The Botswana predicament
An already difficult place to access, Botswana may take a further hit to its tourism industry if the country goes back to being a killing ground for its elephants.
Botswana is a flat, sparsely populated, land-bound country in southern Africa — sustained by diamond mining, beef exports and high-end tourism. Since it gained independence from Britain in 1966, it has been the continent’s leader in matters of conservation.
When I visited Botswana in April and in August 2019, I arrived in the middle of a huge controversial debate about restarting the hunting of elephants,banned in 2014 by the previous President Ian Khama. This ban had helped Botswana emerge as a “conservation success story” and home to more than 1,30,000 elephants.
Where ever I visited, I heard arguments for and against hunting.The owner of a private lodge at Chobe National Park explained to me that it was not an issue of conflict but an issue of money. Prior to 2014, a portion of the funds collected from hunting went to the villages, while after the ban all this dried up without any compensation.
The Government should have made alternate sources of income available for villages impacted by the ban. “This is a political move and not in the best interests of conservation in Botswana”,he concluded. Alternately, a level-3 guide at one of the camps explained that Chobe was surrounded by villages and conflicts had started with elephants as their population had expanded to over 1,00,000 elephants — well beyond the carrying capacity of the park. Many environmentalists fear that the lifted ban will simply be a precursor to renewed efforts aimed at legalizing the ivory trade.If this were to happen, many expect a catastrophic effect on elephants across Africa.
Suspending the ban carries the risk of hurting Botswana’s tourism industry,which is the country’s second highest source of foreign income after diamond mining. Currently, Botswana markets itself as a “luxury safari destination,”often referred to as “high end tourism”based on the concept that “less is more”.
“SHOOT TO KILL” POLICY NO MORE
Since 2014, Botswana had a “shoot to kill” policy for stopping poachers, which included arming anti-poaching units with military-grade weapons and approved shooting known poachers on sight. It appears that both these practices have been done away with under the current administration.
THE ZEB PACK OF AFRICAN WILD DOGS AT LINYANTI
The African wild dog is Africa’s most endangered large carnivore and is listed as endangered in the IUCN Red List. This is a flagship species for the Kavango Zambesi Transfrontier Conservation Area that spans five countries: Botswana,Angola, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe representing the largest contiguous population of this endangered species. The Hem Chand Mahindra Foundation(HCMF) has in principle agreed to support the African Wild Dog dispersal project run as a collaboration between the University of Zurich, Switzerland and Botswana Predator Conservation Trust. Megan,the coordinator of the project gave me an estimate of about 900 wild dogs in Botswana.
We were delighted to sight the ZEB pack of twenty-three Wild Dogs at their den at Linyanti which included fourteen pups, about one month old. We witnessed the guarding of the den by four babysitters, the return of the hunters, there gurgitating of food by the hunters, the suckling of milk by the puppies from the sole mother and the chasing away of the intruding hooded vultures.
HOME TO SOME RARE ANTELOPES
Botswana is home to some rarely seen antelopes. The Roan and Sable antelopes can be seen at Chobe, Linyanti and Savute. The common Red Lechwe is best seen in its element running in herds across water channels as it is a water based antelope. The more difficult to sight, the shy Sitatunga, another water based antelope, can be better pursued on a mokoro (a type of canoe) which is practically noiseless.
FRONT MOKORO AS A BAIT!
Meshack Mbwe, a level 3 (highest level)guide at Jao Camp, Wilderness Safaris,explained to me that at Jao Camp there were eight mokoro guides. Mokoros were now made from fiber glass whereas previously they were made from the wood of the Sausage trees. Mokoros can be run only in shallow channels of-water where the likelihood of a Hippoor Crocodile is less. In any case, camps usually always have a front Mokoro as abait to ward away any intruding hippos. Mokoros are a wonderful way to watch and photograph antelopes, particularly the water-based ones, like Red Lechwe(common) or the Sitatunga (moredifficult).
POOR INFRASTRUCTURE ATMAUN AIRPORT
Maun, the primary gateway to the Okavango Delta has one of the worst airports that I have experienced. It is small and crowded. The check-in staff of at least the South African Airlines (Air Link) at Maun lack experience and often are unable to put through checked in luggage to the final destinations and may book such luggage to transit airports only, like Johannesburg. Some of the aircrafts used are small with a seat configuration of 1:2 which have inadequate overhead bins unable to accommodate normal sized hand luggage. This can be a problem for photographers.
LODGES AND CAMPS
Okavango has a wide network of lodges and camps. The largest luxury operators are Wilderness Safaris and Beyond. A flagship camp of Botswana, like Mombo of Wilderness Safaris, could even charge,during the high season, as much as USD 2,500 per person per night for the normal package deals which are prevalent in much of Africa. Safaris by mobile camping at pre-designated sites booked in advance are also an option. These are small tents with sitting pit toilets,no WiFi and no electricity. The Camps at the Okavango Delta offer either only water-based activities or only land-based activities or both. Water-based activities are by mokoro or motor boat or barge.
ARBITRARY VISA PROCEDURES
There is no e-visa or visa on arrival for Indian visitors. Visas have to be obtained from the Botswana Embassy at New Delhi by handing over your passports.Their procedures are arbitrary and not customer friendly. There is also a Consulate in Mumbai.
HOW TO GET THERE FROM INDIA?
India has no direct flights to Botswana or South Africa. South Africa is a convenient entry point for Botswana. Fly Emirates to Johannesburg via Dubai. Then a flight toeither Kasane for Chobe, or to Maun for the Okavango Delta and the Kalahari.You can also fly Ethiopian Airlines or Kenya Airlines to Johannesburg via Addis Ababa or via Nairobi.