Britain's royal family has been drawn into a political fight in Botswana over elephant poaching ahead of an international wildlife conference in London
Former President Ian Khama's supporters are accusing his successor Mokgweetsi Masisi of presiding over the mass slaughter of elephants by ivory hunters in Botswana. Until now Botswana has had one of the best records on wildlife conservation in the world.
These latest claims could disrupt the Illegal Wildlife Trade conference (IWT), which both Khama and Masisi are due to attend. Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, is expected to address the conference which opens on 11 October. Masisi's government is taking soundings on a plan to lift the ban on hunting elephants, a move which divides conservationists.
Princes William and his brother Harry have visited Botswana many times since they were children and have long been involved in wildlife conservation charities. In August 2017, Prince Harry took Meghan Markle to an exclusive safari camp in the country's Okavango Delta to celebrate her 36th birthday. They also spent part of their honeymoon there this year.
Prince Harry calls Botswana his 'second home' and in January last year he became a patron of Rhino Conservation Botswana alongside Ian Khama's brother Tshekedi, the current Minister of Environment, Natural Resources and Tourism. The engagement ring Harry gave his wife Meghan is set with a Botswana diamond.
The British government is sponsoring the fourth IWT conference in London this week and has provided funding for all the IWT conferences since their inception in 2014, according to a source familiar with the matter. Civil servants from the UK Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA), Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) and Department for International Development (DFID) have been deployed to work on preparing and making final arrangements for IWT conferences. This includes the conference in Kasane, Botswana in March 2015, ostensibly organised by Botswana.
Although Masisi was Khama's hand-picked successor as president and served as his deputy for four years, the two have fallen out badly. Since he took power in April, Masisi has reversed some of Khama's most cherished policies and stopped some of Khama's retirement perks (See Box, Behind an elephantine rivalry).
The row over elephant hunting is the most serious yet. Last month, the conservationist Mike Chase of Elephants Without Borders and a friend of the Khamas and Prince Harry, accused the Botswana government of disarming the Department of Wildlife and National Parks' anti-poaching unit and allowing ivory-hunters the chance to slaughter dozens of elephants in Botswana.
'I'm shocked, I'm completely astounded,' Chase told the BBC. 'The scale of elephant poaching is by far the largest I've seen or read about anywhere in Africa to date.' Chase claimed to have discovered 87 dead elephants during an aerial survey. He blamed the 'disarming' of the anti-poaching unit for the problem, the BBC reported.
Comparing his latest findings with data from the Great Elephant Census, which he conducted in 2015,' Chase said that he had recorded twice the number of recently killed elephants in Botswana than anywhere else in Africa. Much of Chase's Great Elephant Census project, the first pan-African survey of savanna elephants was funded by the billionaire philanthropist and co-founder of Microsoft, Paul Allen.
Botswana faced a storm of condemnation as wildlife lovers registered their shock. Even British Prime Minister Theresa May added her voice on Twitter. But the Botswana government disputes Chase's claims, as do other conservationists. Some in Gaborone see it as part of Ian Khama's campaign to retain influence, prevent investigation of his record as president, and embarrass Masisi at the wildlife conference (AC Vol 59 No 13, Masisi steps out of Khama's shadow).
Many suspect Khama of trying to line up his younger brother Tshekedi, currently Tourism minister, to run for the presidency on the ticket of the governing Botswana Democratic Party in next year's elections.
The anti-poaching unit has been deprived of automatic weapons but retains high-powered rifles, the government points out. President Masisi took the decision in May because only the army should be allowed to carry military weapons, it added.
However, anti-poaching duties also fall on the Botswana Defence Force, which was patrolling the area where Chase found the most carcases and whose soldiers carry automatic weapons as a matter of course. President Masisi defends his record: 'All our security forces are involved in the protection of the wildlife species including the prisons, the police, the army, and our intelligence security agencies over and above the anti-poaching rangers; and they are armed, legitimately and within the law'. The ban on automatic weapons has not been in place long enough to make any difference, the government added.
The DWNP anti-poaching unit is under the authority of Tshekedi Khama's ministry; he defends a shoot-to-kill policy against poachers. Political opponents accuse him of using the unit as a private army and want Masisi to sack him. Neighbouring Namibia has accused the unit's patrols of killing innocent villagers only suspected of poaching near the ill-defined border between the two countries. Zambia and Zimbabwe have made similar complaints. In 2015 alone, 30 Namibians, 22 Zimbabweans and an unspecified number of Zambians were shot dead on suspicion of poaching, according to figures cited by ivory trade expert Professor Keith Somerville. President Masisi quietly revoked the shoot-to-kill policy after hearing representations from Namibia.
The government said that Chase's aerial survey, which he has been conducting under contract to the government, was incomplete. The data covers all elephants found dead over a two-month period, and over a wide area, the government said.. Many media reports suggested that the elephants Chase had spotted had died within a short space of time and in the same area.
Botswana conservation scientists J.W. McNutt, Mark Vandewalle and Kathleen Alexander wrote to the BBC, taking issue with the report on Chase's claims. They said, '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 countries nor to numbers reported for Botswana in past surveys… 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.'
Thato Raphaka, Permanent Secretary at the tourism ministry, told a parliamentary committee on 10 September: 'We asked Chase to show us the evidence of his report and he is now changing his story. We have referred the matter to the Attorney-General for him to explore ways of suing Chase for breaching his contract. We contracted him to do a survey and he was supposed to report to us and not the international media.'
Chase sits on the board of wildlife charity Tlhokomela Trust with Ian and Tshekedi Khama. Prince Harry invited Chase and his partner Kelly Landen to his wedding. Chase first got to know Harry during his holidays in Botswana over 10 years ago, according to media in Landen's home town of Buffalo, New York state.
Khama looks set to outshine his successor at the conference. The public relations firm handling the conference is offering interviews with Khama and President Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon, but not with Masisi.
Behind an elephantine rivalry
The row over the elephants points to a wider political fight. It looks more than accidental that the story about Mike Chase's claims of mass slaughter of elephants in Botswana broke while President Mokgweetsi Masisi was in China for the Forum on China Africa Cooperation in early September.
Although Beijing backs the global ban on ivory trading, China remains the biggest market for smuggled ivory. Ian Khama's supporters may hope that the elephant issue will work against Masisi at the London conference. Chase and his Elephants Without Borders organisation insist they are apolitical.
As president, Ian Khama, a teetotaler, restricted alcohol sales outlets, licensing hours, and put heavy duties on alcoholic drinks. All those measures have been dropped or are about to be lifted.
President Masisi sacked Isaac Kgosi, a close Khama ally, as Director-General of the Directorate of Intelligence and Security (DIS), an armed intelligence organisation with powers of arrest criticised for operating like a private police force.
John Kalafatis, who was shot dead in 2009, and his family became a target of the DIS. Four Botswana Defence Force soldiers, described as being 'on loan' to the DIS, were convicted of Kalifatis's murder in a Gabarone court. A few months after the soldiers's conviction, then-President Khama pardoned them without explanation. Oppositionists claim they have been bugged and burgled by DIS. Harry Tembo, a former DIS officer reported by the local press to have been a witness in an investigation into the DIS was shot and hacked to death in February 2012.
Khama tried to hire Kgosi as his private secretary, a post supported by the state, after his dismissal. But the government refused, prompting Khama to threaten legal action. Masisi has withdrawn Khama's 'right' to fly any government aircraft, a privilege the keen pilot has exercised since his training for the police's air wing.
Through their company, Seleka Springs, Khama's brothers, twins Tshekedi and Anthony, made US$10 million as agents for foreign arms companies supplying the Botswana Defence Force and Botswana Police Service, the Botswana parliament was told in 2015. The company has acted for Britain's Alvis Vickers, Austria's Steyr-Daimler Puch and Belgium's FN Herstal, among others.
Ian Khama is now campaigning against Masisi at public meetings, which state media ignore (AC Vol 59 No 17, The worm turns). He has also been using his position in the governing Botswana Democratic Party to support parliamentary candidates opposed to Masisi.
Whitehall juggles arms sales and wildlife initiatives
The British government organised an arms sales promotion in Botswana timed to coincide with the Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) conference it sponsored in February 2014, Africa Confidential has learned.
On his return to London, the British defence sales official who invited the arms companies to promote their wares in Gaborone briefed the then British Minister for Africa, Mark Simmonds at the Foreign & Commonwealth office about the Gabarone UKTI Defence & Security Organisation (D&SO) event ahead of the IWT 2014 conference. Africa Confidential has also learned that the UKTI (D&SO) sales official also attended the IWT, as did many of the exhibitors. It is not known if similar promotional events have taken place close to the subsequent IWT conferences, the latest of which opens on 11 October 2018.
An email from the UK Trade and Investment's Defence & Security Organisation's Graham Webber seen by Africa Confidential invited several arms manufacturers and high-technology firms to a sales promotion event in Botswana a week before the wildlife conference in February 2014 promising many top officials and ministers would attend.
The email promised the firms coming to the Gaborone International Conference Centre the presence of Botswana's Ministers of Defence, Justice and Security, Transport and Communications, and Environment, Wildlife and Tourism. Senior officers of the Botswana Defence Force, the Directorate of Intelligence and Security, the police and the Civil Aviation Authority would also be there. The event, which would be opened by the British High Commissioner, included seminars on 'relevant security and defence topics', and a 'focus on security departments'. Webber continued in his email, 'If there is any potential customer you think this misses, please let us know and we will try to cover them.'
Because the British government sponsored and financed the IWT London February 2014 conference, the closeness in time of the arms promotion could lead to accusations the UK was exploiting interest in wildlife conservation to sell more arms. The promotion event took place from 5-7 February 2014 in Gaborone and the IWT conference followed in London on 13-14 February. The IWT conference was opened by the Prince of Wales and his son, Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge.
The defence equipment firms included Qinetiq, Supacat, British Aerospace, Thales Group, CQC, Heckler & Koch, and many other less well-known arms manufacturers and cyber security companies supplying everything from sonar equipment to body armour. Fourteen companies eventually exhibited in Gaborone. Botswana's then defence attaché in London, Colonel Lambert Tshweneetsile, the British High Commissioner to Botswana, Nick Pyle, the UK Foreign Office's representative to the Botswana government, Tsie Kebatshabile, and the then Department of Intelligence and Security director Isaac Kgosi were key to arranging the exhibition, according to a source with knowledge of the event.
The then Botswana defence minister, Dikgakgamatso N. Seretse, welcoming the exhibitors to Gaborone, paid tribute to Botswana's close cooperation with the UK in military matters, saying 'Our cooperation in defence and security interaction … has allowed for frank discussions and the exchange of data, and has facilitated relevant workshops and seminars which have enhanced leadership and managed to improve our defence and security institutions.'
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