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Botswana's rhino conservation dilemma

Botswana is one of Africa’s premier conservation success stories. Strong government dedication to preserving habitat and tight limits on visitor numbers are helping to ensure the vitality of the natural resources needed for thriving wildlife populations. A global leader in national commitment to protecting wild spaces, Botswana has set aside 17 percent of its land as National Parks and Reserves and another 22 percent as Wildlife Management Areas, providing crucial buffer zones between parks and inhabited communities. Botswana employs a land-use strategy devised to allow local communities to benefit from wildlife and sustainable eco-tourism. By focusing on high-quality, low-volume tourism, Botswana hopes to protect its natural treasures for posterity. Tourism currently employs nearly 45 percent of northern Botswana’s people.

By the 1970s, both black and white rhino populations had declined alarmingly in northern Botswana; the black rhino (Diceros bicornis) had previously been confined to the Kwando-Chobe area but the white rhino (Ceratotherium simum) had been common throughout the area until the middle of the 20th century. As a result of over-hunting by illegal hunters and worldwide demand for their valuable horns, as well as inadequate protection by the government, even rhino that had been reintroduced from South Africa were drastically reduced. A survey in 1992 showed only 19 white rhino while the black rhino was classified “locally extinct” in Botswana.

To help rectify the situation, the Botswana Defence Force and the Department of Wildlife reacted by creating Africa’s finest anti-poaching operation, laying the groundwork for the reintroduction of rhino into the country. All surviving white rhino were moved to protected sanctuaries until such time as they could be released back into the wild, in national reserves. In the early 2000’s Wilderness Safaris together with the Botswana Government began this process of reintroduction of white rhinos initially, followed by black rhinos. Other companies joined in to raise money and relocate more rhinos, especially from high risk areas of South Africa, to Botswana wild parks. Fairly swiftly Botswana had a viable and breeding population of both species.

Fast forward to 2018 and 2019 and severe drought conditions reduced water levels drastically and forced most animals to find water at dwindling sources, but also giving very easy, dry land access to poachers from the north, Zambia. Thus came a surge in rhino killings by poachers in March that left at least six animals dead. That on the back of a steadily rising curve of deaths and around fifty fatalities in the previous twelve months.

Botswana conservation officials are now sadly reversing the wild reintroduction program and trying to evacuate black rhinos from the Okavango Delta. They believe this is essential because they are increasingly concerned that poachers are brazenly active due to the absence of tourists, which has made it easier for poachers to move around unseen. Just last month six poachers were killed by Botswana law enforcers in their effort to curb poaching. The push to evacuate rhinos and stay on top of anti-poaching however have been complicated by good summer rains and high floodwaters that have engulfed roads.

Across Africa there are an estimated 20,000 white rhinos but only about five thousand black rhinos, which face the possibility of extinction, and are the primary focus for now.

It is ironic that the era of world isolation has forced us to think more about connection. These realisations should come with a promise to ourselves to be better going forward. A promise to select our interactions carefully, to be measured about what we say and, to identify what is important to us all. Coming to Africa is an extension of that, it is not only a holiday but a conscious choice to make a difference. We want you to know that travelling here, has a really positive impact. Rhino conservation is only a small part of that positive impact.

What we have learned over the years, as expressed so eloquently by Nature, is that we must be thoughtful and caring. It’s better to give than to take, better to listen than to command. Compassion feeds our communities, our conservation, and our environment, and ultimately it feeds us too.

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