Published January 08, 2015
No sign of an elephant in all of two minutes, a tourist teased a guide at Botswana's Chobe National Park, home to tens of thousands of elephants. A minute later, their vehicle cleared a knot of shrubs and elephants loomed ahead beside the dusty road.
Such joking wouldn't be possible in many other parts of Africa, where recent years have yielded dire news about ivory poaching. Poachers killed more than 20,000 elephants in 2013 amid rising demand for their tusks in Asia, particularly China, according to international conservation groups.
Botswana is a rare bright spot with estimates of its elephant population as high as 200,000. The southern African country's political and economic stability, small human population and other factors make it an elephant haven, though pressure on habitats and conflict with the human population are increasing concerns.
Botswana is a challenging model for other African nations struggling to ward off the illegal wildlife trade, ranked by the United Nations alongside arms, drug and human trafficking because its illicit profits run into billions of dollars worldwide.
In all of Africa, there are about 420,000 to 650,000, according to some estimates.
Elephants roam widely outside conservation areas in landlocked Botswana, which has just 2 million people; in contrast, Kenya, under pressure from poachers, has almost as much territory as Botswana with about 35,000 elephants and 45 million people.
Elephants benefit from Botswana's ban on commercial trophy hunting on state land that took effect this year to help other wildlife species whose numbers are in decline. Some elephants, who traditionally range across unfenced borders, may also have crossed into and stayed in Botswana as poaching escalated in neighboring countries, some conservationists say.
While official corruption has hooks in African poaching, Transparency International in 2013 listed Botswana at 30th out of 177 countries and territories, based on how corrupt their public sector is perceived to be. It led all other African countries and was ahead of nations including Portugal, South Korea and Costa Rica in the survey by the Berlin-based watchdog group.
"Peace and conservation success go hand in hand," said Rudi van Aarde, a South African conservationist at the University of Pretoria who studies regional elephant populations. "Warfare and unrest and improper governance go hand in hand with conservation failures."
Botswana says its elephant population is growing at 5 percent a year. Officials have introduced fencing to keep elephants away from villages, and the use of chili peppers is among schemes designed to protect crops from these "intelligent creatures," said Cyril Taolo, deputy director of the country's department of wildlife and national parks.
"Elephants being elephants, they quickly find their way around some of these things," he said.
In December, Botswana President Ian Khama, speaking at an international meeting on elephant conservation in Gaborone, the capital, said that his government had deployed "all our security forces" to help guard against poachers.
But some suspects infiltrate across borders. In June, a Zambian poacher was killed in a gunfight with rangers in Chobe park in northern Botswana, which is close to Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola.
About 50 elephants have been poached annually in recent years in Botswana, according to Taolo.
Poaching statistics are far higher elsewhere in Africa. Poachers, some shooting from helicopters, killed about 70 elephants over a two-month period in Garamba National Park in Congo, in Central Africa, the park director said in June. Late last year, authorities in neighboring Zimbabwe reported that more than 100 elephants were killed by cyanide poisoning in the western Hwange game reserve.
The carnage has drawn comparisons to an elephant slaughter in the 1970s and 1980s that only eased with an international ban on the ivory trade in 1989. Insurgent groups and organized crime syndicates are prominent in today's killings, officials and analysts say.
"We're going through that again, in a lot of ways," George Wittemyer, an American expert who has studied elephants in Kenya, said in reference to the poaching surge decades ago. Wittemyer, an assistant professor at Colorado State University's department of fish, wildlife, and conservation biology, said Kenya had made progress in combatting poachers, but acknowledged: "We're definitely not anywhere near out of the woods yet."
In Botswana's Chobe park, elephants lumber and forage by the dozens close to the river, where they have stripped away much of the foliage. On a recent morning, an elephant swam to reeds in the river, its trunk aloft as its bulky body dipped through the water in a surprisingly fluid motion. Outside the park, a herd of elephants leisurely crossed a road near a town, seemingly unperturbed by passing cars.
Elephants Without Borders, a Botswana-based group, is leading what it describes as the biggest continent-wide, aerial census of elephants since the 1970s with funding from Microsoft co-founder and billionaire Paul Allen. The goal is to use the data to better marshal conservation efforts across Africa, said Mike Chase, the group's director.
Elephants have "situational awareness" about risky areas, Chase said. He cited reports that many elephants entered Botswana during the Angolan civil war and some returned to Angola only when the war ended in 2002.
Taolo, the wildlife official, said Botswana recognizes that elephants are a global heritage and need international support: "Protecting those elephants comes at a real cost."