward as if they were struck down by a sudden mortal blow. But it isn't that. They are not poached - poachers have been known to poison waterholes to subsequently chop off the tusks at leisure, but these have their tusks intact, and there is no sign of dead scavengers which usually indicate such an attack. Anthrax is the fear, but the authorities think not. Then again it may be something else, maybe something new and deadly. I hope they are handling the samples with extreme care.

As though all this wasn't enough, Botswana is engaged in a spat with South Africa that has crashed relations to the lowest level since South African freedom in 1994. The close relationship between President Mokgweetsi Masisi and his predecessor President Ian Khama unraveled almost immediately Masisi took over and started doing things his way. Eventually Khama left the ruling party and led the opposition in a failed attempt to unseat Masisi at the last election.

Bridgett Motsepe protests
Now Masisi has claimed that a coup was planned with billions of dollars of laundered money hidden in two South African banks. His target is Bridgette Motsepe who is supposedly a cosignatory on the accounts. The banks say the accounts don’t exist, and she denies everything. She also happens to be the South African president’s sister-in-law. A meeting between the two presidents has just been cancelled, and the South African government is outraged that the Botswana government has chosen Gerrie Nel (“The Pitbull”) to pursue the lady in question. 

The Pitbull
The Pitbull has a big reputation from his successful prosecution and successful appeal against the initial lenient sentence of Paralympic champion Oscar Pistorius for the murder of Reeva Steenkamp. Since then he's left the public service and now heads up the private prosecutions unit of Afriforum, a right wing group that represents the (mainly white) farmers who claim they're being systematically targeted by black terrorists who aim to drive them from their land – a conspiracy that the SA authorities says doesn't exist. Ominously, the South African minister of State Security has been dispatched to protest to President Masisi. Botswana claims that it did submit a request for official assistance from the SA authorities, but “this request has subsequently conveniently vanished.” 

There may be a book in this…

Meanwhile, Stan and I are keen to get to Botswana for research on the book we’re currently writing. At this rate, by the time the Covid tide recedes, South Africans won’t be welcome there anymore!


  1. Oh, Michael, how VERY sad on all counts. You know that the Okavango Delta is on of my favorite places on earth, and Botswana was where I first fell in love with the African wilderness. BOOHOO!

  2. That's just terrible, amongst many other non medical terrible side effects of the virus.

    I do empathize with the travel for research description- I have delivered a first draft with bits in it that say "will check this out when in Glasgow", "I suspect this is now a one way street" and "Must check this CCTV.'

  3. Yes, the moral of the story is that this is an ill wind indeed...

  4. This line I found chilling: "Then again it may be something else, maybe something new and deadly. I hope they are handling the samples with extreme care." For those who believe that each novel microbe finding a pathway, eases the way for the next, what's happened to the elephants has to be beyond frightening.

    1. The government is also concerned about this. Issue is, they say it's not anthrax (which, frankly, is bad enough and they had a small outbreak last yer). So, then, what is it???

  5. I am so sorry to hear all this trouble. Botswana had seemed to be one of the more stable governments, and got keen on protecting its wildlife - and now this. Saddening and worrisome.

    1. Yes, it is sad. I think the government is still trying hard, but we all know how tough everything is at the moment...

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