Botswana's 'shoot-to-kill policy' against suspected poachers

In 20 years at least 30 Namibians and 22 Zimbabweans - possibly fishermen - have been killed. (Chris Jek, AFP/ Getty Images)

In 20 years at least 30 Namibians and 22 Zimbabweans - possibly fishermen - have been killed. (Chris Jek, AFP/ Getty Images)

On a chilly night near Ihaha Camp, in the Chobe National Park, Corporal Joel Mathe of the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) set out with his team on an antipoaching patrol.

Making use of special assault rifles and night-vision equipment, he and the three other members of the unit mounted a listening post and picked up the sound of a canoe being paddled on the Chobe River.

Using the night-vision equipment, they observed two figures carrying rifles disappear into the park. The men, they later testified, returned carrying “whitish objects”, allegedly elephant tusks.

Mathe told his junior to illuminate the scene. The two figures were frozen in the moment, and BDF assault rifles stuttered along the river bank.

A bullet hit one of the men in the chest, killing him instantly. The other vanished beneath the waters of the Chobe River, which acts as Botswana’s northern boundary with Namibia’s Caprivi Strip.

This account of the incident, given by Mathe and his comrades at the inquest into the deaths in the Kasane magistrate’s court in October 2014, is supported by inhabitants of Kanvula and Nakabolelwa settlements near Katima Mulilo in the Caprivi Strip.

They raced to the scene immediately after the gunshots subsided.

“We gathered on the river bank and saw Botswana soldiers,” recalled Mariam Simusiwa in an interview. Her brother, Richard Munguni Siyauya, a fisherman, had not returned home that evening. “They wouldn’t talk to us; it was confusing.”

In the first light of day, when the BDF loaded her brother’s canoe into a camouflaged Land Cruiser and waved a bloodstained jacket, Simusiwa’s worst fears were confirmed. “They said it belongs to my brother,” she said quietly.

Three days later, Bryana Nyambe Nyambe’s body was discovered on the banks of the river with a bullet wound to the head.

Namibian observers believe that the killing of Nyambe and Munguni on July 17 2012 was part of an unwritten shoot-to-kill policy adopted by Botswana against suspected ivory poachers. It is a suspicion heightened by Botswana’s flamboyant environment minister, Tshekedi Khama. In an interview in 2013, Khama said would-be poachers needed to know that they might not go home alive, and would be shot even if they surrendered.

The BDF claimed Nyambe took a retaliatory or attack position when told to freeze. It denied any involvement in human rights violations in the border area and said all its operations took place “under prevailing statutes”.

But there are several apparent inconsistencies in the military’s version of what transpired that night: The inquest report found that Nyambe’s bullet wound was to the back of the head, suggesting he was fleeing when hit. The BDF claimed to have found an elephant that was killed by the poachers. But Namibian investigators say they were denied access to the carcass. The dead men were allegedly found in possession of tusks but there was no evidence of a fresh carcass. The tusks allegedly found with them were dry, suggesting that the elephant from which they were taken had died some time before.

A firearms expert interviewed by the Ink Centre for Investigative Journalism, who asked not to be named, said that the firearms allegedly in Nyambe and Munguni’s possession, a .22 calibre rifle and a 12-gauge single-shot shotgun, were not known for their accuracy and could not kill an adult elephant.

Namibians were also angered by the findings of the Botswana inquest magistrate, Gofaone Morweng. Clearing the four soldiers of wrongdoing, he said: “They applied caution to the situation by providing illumination ... and their action did not constitute so gross a negligence as to constitute criminal liability.”

“It was a planned killing,” charged Nyambe’s brother, who asked not to be identified for fear that his relatives in Botswana might be victimised.

‘You may not go back alive’
During the past two decades, 30 Namibians and at least 22 Zimbabweans have been killed in Botswana antipoaching operations, although Namibian community and rights groups claim the figure could be much higher. They have urged Botswana to exercise restraint when dealing with poachers.

Antipoaching operations have also increased border tensions between Botswana and Namibia, amid claims that the BDF has violated Namibia’s sovereignty.

The tension is palpable in Kanvula and other smaller settlements in the Chobe region, as BDF raids are said to be frequent.

“The Botswana government values wildlife more than human life,” said John Ntemwa, the leader of the Zambezi Youth Forum, a youth movement based in Katima Mulilo in the Caprivi Strip, which claims to monitor and catalogue BDF killings in the region.

“We are worried that most of the people who have been killed were not poachers but fishermen,” Ntemwa said. “More than 30 lives have been lost since independence. This cannot be allowed to continue.”

Namibia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah said her government initiated talks with Botswana in May 2014, which gave the assurance that it would no longer kill suspected poachers. Since then there had been no deaths, she said.

The tough policy on poaching has been given added impetus by Botswana’s shrinking economy, which faces a decline in revenue from diamonds, its main industry. The country is unlikely to meet its official growth target of 4.2% this year.

Tourism, the second-highest revenue earner, contributes 15% of the country’s gross domestic product and provides 30&nbps;000 formal and informal jobs.

The Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, comprising the area where the borders of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambian and Zimbabwe meet, has 200 000 elephants, more than anywhere else in the world.

Tshekedi Khama, the brother of Botswana’s President Ian Khama, lifted the lid on the government’s approach in a 2013 interview with British filmmaker Tom Hardy, who was making a documentary called The Poaching Wars.

“It’s a culture; we have to kill the supply to starve the culture,” Khama said. “That is one of the reasons why, in Botswana, with our antipoaching unit, we don’t necessarily interrogate the poacher.

“That is a position we adopted to send a clear message to say, if you want to come and poach in Botswana, one of the possibilities is that you may not go back to your country alive.”

Hardy asked whether the policy applied to locals. Khama said it did, and, even if a suspected poacher dropped his gun and raised his hands, the BDF would shoot.

Are the wrong people being targeted?
Tshekedi Khama has business interests in arms procurement and has admitted his company Seleka Springs supplies the BDF with arms and ammunition, but he denies receiving favourable treatment.

Attempts to obtain comment from him about his business interests and Botswana’s antipoaching policy were unsuccessful. Questions sent to the president’s office about whether the BDF has a shoot-to-kill policy and, if so, whether he approves of it, were also not answered.

A former military commander, Ian Khama has a firm grip on the BDF and has no qualms about using it to fight crime. In May 2009, he controversially stepped in to pardon soldiers who fired 16 bullets into an alleged criminal, John Kalafatis, who was sitting unarmed in the back seat of a car in Gaborone, and allowed them to return to their positions.

When Ian Khama came into office in April 2008, he also created the feared Directorate on Intelligence Services, which takes an active interest in poaching in northern Botswana and intervenes in the activities of the BDF, police and game rangers.

He also has a beneficial interest in wildlife conservation in the Chobe region. The Mail & Guardian revealed in 2011 that he has a business connection with Linyanti Investments, a subsidiary of Wilderness Investment Holdings. In terms of a 15-year lease agreement signed in January 2010 between the Tawana Land Board and Linyanti Explorations, Ian Khama has 200 000 shares in Linyanti, which owns the 1 300km2 Linyanti Concession bordering the Caprivi Strip. He is a joint shareholder with his conservationist friends, Dereck and Beverly Joubert, who facilitated the relocation of 100 rhinos from South Africa to the Linyanti Concession in 2014, heightening its attraction for tourists – and poachers.

According to media reports, the popularity of Wilderness’s flagship facility in the Okavango Delta, Mombo Camp, is being threatened by increased poaching.

It is possible that the wrong people are being targeted for the increased poaching on the Namibian-Botswana border.

In December last year Phil ya Nangoloh, the executive director of the Namibian human rights group Namrights, called for an independent commission of inquiry into what he termed the alarming increase in poaching, saying that high-ranking Namibian political figures are implicated in the black-market sale of rhino horns and elephant tusks.

Without naming them, Ya Nangoloh alleged that a Cabinet minister, a former minister and a leader of a traditional authority are the kingpins of a poaching ring.

Death is not the only risk run by inhabitants of the border area. Some locals talk of incarceration in harsh prisons and of spending nights in crocodile-infested swamps as BDF helicopters hover overhead.

There are also claims of assaults by BDF soldiers on suspected poachers, who say they are forced to watch while their dugouts are destroyed.

In an interview, a woman from the village of Subiya said she and her two-year-old son spent three days in subhuman conditions in a Botswana police cell after being found in possession of dried fish on Stongo, a disputed island in the Linyanti River between Namibia and Botswana.

About 70 other Namibians, who said they are fishermen, were charged with illegally crossing the border. They said they were ordered to pay fines, and those who could not pay them received three lashes of a cane on their bare backs.

No response to allegations
Asked to react to criticism of its antipoaching methods, the BDF said it would not respond to allegations.

“We are not in the habit of commenting on allegations; albeit we wish to succinctly reiterate that our mission is to defend Botswana’s territorial integrity, sovereignty and national interests,” said the force’s director of protocol and public relations, Colonel Tebo Dikole.

He said the BDF acted competently and “within the constraints of the prevailing statutes”.

Although stating that Namibia’s laws unequivocally prohibit poaching, Nandi-Ndaitwah admitted that there are challenges regarding the exact position of the border and the thick bush, forests and marshlands that surround it.

Namibia’s environment minister, Pohamba Shifeta, said Namibia had arrested poachers from Botswana, but had never killed anyone. “We have never had loss of life for apprehending a suspected poacher. If it can be done without loss of life, it should be kept that way.”

Shifeta said poaching was a regional and international challenge. The Zambezi region was vulnerable to elephant poachers, but rhino poaching was more common in the Kunene region.  

He said his ministry had created a wildlife intelligence and investigations department in its wildlife protection services division, to work with the Wildlife Crime Prevention Unit, a body that includes representatives of all Namibia’s neighbours.

The unit’s aim is to co-ordinate antipoaching efforts. When poachers enter Namibia through Zambia, for instance, the Zambian authorities are required to notify their Namibian counterparts. Border conflicts between Botswana and Zambia are not new. In the 1990s, the Botswana military occupied Sedudu/ Kasikili Island, sparking a conflict that was resolved by the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Also in dispute is the alleged BDF practice of pointing guns at fishermen on the Namibian side of the border, accusing them of either scaring animals or over-fishing.

Botswana’s Ink Centre for Investigative Journalism produced this story in collaboration with The Namibian newspaper and the M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism.

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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) produced this story. All views are ours. See for our stories, activities and funding sources.



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