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Elephant carcass in Botswana
An elephant carcass found during the investigation exercise © Botswana Government (Facebook)

A group of prominent scientists have questioned the reporting by the BBC of the elephant poaching crisis in Botswana. Their conclusions, which differ significantly from those of the BBC, were derived from the same information provided by Dr Mike Chase of Elephants Without Borders.

In addition to the analytical response below, the scientists also emphasized the following two very important matters, which have been falsely reported:

1. The Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks is still armed with high-caliber weapons, but no longer carry automatic assault rifles;

2. The Botswana military, which is also dedicated to anti-poaching and patrols throughout the country, removes tusks from all elephant carcasses. The process to remove the ivory is the same as that used by poachers. It is thus not possible to distinguish between elephants that died from natural causes and those that were poached. To determine if an elephant has been poached, one would need to consult with the Botswana Defence Force.

The response by the scientists, as sent by them to BBC:

Response to recent BBC Report of Elephant Poaching Crisis in Botswana 

In a recent BBC report, Mike Chase of Elephants without Borders reports what has been interpreted as massive poaching of elephants in Botswana, findings which arise from some preliminary aerial survey results. This “discovery” has gone viral on social media, creating digital hysteria and global concern and even some condemnation of the Government of Botswana.

In the BBC report, Chase is quoted saying, “When I compare this to figures and data from the Great Elephant Census, which I conducted in 2015, we are recording double the number of fresh poached elephants than anywhere else in Africa.” Such assertions are important in terms of elephant conservation but they also have important consequences that impact international perceptions of Botswana and its citizens. As scientists working in conservation in Botswana, we have received numerous requests for comment on the BBC report.

In order to do so, we rely on the numbers recently reported and Chase’s published paper of the 2015 surveys (Chase et al, 2016, ) for comparison – comparative data referred to by Chase himself. We find it difficult to reconcile the information provided in the published paper with Chase’s recent numbers and assertions that unprecedented poaching is now occurring in Botswana.

Says Chase: “The scale of elephant poaching is by far the largest I’ve seen or read about anywhere in Africa to date.” (BBC News/world-Africa). The following is a quote directly from the publication of the 2015 Great Elephant Census (Chase et al, DOI: 10.7717/peerj.2354), “The highest fresh carcass ratios were found in Angola (10%), Cameroon (10%), the W-Arly-Pendjari (WAP) Ecosystem (3%), and Mozambique (3%), suggesting high levels of recent elephant mortality in these countries.”

By comparison, in the same table, Botswana is reported to have a fresh carcass ratio of 0.1%, equalling 130 fresh elephant carcasses identified during the 2015 survey in a population estimated to be at 130,451 at their last count. This can be compared with 340 and 288 fresh elephant carcasses reported for Angola (total pop est. 3395) and Mozambique (total pop est. 9605), respectively, during the same time period (DOI: 10.7717/peerj.2354/table-2).

The current EWB report of 87 fresh carcasses in Botswana in the 2018 survey (to date) cannot be characterised as an extreme loss of elephants compared to other range countries nor to numbers reported for Botswana in past surveys unless, for some reason, the current Survey Intensity is not comparable to previous surveys.

We appreciate the importance of survey work and population monitoring and share the concerns that elephant poaching remains a threat throughout the elephant range, including in Botswana. In conclusion, using Chase’s numbers directly, we find no scientific basis for the dramatic assertions made in the recent BBC report and question why such a report was disseminated to the media prior to completion of the current survey and data analysis.

Opinion post written by:

Kathleen Alexander, DVM PhD, Board President CARACAL, Botswana; Professor, Virginia Tech, USA 

J.W. McNutt, PhD, Director, Botswana Predator Conservation Trust 

Mark Vandewalle, PhD, CEO CARACAL, Botswana 

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