Conservation news

87 elephants found dead in Botswana, one of last safe havens for the species

African elephants in Botswana. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Poachers have killed at least 87 elephants in recent months in Botswana, according to the conservation nonprofit Elephants Without Borders, which has been conducting an aerial survey of the animals. The elephant carcasses, all with their tusks hacked off, were spotted around the Okavango Delta, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, within Botswana’s Ngamiland district, the organization said on its Facebook page.

Michael Chase, director of Elephants Without Borders, told Kimon de Greef of the New York Times that he had counted 48 dead African elephants (Loxodonta africana) during a single flight in August, indicating “a poaching frenzy.”

“We started flying the survey on July 10, and we have counted 90 elephant carcasses since the survey commenced,” Chase told Agence France-Presse (AFP). “Each day we are counting dead elephants.”

Elephants Without Borders and the Botswana government jointly conduct dry season aerial surveys of elephants and other wildlife in the country every four years. This year the organization was again contracted by the Botswana government to carry out an aerial survey in the country’s north, covering Chobe, Okavango, Ngamiland and North Central district, according to the government.

Given that the current aerial survey is only halfway through, Chase and other conservationists worry the final number of poached elephants will be much higher.

The government of Botswana, however, has refuted the NGO’s claims and called the figures “unsubstantiated,” in a statement published on Twitter.

“At no point in the last months or recently were 87 or 90 elephants killed in one incident in any place in Botswana,” the statement said. The government added that Elephants Without Borders had reported counting 53 elephant carcasses during its survey.

“Of the aforementioned 53 reported, a verification mission between July and August established that the majority were not poached but rather died from natural causes and retaliatory killings as a result of human and wildlife conflicts,” the statement said.

Chase told Rachael Bale of National Geographic that he was saddened by the government’s response. “I am an objective scientist, with no political agenda,” he said, adding that his team had a GPS location for each of the 87 carcasses, and multiple witnesses had seen each carcass.

“Every flight has four people, including one government employee, and voice recordings from the flights will bear out these findings,” Chase said.

Botswana is estimated to have about 130,000 elephants, and is considered the last safe haven for the threatened species. The latest survey, in 2014, conducted jointly by Elephants Without Borders and Botswana’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP), found that elephant numbers seemed to be increasing in places like Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pan national parks, Moremi Game Reserve and Ngamiland district. But elephant populations in Chobe National Park showed a continuing decline since 2006, while population numbers for Chobe district were the lowest ever since surveys began in 1993.

According to Chase, a recent decision by Botswana’s new president, Mokgweetsi Masisi to disarm the country’s anti-poaching unit — Botswana had previously adopted an aggressive and controversial shoot-to-kill anti-poaching policy — is partly to blame for the recent spike in elephant poaching in the country.

The government, however, said that “withdrawing weapons from DWNP is in line with the existing legislation which does not allow the Department of Wildlife and National Parks to own such weapons. This action was taken whilst corrective measures are to be undertaken.”

An African elephant (Loxodonta africana) wading in Botswana’s famed Okavango Delta. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay

Banner image of African elephants drinking in the Chobe River in Botswana by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.