Elephants need far greater ranges than any other land animals. But attempts to make space for them in Southern Africa is being thwarted by greed and bullets.
In the dry end of a dry season, the blazing sun reduces water holes to circular irises of cracked mud. As the temperature rises into the 40s, animals follow ancient paths to rivers at the heart of the vast Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA). From the banks of the Chobe River hungry elephants from the world’s greatest herds gaze across the lazy water to the tempting green floodplains on the Namibian side, but few cross. Hunters wait there and the elephants know it.
A conservation management map indicates the problem. To the south of the river is the Chobe National Park, but on the Namibian side, between the Chobe and Zambezi rivers on the western toe of the Caprivi Strip, are the Impalila, Kasika and Kabulabula conservancies.
In 1996, the Government of Namibia introduced legislation giving communities the power to create their own conservancies which were to manage and benefit from wildlife on their land. It also allowed the local community, working with private companies, to use natural resources on a sustainable basis and to benefit from ecotourism.
In general, this has worked well, but in this part of the Caprivi the system seems to gave gone awry. Among the areas on the map marked for ‘settlement, cropping and tourism’ is a barrier – starting less than a kilometre from the river – marked ‘Exclusive wildlife trophy hunting only’. Several kilometres north of that is an area labeled ‘Exclusive wildlife: No disturbance’.
Elephants can’t read maps so don’t know that beyond an area where they’re likely to be killed is an area of safety. Hunters, brought in by conservancy managers, don’t walk around with detailed maps that prevent them shooting closer to the river or in areas of ‘no disturbance’. The result is a free-for-all with the stench of rotting elephant carcasses wafting across tourist boats on sunset cruises along the Chobe.
This problem is a synecdoche of a much larger crisis in the KAZA region. In a survey between 2007 and 2009 using aerial and radio-collar tracking, the NGO Elephants Without Borders (EWB) discovered to their delight that elephants were dispersing through the Zambezi Region (formerly called Caprivi) and repopulating the previously war-torn parks of Luiana and Mucusso Coutada in Southern Angola and the Sioma Ngwezi National Park in southwestern Zambia.
In a second survey which ended in October this year this had changed dramatically. Now elephants were bottled up south of the Chobe and Linyanti rivers, making only brief forays into the protection of Mudumu National Park across the Kwando River into Namibia. The reason is massive poaching and legal hunting fueled by escalating Asian demand for ivory.
Even more depressing was a transect survey of Sioma Ngwezi. Of the herds that had probably moved into the park during an earlier migration, EWB sighted 33 alive and estimated 218 dead. The park is one of the most remote in Zambia but the poachers had found it. In Angola the fate of the migrating elephants is unknown.
‘The vast habitats north of the Caprivi are what elephants need,’ said EWB director Mike Chase. ‘it’s an elephant paradise, with lush green savanna forests, flowing rivers, seasonal floodplains flanked by mixed acacia woodlands. But the elephants can’t get there. They reach to the Caprivi highway and turn back. Namibia has just done an aerial survey of the area and recorded the highest number of elephant carcasses in 12 years.
‘Corridors are vital for animal movement. That’s what KAZA was created to facilitate and what Elephants Without Borders was formed to research. This is the only place in the world where three parks from three different countries converge. There’s no other place like it. But until the poaching is sorted out, the plan of creating elephant corridors is just a romantic idea. It’s on hold. Under the present conditions they’d be leading elephants to their doom. As fast as Botswana’s elephants left for new habitats, they returned – or were shot. It’s a travesty that undermines one of the greatest success stories of our time.’
According to a Kasane lodge owner who didn’t want his name named, KAZA is a paper park. ‘These guys are armchair conservationists with glossy brochures,’ he said. ‘They’ve been given millions of euros, but apart from smart 4x4s I can’t see what they’re doing in this area. They’re supposed to facilitate things, but what are they doing to stop poaching or elephants being shot by hunters in our front yard?’
The KAZA website seems to have not been updated since March. Its strategic action plan is puzzling and talks about organisational bureaucracy rather than ground-level conservation.
But as KAZA’s Kasane technical adviser, Simon Munthali, pointed out, his organisation is more about government-to-government cooperation, information gathering and research facilitation than action on the ground. ‘We look after conservation and development in five countries,’ he said, ‘and we protect and manage ecosystems to ensure that wildlife can move freely.’
When I pointed out that wildlife wasn’t able to move freely and asked how he thought this could stop poaching, he said that, personally, he thought KAZA should form an armed protection force, but that this wasn’t on the cards.
One of the problems across the Chobe is that KAZA doesn’t have the teeth and the conservancy committees don’t have the foresight or interest to establish corridors, limit trophy hunting or curb poaching. I put this problem to Chief Liswane 3, who controls a large area in eastern Caprivi and has the authority to move homesteads, punish poachers and outlaw hunting. He’s a congenial, educated man and his response was encouraging.
‘The trouble began when the South African military were here in the war,’ he said. ‘They killed so many animals and there were guns everywhere. They used to come to my area and shoot animals to relax. The animals fled to Botswana. Now I want them back. But on the floodplains there’s nothing. For them to return we must secure their safety. For this there should be lodges along the Chobe and no shooting.
‘Elephants are my friends. We need to open corridors for them through from here to Angola and Zambia. I can ask my people to move back from a corridor and they will listen. The young men on the conservancy committees, I don’t know what they’re doing. But I think it’s time for me to get involved there.’
Research by Elephants Without Borders has highlighted where the problems are in the KAZA area and what needs to be done about wildlife corridors, but cooperation and action between organisations and people who could make a difference seems to be lacking. And every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day, an elephant is killed by poachers.
There is, however, a measure of hope. In an attempt to stop the carnage, an emergency summit on the illegal ivory trade will take place in Botswana from December 2. It will be attended by heads of state, senior officials and NGOs who will attempt, at the highest level, to secure commitments for African states to take urgent measures along the ivory chain as well as from consumer states in Asia. Its aim is to put together a crisis plan and a set of targets to curb poaching, and to tackle corrupt networks and trafficking operations. It will also assess and seek to rectify the economic damage to communities from destabilisation caused by the arms-for-ivory trade.
It’s outcome could make a difference to the elephants that stare across the Chobe River at the floodplains but don’t dare to swim across. It could also spur Chief Liswane to knock his conservancies into shape so that his ‘friends’ can head north again into the succulent plains of Zambia and Angola. But until China outlaws the ivory trade, elephants in Africa will continue to bleed.