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Scores of Dead Elephants Found in Botswana ‘Poaching Frenzy’

CAPE TOWN — Some of the elephant corpses had begun to decay, their skins dried stiff over bony carcasses. Others appeared to have been killed just a few days earlier, partially covered by bushes in an attempt to hide them from view.

The tusks of all 87 animals, which were counted during aerial surveys over the past few months in Botswana, had been chopped off — evidence of what conservationists are calling one of the most severe poaching events recorded in Africa.

Michael Chase, director of Elephants Without Borders, the charity that conducted the surveys, wrote in an incident report that he had never encountered so many dead elephants in one go. After counting 48 dead elephants in a single flight in August, Mr. Chase said that the tally was “indicative of a poaching frenzy which has been ongoing in the same area for a long time.”

According to the report, the elephants were killed “in a famous wilderness area, managed by one of the world’s largest ecotourism travel companies.”

“The region has a strong military presence with two airfields,” the report added, but noted that, “the Botswana government can’t be expected to stop this poaching alone.”

The total of dead elephants was expected to climb as the survey continues. The results so far “signal a major escalation in elephant poaching,” said Tom Milliken, a program manager at Traffic, a nonprofit organization that monitors wildlife smuggling.

Botswana is home to the world’s largest elephant population, including more than a third of Africa’s elephants, according to the most recent Great Elephant Census, which Mr. Chase helped produce. The country was until recently considered a haven, with militarized patrols in protected areas and a contentious “shoot-to-kill” policy for deterring poachers.

Botswana’s tough stance on poaching had made it “the darling of the conservation world,” said Annette Hübschle, a researcher at the University of Cape Town’s Center of Criminology, but the policies did not address the underlying drivers of the illegal trade.

“The fortress conservation paradigm, or separating local people from wildlife and conservation, creates pathways to illegal economies,” Dr. Hübschle said. “Rural communities are likely to support poachers and poaching economies because there are no benefits to these conservation areas for them.”

Botswana’s new government, which won national elections in April, disarmed its anti-poaching unit soon after taking office. “Government has decided to withdraw military weapons and equipment from the Department of Wildlife and National Parks,” Carter Morupisi, permanent secretary to President Mokgweetsi Masisi, told reporters in May.

Previously, Botswana had seen “only background levels of poaching,” said Mr. Milliken of Traffic. “The country had a growing elephant population and was probably feeding expansion” into neighboring countries, he added.

Mr. Milliken said that elephant poaching in Africa had surged since 2009, in response to demand for ivory in China and Vietnam. In many places, poaching levels had exceeded population growth rates. “Anything newly born is being offset by poaching,” Mr. Milliken said.

China has banned its ivory trade, but this has not reduced poaching levels, Mr. Milliken said, adding that traders continued to sell ivory products on social media, while neighboring countries had active ivory markets for Chinese tourists. And Asian criminal syndicates — particularly those from China and Vietnam — have begun processing ivory in Africa to evade detection, according to recent research by Traffic.

“The policy moves on the demand side are much like one hand clapping if you’re not dealing with the Chinese threats to elephants in Africa,” Mr. Milliken said.

Source: NYT > World

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