The Elephants in the Room: Conservation Issues in Chobe

*Pictures for this and all other posts to be provided once I am home and have a reliable computer to plug my camera into.*

Following the trials and tribulations of July, a vacation was much needed.  Thus, I found myself for a week enjoying the splendours of northern Botswana.  The climate in Kasane, located at the junction of Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, is much different from that in the far south.  As we drove north, the weather warmed, and dusty plains began to be replaced by tall bush giving way to trees.  The forests as we approached Nata were composed of slightly less acacia, and more teak, palm, and the ever-loved symbol of sub-Saharan Africa, the baobob tree.  Despite the difference in floral composition, the forest looked much similar to that of the northern US in fall, many trees devoid of leaves, some still bearing them in colours yellow and orange, the floor littered with their annual refuse.

In Kasane, the lodge I stayed in for five nights was directly on the waterfront, with a walkway down to a small dock.  From there, one can watch the sun set over the Chobe River with all the brilliant reds and golds that an African sunset can muster dancing upon the water and reeds.  In town on the waterfront is a wildlife corridor, a strip along the bank where no one may build to preserve its beauty.  The forest there is thick, luscious and green, the sort of immediately obvious fullness of life that I have not seen for months, due to the dry weather.  Kingfishers hover above the river, occasionally diving for small fish darting about in the water that one can assume is littered with crocodiles.  The atmosphere is that of pure and simple relaxation, and game viewing in the Chobe National Park is positively stunning.  During the dry season, wildlife flock to the river in droves, and the clear open floodplains make for some of the most spectacular viewing in the world.  On the first day there, I saw elephants, hippos, buffalo, giraffes, zebra, wildebeest, impala, sable antelope, topi, countless different birds, crocodiles, and elephants.  The next day, with all of the aforementioned, added on roan antelope, puku, red lechwe, a lioness with two cubs, and more elephants.  There are a lot of elephants.

Too many elephants, in fact, is the general feeling of the place.  One can hardly drive down the road without stopping to let a herd pass.  I would hardly be a good conservationist if I did not bring up the various issues present in such a beautiful reservoir of animal life.  The region, which can happily and sustainably hold a few thousand pachyderms, is home to upwards of an estimated 140,000 of the beasts, and it shows on the landscape.  As soon as one drives outside the town, the river front changes from lush green to bleak brown.  Trees become scarce, and almost all of those remaining have the entirety of their bark worn away up twelve feet by rubbing elephant bodies.  This eventually means death for the trees, as it opens their system to bacterial and fungal infections.  The baobob that remain in the area, likely hundreds of years old, look sick and scarred near the base.  On more recent victims of elephant attacks, the baobob are hourglass-shaped, their soft, pulpy, fibrous interiors exposed as if gnawed by giant beavers.  The main ecological role of the elephant is to maintain plains by destroying forests and encroaching trees.  However, the pure density of grazers and browsers in this area, mixed with the lack of rain for the past three or four months, has meant a severe lack of edible bush and grass on the banks, as well.  There are two different browse lines in bushes and trees, each defined by how high up antelopes and giraffe can reach to eat all the leaves.  All that is left are a few unreachable patches of vegetations and a lot of sand.

Alongside the drawing effect of a large water source, the elephants have been more or less been pushed to this river by human encroachment, especially from Zimbabwe where poaching has been rampant.  However, the population appears to have stabilized, according to a recent census, and elephants are now moving out of the Chobe River area to other places that will sustain them, such as Angola and Zambia.  A recent shift in water distribution has left the CKGR with a river that will support permanent elephant populations, as well.  Even this movement of animals away from Chobe, however, cannot fix the overpopulation problem or mask the blatant destruction that has occurred there in the past few years.

Elephants are actually quite difficult to live with from an agricultural point of view.  They raze crops, destroy fences, and create dangerous, often deadly, situations for animals and farmers.  One can live alongside them, but it is very difficult for humans and elephants to comfortably occupy the same space.  Many theories have risen to approach this problem.  The most obvious solution is to decrease the number of elephants.  Translocations have been attempted many times, but an animal moved often will return to its former home.  I have heard of an elephant mother moved without her calf in Uganda that travelled back over 500 km to find it, bringing the entire herd with, reducing an exploit costing many thousands of dollars to a waste of time and energy.  The other option for removing elephants is to have a cull, which is an unpopular decision.  As people, we have created an artificial situation in which a natural area has too many elephants, and many conservationists will argue that it is our responsibility to rectify that imbalance.  If it were white-tail deer or rats, all but the hardcore “bunny-huggers” would argue in favour of a cull.  However, elephants have such amiable personalities, considerable thinking capabilities, and dare I say soul, that most find the thought of killing them en masse absolutely unbearable.  Thus, when the USA withdrew support of an elephant cull in Botswana, the operation was forgotten altogether, much to the locals’ disappointment.

By now, the sheer numbers of elephants have made responsible culling impracticable, so research in sub-Saharan Africa has looked to other methods to try to keep elephant-people interactions to a minimum.  Several instances of specialized fencing have shown some promise.  Spicy chilli pepper fences and those containing bee nests have been proven to at least somewhat deter pachyderms from crossing them, but are yet to be employed in mass effect.  Others are attempting castration campaigns to reduce elephant fertility, another skill and labour intensive but hopeful idea in decreasing elephant numbers for the long run.  However, more new ideas are going to be necessary in reducing the conflict.

In addition to elephantine destruction in Chobe, the park has a couple other problems going for it.  The great concentration of animals has proven as favourable conditions for disease vector spread.  Mongeese (it may be incorrect pluralization, but I’m sticking with it) rooting through human refuse have contracted a novel form of human tuberculosis, and are spreading it amongst themselves.  Even more worrisome is the ever present threat of Bacillus anthracis, the bacterium that causes the dreaded anthrax.  An anaerobic microbe native to the soil, these little guys will sporulate when exposed to oxygen, creating little heat-tolerant environmentally-resistant spores that can last for decades or centuries.  Anthrax affects herbivores primarily, as they are most likely to ingest large quantities of bacteria-ridden soil through grazing, but can spread to humans and carnivores through exposure to infected tissues or sanitation issues.  Necropsy of infected animals will result in exposure of B. anthracis to the air, resulting in sporulation and exposure of the people doing the necropsy to the disease.  Thus, when a carcass is found in the Chobe area, it is burned to kill the organisms within.  Every now and then in the park, one can come across the charred smouldering corpse of what once was an elephant or buffalo.  This is, of course, preferable to the alternative of letting anthrax be consumed by lions or leopards or various other animals, killing them as well.  Unfortunately, park officials do not burn the animals correctly, and use old tires to maintain the flame.  Aside from the poisoning this does to the air by burning rubber, the wire left behind is not cleaned up and often eaten by buffalo.  This can result in wire poking through the rumen into the pericardium, a condition called hardware disease, creating infection around the heart that kills the animal.

The other large concern in recent years is the amount of overfishing in the Chobe River.  Botswana government happily put an end to it on their side; fishing by net is illegal in Botswana.  In Namibia, however, on the opposite shore, the problem is so unchecked that their nets span the entirety of the river in a display of foolish recklessness and lack of forethought for future generations of fish in the environment.  Not only are there so many that one can hardly go on a boat game tour without have fishermen in line of view, but the nets themselves are entirely unsustainable.  The holes in the nets are maybe an inch wide, resulting in a huge amount of bycatch.  Everything in the river will be entangled in those nets, small inedible fish alongside the large and desirable tigerfish and Okavango bream.  Hauling up nets like this will result in wiping out all but the smallest of organisms in the riverbed, which is a shame considering the huge diversity of birds and other animals dependent on the fish populations.  Countless storks, fish eagles, darters, and kingfishers can be seen along the shoals feeding next to crocodiles; these, too, can end up victims to the abundant and poorly cared for nets.  I witnessed a giant beast of a crocodile with net wrapped around the back of its lower jaw, a condition likely to cause the ancient monolith to starve and die someday.

Although there are a number of problems, the beauty of the area is undeniable.  Much needs to be done to preserve this amazing ecosystem, on the part of various different countries, but I believe that with cooperation a concerted effort can be maintained.  I cannot begin to describe in full the natural treasure that is the Chobe river front, so I will let the pictures explain.  (As soon as I can download them, anyway.)

Holistic Management: Saving the Environment Using Beef

In western Botswana lies the Ghanzi province, a region of flat plains creating a buffer between the semi-arid CKGR and full on desert of Namibia.  Before the Boers (Afrikaner farmers) arrived in the 1900s, few colonized this area aside from San, the southern Africa Bushmen hunter-gatherers that Batswana (people of Tswana culture) in modern day  have abused similarly to how Native Americans were by the colonies, pushed off ancestral land with all rights removed.  In Ghanzi, San have found their niche as farmhands for the Boers, and the province has become one of Botswana’s most important beef producing sectors.  Most of the farms, I am told, are managed by family lineage, passed on to a youth that does not care about the land and lets it become overgrazed and converted from grassy plain to thorny acacia bush, an ecosystem that does not do well to maintain wild herbivores, let alone cattle.  Two farmers, however, have moved in and adopted an environmentally friendly policy that focuses more on shaping the land itself than growing cattle.  It was these two farms, the best that Botswana has to offer, far as I can tell, that I had the pleasure of visiting and working on for a few days.

The old way of farming, still used in many parts of Botswana, is that of communal grazing, where anyone with cattle can put them in a government-owned large paddock, not subdivided at all, and let them graze freely.  These animals are then able to freely roam around and select whichever grass they want to eat.  They happily tear up all of the palatable species of grass, leaving behind nitrogen-poor, tough, non-nutritious plants.  In addition to selecting for poor grass, openings in the ground are quickly filled by bush.  Bush encroachment due to overgrazing of an area is quickly becoming the greatest threat to the Kalahari plains ecosystem.  One can easily tell when driving down the road which areas support cattle and which do not by looking at the vegetation.  Those with cattle are thick with thorny acacia, and the ground beneath is bare, naught but sand and a few tufts of inedible grass interspersed.  The communal way is a management system of non-management, pure laziness allowing those with no knowledge of cattle or desire to farm to own some animals as a cultural status symbol.  As such, animals and land are both heavily abused.  This week we witnessed a couple methods of reversing this process and sustainably returning the landscape to its former glory.

The first farm is a textbook example of a movement called Holistic Management.  This is a theory that focuses on using cattle to improve the land.  It started with a Zimbabwean named Allan Savory who moved to plains systems in the central USA, very similar in ecology to those of the Kalahari.  What he noticed was giant herds of grazing bison and pronghorn shaping the ecosystem the same way that zebra and wildebeest do in Africa.  These social herds stick together, and are in such large numbers that they graze the land they are on very intensely.  Because of the concentration of animals, they are forced to eat unpalatable as well as palatable species, removing selection for unpalatable and allowing the palatable to thrive.  In addition, the trampling of hooves kills sprouting bushes and trees, preventing growth of woody species that encroach upon the grassland.  This previously unseen link is part of what keeps the plains ecosystem alive and forms the basis for cattle management in the holistic system.

To explain it simply, the holistic paddock is split into many very small cells.  The cattle are kept in one very large herd, here about 1500 breeding cows, and all are grazed in the same cell for about four days.  Cattle completely graze the entire area, good grass as well as the less nutritious, and trod the ground effectively to keep down the woody growth.  Once the four days are up, they are moved to the next cell and go forth all the way around until they end up back in the cell they started. There are 32 cells in this case, such that by the time the cattle return to the first paddock, about 120 days have passed, allowing the grass to regrow, but not the bush. This is similar to the commonly used rotational grazing system, but in a much higher intensity.   Periodic wiping out and regrowth maintains the paddock exactly like the natural grasslands, and the land on this farm looks remarkably similar to that in the CKGR.  This effect is bolstered by the presence of wild species of grazers and browsers present, cleaning up by selectively devouring shrubs that the cattle do not touch.  In addition to their contribution to the environment, this farm is predator friendly, electing to live alongside cheetah and wild dog rather than kill them as the neighbours do.  In fact, research has shown that keeping the animals in a large herd may help reduce predation effects.  Predators are more likely to pick off the weak animal alone at the edge, but with so many cattle in one place, it is harder to sort out that weak link.  In fact, predation may help the holistic management by keeping the grazers in a tighter group, increasing the effects of the system, so it is all around wonderful for the environment.

The holistic management system does have its difficulties, though.  The cattle themselves are put into a much more stressful environment.  They are a little thinner, and calving rates tend to not be quite as good as cattle free to graze selectively.  However, they are using more resources of the land, and for this, the holistic farm produces less calves per cow, but more beef per hectare than their neighbours.  Interpretation of which statistic is more significant is up to the individual, but personally, I think back to the growing world hunger crisis and believe that an extrinsic system that supports the environment while producing more beef is better than a system that produces more calves.  In order to help support animals that require a higher plane of nutrition, such as the first time pregnant heifers, they have adopted a system of sending those 500 animals into the paddock ahead of the 1500 main herd, allowing the 500 heifers to select the better grass.  Another reason for lower calving rates would be increased pressure on the bulls to find and impregnate cattle.  During the breeding season, a cow comes into heat one day in 28, so we will say 1 day in 30 to make easy maths.  If you have one bull for every 30 cows, it is easier for 10 bulls to find 10 cattle in heat for a herd of 300 than it is for 50 bulls to find 50 cattle in heat in a herd of 1500, and that is considering that the bull is mating every day with a cow in heat for an entire month.  With a three month breeding season, the bulls only have three chances to impregnate the cows, so as herd size increases, so does likelihood that not every cow gets mated.  Similar to how cows in large pastures are able to graze selectively, bulls in large herds are able to mate selectively.

The other big issue is that if you drop the ball on this herd, things can go south very quickly.  One disease outbreak or flaw in the system, and the entire herd, which is all of your breeding cattle, could be incapacitated.  This “eggs in one basket” situation requires the farm owner and workers to be sharp at all times.  The holistic management system needs a significant amount of education and MANAGEMENT.  As evidenced by the adoption of the communal grazing system, this particular M word is not always regarded as a desirable thing to many people of Botswana, Boers and Batswana alike.  The good farms that we see are always the ones that are properly managed.  Happily, most of the farms I have been to are smart enough to hire a vet for PDs and management consultation, and as such are well managed on the whole.

The second of the Ghanzi farms visited is holistic in that it promotes palatable grass production and plains preservation, but does not use the grazing animals as its main tool.  This farm, started by donations from an anonymous philanthropist, was made with the interest of being a teaching farm to empower the people and build capacity for them to be great farmers on their own.  Unfortunately, citizens of Botswana have the benefit of government “incentive” programs, paid for with money from diamond production, that ironically tend to eliminate incentive to work very hard.  Students accused the hired manager for the farm of using them as cheap labour, and the teaching aspect of the place has fallen apart, but more on the Botswana workforce another time.  The philanthropist is giving the managers, a couple whose farms were forcefully taken in Zimbabwe, funds to make the farm self-sustainable, and they are doing a wonderful job of achieving this while making it completely environmentally friendly at the same time.

Technologically, this beef farm is as state of the art as Botswana gets.  The kraals and races are all designed with the idea in mind that these are to be the best examples possible of what they should look like.  The are split into multiple small paddocks that lead to a funnel to herd cattle into the race where they can be worked with efficiently.  Working between these new kraals and one of the old ones that has not yet been renovated, it was very clear how proper facilities make the job much easier.  Boreholes used to pump water up for the animals are powered by wind and solar energy rather than generators.  Similar to the first farm in this post, watering points aside from those in the kraals are provided for the wild animals.  This keeps those populations well-watered while giving predators a watering point to focus on for hunting that is not strictly populated by cattle, decreasing predation by the animals that people who use these environmentally friendly systems know and love.

To deal with bush encroachment, this farm does not use the high intensity grazing system that the other does.  Rather, they go out by hand, cutting down trees and bushes, and then periodically burn the grass.  The cutting allows the San farmhands to have wood for their cooking fires, and the burning is part of the natural cycle that keeps grasslands from becoming forest.  Just like the trampling theory, grass grows back faster than the woody species, so if the area is periodically burned and allowed to regrow, the grassy plains are maintained and the bush is held back.  Like the other system, it requires great care and detail in timing of regrowth and grazing of those paddocks, but it is a highly effective and natural way to preserve the environment.  On the way home from Ghanzi, Mark and I drove past at least three huge wildlfires, visible on the flat horizon for many miles, that were doing their job to make sure that the Kalahari stays as the Kalahari should, grassy and flat.  This relatively new farm has yet to reach its full potential, but is making wonderful progress, and the effects are obvious.  Riding in the back of the truck going from kraal to kraal was literally a game drive for me.  I observed dozens of kudu, ostriches, warthogs, and a plethora of bird species, including secretary birds, of which this farm has a breeding pair.

Ultimately, I believe that a mixture of the above methods could be employed to let the land realize its full potential.  Both of these farms are well on their way as examples of the future of sustainable farming in Africa.  Their simultaneous focus on environment and beef production give rise to hope for an ecosystem that is in dire need of preservation.  Cheetah Conservation of Botswana has established a station in Ghanzi to help spread the good word and educate farmers in the region, but, as usual, changing mindsets and cultures proves difficult.  If we can get these managers on the environmental side, it will be a major win for the planet.  With threats from bush encroachment, mineral mining, predator extinction, and more, the Kalahari needs people to adopt these farming values to save a habitat that provides no end of beautiful and inspiring sights.

Black Magic Woman

Today I went to the doctor, but worry not, for I am perfectly healthy.  Jane took me to see the Setswana doctor, or “witch doctor” as might be said in the states.  Many back home will imagine this to be a sort of savage ritual for an ignorant people, but to Batswana the Setswana doctor is a revered and, oft times, feared figure integral to a deeply rooted culture.

The story starts with my last post when all my things were stolen.  Yesterday, just before going to the USA Embassy to get a new passport, a policeman called saying he had my passport and Mark’s driver’s license.  We rushed to the station, already being in the Gaborone area, and started asking around for where I could get my passport back.  No one knew anything about it, so Mark phoned the fellow, who came around the corner and waved to us to come around back.  At that point, the young man handed over our pieces, and the passport was still in perfect working condition.  Overwhelmed, we asked him where exactly he found them, and the only reply we could get out was, “Ee, just over there in the village somewhere.”  He then told us to go file a case report.  We, of course, had filed a case report just after the robbery, which this officer clearly knew nothing about and had not bothered to check.  At this point we realized that he was probably looking for a sort of financial reward, and promptly took our leave of the station, informing the senior detective of this development on the way out.

Which brings us to today’s adventure.  Jane has become a regular customer of the Setswana doctor; she brings her farmhands when objects are stolen or animals go missing.  Most of the time, those that had no information would stare into the mirror, watching events unfold before them, and be able to name a culprit.  When Jane threatens with paying for a curse, the man in question will likely confess and repent for the wrongdoings.  This method has proven valuable multiple times over now.  Today, though, we were looking for much more difficult magic.  No one could look in the mirror and see the events that unfolded on Sunday, we had no names, no leads, only items that had been touched by the criminals.  Hoping for a miracle, we consulted the Setswana doctor.

Jane and I drove up to a community typical for the urban sprawl of Botswana, small one or two room brick houses with clothes drying out on the line, chickens pecking at the dust, and a group of young girls jumproping down the empty street.  A small cat lazily basked in the afternoon sun, guarding the threshold like an ancient Sphinx.  We were greeted by a woman whose stature bore a strong sense of pride and importance.  She beckoned us into a cluttered room with a bed on one side and multiple chairs lined against a wall, which we were asked to sit on.  As Jane commenced a discourse in Setswana, I surveyed the place, noting a number of vials against an old shelf, a cupboard full of clothing in the corner, a seemingly disorganized pile of odds and ends, and hanging on the rafter, a large python skin.

The woman was wearing shirt and trousers covered in dust, usual for late July, and a number of colorful bracelets and anklets denoting her prestigious line of work.  She donned a cloth red cape about her shoulders, brought out a tall white candle, and, heating the bottom with a match, firmly attached it to the floor.  The candle was lit and we placed the passport, license, and trampled flowers from the robbery all on the ground by the candle.  When she sat down, she began smoothing the floor and tapping it, going into her trance-like state to find the nature of the criminals.  She would ask the occasional question of Jane, and gave us a brief description of the people we wanted caught.  Four men they were, one in a tank top, all making their business as regular thieves.  She saw armed men in camo uniform, the Botswana army, holding these men in the back of a truck in the near future.  The names remained elusive, so putting a curse on them to get them caught would be difficult.  She will have to burn the flowers tonight as the sun sets.  As for our stolen possessions, I was given a bit of magic to bring the desired objects back home.  Each night, I will stand at the threshold of my home, facing in, plead to my ancestors to bring the items back, and blow a pinch of powder into the room.  To get my journal back, it’s worth a shot.  We left her pay on the floor, as nothing must pass hands from laypersons to the spiritually inclined, and said our goodbyes.

This is all, no doubt, very amusing to those whose cultures have evolved past the need for witchcraft, but it does play an integral role in Botswana.  Many people, not trusting the hospital doctor, prefer to go to the Setswana doctor, who regularly guarantees a quick fix, lotion or potion to cure their ails.  This is one of those cases I have mentioned before in which national progress may be deterred via cultural values.  The Botswana-UPenn Partnership was started as a research collaboration to study HIV, which has a prevalence of 24% in the 15 to 49 age group in Botswana.  This subject, I believe, some of the other students that came out this summer could tell much more about than myself.  The Setswana doctors are one of many reasons that this disease continues to perpetuate itself.  A sex-craving man is given some “medicine” and told that in two weeks, he will be cured, and he and the women he tells as such will believe it.  The disease continues to run rampant, and about 17% of the country’s health workforce and 20% of the agricultural workforce are knocked out by AIDS.  The value of preventative education is decreasing as teachers contract the disease and children drop out to care for sick family members.  With all this in mind, as much as I love the richness of tradition and cultural heritage inherent in the woman we met today, I wish that she would stick to cursing cattle thieves and leave the medicine to the real doctors.

Law and Disorder

I hope you did not come to this post looking to learn more about animals in Botswana.  We are going to have just a bit of a diversion; it turns out that my education here will amount to much more than those issues related directly to the veterinarian.  The other day our car was robbed, and I am left in this country with little more than a camera and clothes; even my passport has been relieved of me.

Botswana is a very peaceful country, unlike its neighbors.  While Mugabe runs amok in Zimbabwe and white farmers are being murdered in South Africa, you can generally rest assured in Botswana knowing that your life is very unlikely to be threatened by another human.  There are some who will disagree with this statement.  Just a couple weeks ago a woman was murdered by a scorned ex-lover, and Women Against Rape, an organization based in Maun up north, will certainly have plenty of examples of people whose lives are threatened daily.  “Place of Reeds” is a wonderful book by Caitlin Davies about her twelve years in Botswana, during which she was violently raped, and she would certainly attest to the fact that this can be a dangerous place.  Still, you can walk the streets without having a stranger pull a gun on you, which makes this country relatively peaceful in my book.

Nevertheless, crime runs rampant.  Most of it is theft, the “haves” being called upon regularly for donations to the “have nots.”  For this reason, everyone lives behind bars.  Walls, electric fencing, gates, and burglar bars on windows are common for those who can afford them.  Even the poor appear to live within at least a short chain-link fence, and guard dogs are common occurence.  The goal is to be slightly more difficult to rob than other people around.  I have heard multiple stories of people having to defend their property, and far more of those who have had it taken.  Not long ago Mark and Jane’s entire goat herd was lifted and returned by police.  Two months ago a welder was taken, and just a few weeks back some fencing was cut as South Africans attempted to herd cattle across the border.  If you own anything of value, you have to be careful.

And I have been careful with my things.  I carry my essentials for the workday in my pack, and the rest stays in my room.  On Saturday, we were late for a lunch party in Gaborone, so I failed to deposit my work things back in my room before we were off.  We had a lovely Saturday to start off the public holiday weekend, and Sunday was looking beautiful as well: we had decided to get our friends in Lobatse together for a picnic at the dam on Mark’s farm.  We were doing some shopping for the picnic, and Mark and I parked the car in the lot and ran inside to grab groceries.  Not five minutes later we returned to find that the car door was open, and our valuables removed.  Flowers we had been given the day before lay scattered and trampled on the back seat.  Mark’s camera, wallet, and my bag, which contained laptop, stethoscope, veterinary manual, glasses, passport, and journal, were all thieved.  A G4S security guard was sitting idly about thirty yards away.  He had seen nothing.

How could it be?  Mark had locked the car, the lights flashed in response, and we were secure.  What happens is this: The vagabond has a gate remote, and he holds the button down while driving into the spot next to you.  The proximity of this remote interferes with the signal from the keys to lock the car, such that when the gate button is released, the car unlocks, and the criminal can make off with the pick of the lot.  The laptop was not even exposed, they just grabbed my bag and happened to get lucky.  We had noticed a silver BMW pull in next to us, and when we talked to another G4S man, he told us a silver BMW had been chased away when attempting to do the same to another car.  With license plate number of the culprit in hand, we were off to the Old Naledi police station to file a report.

Having heard previous accounts of the helpfullness of Botswana police, I was not expecting much.  The building was made of smooth cement, and its cold hard walls painted beige, a construction common across Africa, I think to ward off the heat of day.  The officers within carried the air of friendly nonchalance so familiar to the Batswana, chatting and laughing despite the sombre nature of their duty.  The room was fairly barren, containing little more than two large desks, a shelf with various forms, and a bench.  We sat at one table next to the gossipers, the policeman across from us filling out various forms as we related our story.  I was taken by an officer to a separate room to give my account; the unlit space was dark and full of those old wooden combination desk and chairs that I hated in the ancient lecture halls at university, and there was another man giving testimony in Setswana.  He had bandages taped to his head and looked like he might faint at any moment.  As I described my side of events and what went missing, I felt comfortable with the officer.  In a way, it was refreshing to talk with a man who could laugh about these things and treat them as unimportant; it helped put me at ease.  As I relaxed, I leaned back in my rolling chair, so old it consisted of little more than metal and torn foam, and nearly fell over because a wheel on one leg was missing.  Slightly embarrassed, I made a mental note to remain sitting upright for balance.  We continued with the details, me having to stop occasionally to explain what I meant, changing my vocabulary to match his knowledge of English.

Once he had written my statement, I was given a chance to look it over.  It was considerably less detailed than I had described, but had the important bits, which is enough for me, considering the slight language barrier.  Following this, I was taken for fingerprinting.  With some hope, they will be able to identify the culprit via fingerprints left on our car, and the investigators need to be able to distinguish mine from the others.  I do not remember having my prints inked since I was in elementary school.  After this procedure, we returned to the first room, and we all waited while the officers filled out an official case report.  The table of gossipers were now fiddling with an old walkie-talkie.  Jane told me that they were trying to make a call to the officers at roadblocks to stop the license plate number given to us by the G4S man, but the equipment was not working.

As we waited, I took the time to examine the bulletin board behind me, covered with various pictures and papers.  A list of reference pages for codes and procedures of various incidents stood out, and I quickly scanned it for “THEFT FROM AUTOMOBILE.”  Just below was a bar graph of pending cases in 2010, starting at one or two thousand, and increasing by over a hundred per month.  From January to December the total had doubled.  I am now a pending case, part of those ugly and disheartening statistics.  On the far right were photos and descriptions of seven prison escapees.  Each of them was younger than I, who had recently turned 24.  One of them had been imprisoned for murder.

With copies of the police report in hand, we left the station, stopping at the roadblocks on the way home to inform the police there of what happened and the silver BMW they should be looking for.  They still had not gotten word from Naledi police station.  As we reached the farm, we met up with all of our friends at the dam.  The party was still on, and it was a wonderful afternoon and evening.  It was excellent to truly unwind after such a stressful morning and forget, for a few hours at least, about all that would need to be done.  Like the Viking lords of old, we related the day’s battle whilst eating aplenty and letting the wine flow free, with music around the campfire long into the night.

Two days later, we were called in to identify the suspected car, which had been successfully impounded.  We met the detective on the case, a man who looked to be my age and acted inexperienced.  I felt relieved when an older gentleman came into the office, took the seat at the desk the younger man had quickly relinquished, and introduced himself as the senior detective on the case.  We also met the owner of the BMW, large, formidable, and more expensively dressed than any of us.  The story of the G4S man, also present, suddenly changed from seeing this car attempt robbery to seeing this car driving away at breakneck speed as if it had just done something wrong.  We were unable to identify the silver BMW from any other, so all of our evidence is circumstantial at best.  If the fingerprints do not reveal our culprit, our case will likely remain one of those pending on the steadily increasing 2011 bar graph.

I do try to keep positive about these things; stuff is easily replacable, and my computer is backed up on external hard drive back home.  The passport may prove an issue, but I will visit the American Embassy to sort that out tomorrow.  The real loss is my journal, a book that contains the adventures and insights of my past three years, never replacable.  There is no point dwelling on it, though.  It is easy to be pessimistic in such an environment and give up.  Quit farming, quit writing, quit conserving the land and animals, and accept that anything you do will be taken or broken down around you by ignorance, apathy, arrogance and greed.  Or you persevere, as I have seen so many people here do, and never give up the hope that the place can change for the better.  This is Africa.  Love it or leave it, and I am definitely not leaving after one little setback.  (Not until I get a new passport, anyway.)

Why Do We Treat Animals Like Animals?

“You can judge a man’s true character by the way he treats his fellow animals.” – Paul McCartney

At first I was not sure if I would write this post.  I do try not to be negative, to focus on the positive experiences and tell the rest like it is out here.  However, this past farm PD visit still has me reeling several days later, so I believe it is worth writing about.  I have touched on animal welfare in previous posts; however, the two days we spent at this particular farm are still worth relating.  “Know thy enemy.”  In order to change the mindset of cruel people, we must understand them and what they do.  But please do not read this post and think, “The farmers in Africa are horrible people!”  These kinds of things are seen in the developed world, just as excellent farming can be found here.  There are many factors that play a role in the culture of animal cruelty, and in this post we will study a particular case of mismanagement.  But first, a quick game of “Happy Cow, Sad Cow.”

Which one is the happy cow?  I will give you a hint: the second cow is not happy.  Both of these animals are from the Molopo block; they have the same food and water supply, the same environmental stresses, the same exposure to endemic diseases.  The difference is in management.  For cow number one, people watch the animals, rotate them onto good pasture regularly, and monitor for signs of illness.  The second animal is put out to the field and collected on the rare occasion that the farm manager or veterinarian shows up and wants to see the animals.  As such, when an old cow wears out the last of her teeth and is unable to properly graze, especially on the dry dead grass of this time of year, she goes hungry.  Very hungry.  This lady is victim to a crime of laziness and apathy of farmhands without a manager, similar to the following.

This cow and several of her fellows are casualties of Pasteurella, a bacterium that causes respiratory infection.  All of these animals should have had their vaccinations to prevent this disease along with various others.  A year ago Mark visited this farm and left plenty of vaccine for the workers to inject into the cattle.  When he returned six months later, the vaccine bottles sat on the shelf, untouched and expired.  Even when handed the proper tools and equipment and told what to do, they fail to react.  Evidence of inaction is also seen in a calf with a shortened forelimb. This animal should have been euthanized long ago, but here it was hobbling about on one knee, branded the same as the other calves.  Maybe the men, knowing no slaughterhouse would take it, were hoping to fatten up a free meal.  It would not be the only time they stole; every morning workers milk cows and goats, filling buckets for themselves and leaving calves and kids hungry.

The cruelty does not stop there, sadly.  Normally cattle are moved into the chute regularly so they realize it does not have to be a terrible experience.  It makes handling them much easier.  These cattle were taken into the chute only for PDs and vaccinations, so every time they go in they are violated or stabbed, making it not so wonderful an experience.  As such, the cattle do not particularly enjoy going into the chute, and would rather jump over or break through fences and gates.  The men would stand from atop the fences, raining down blows with long rawhide whips, working the cattle into a state of frenzy of pain and terror.  In the case of three calves that were particularly ornery, I could not take it anymore.  I had watched helplessly all day while the cowards stood above the cattle and lashed them until they managed to find an escape route down the chute.  These calves must have weighed about as much as us, so, fed up with their useless techniques, I jumped into the corral.  The largest white Brahman calf locked eyes as soon as I hit the ground, and I saw that it was so stressed blood was flowing from both nostrils.  The men stopped whipping when I went in, and the calf head-butted me twice in the knees before gladly fleeing away like the others into the chute.  I would rather take a couple hits than see this poor soul be worked around in circles until it died.  The farmhands laughed at me, as I expected they would.  I do not know what culture they must have grown up in to take such pleasure in the pain of other animals, but I cannot abide this kind of abuse.

I will stop at this point, as I feel I am venting my own frustrations more than educating the public, but it was difficult to bear, and I think Mark and I both left feeling demoralized.  Whoever gave the Batswana the title of the master cattle herders in Africa had clearly looked more at quantity of animals than quality of care.  Anyway, if you come to read this site, you will find the good, the bad and the ugly as they appear, and this week was unfortunately the bad and the ugly.  I am happy to say that this was the worst of the worst that can be found in Botswana; it should all be uphill from here.  I look forward to an upcoming trip to a farm in Ghanzi, which I have been told is the best of the best.  It should be a stark contrast to that which we just went through.  Rainbows shine brightest next to darkest clouds.

FMD Episode V: The Abattoir Strikes Back

While my compatriots in the states were celebrating the fourth of July, we in Botswana had a very different reason to cheer.  For the first time in many months, the feedlots have reopened for business.  If you recall from one of my first posts here, they closed back in February due to failed inspections from the European Union.  This was because Botswana was not complying with EU and OIE regulations regarding animal welfare, infrastructure, and lack of traceability of cattle from farm to dinner plate.  The problem of getting to a state of compliance was further exacerbated by the outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease crossing the border from Zimbabwe in the northeast, meaning that zone is unable to export to any FMD negative country, such as anywhere in Europe.  However, now Botswana Meat Commission, the organization in charge of exporting animal products, is buying cattle again, and the ball is rolling to get Botswana cattle back on the EU market.  This is very important, as a place like Norway will pay as much as four times the amount for quality beef than a country like Malawi will.  Economically speaking, the BMC, the feedlots, the farmers and the vets working with them all and selling vaccinations and drugs need this country to pass its next inspection.

The way it works is thusly.  The cattle are bought by the BMC at the farm and then moved from the farm to the hired feedlots for fattening and disease monitoring before they are slaughtered at the BMC abattoir and the meat is shipped off to Europe.  For every movement of animals across zone borders, the vets from the government Department of Veterinary Sciences need to be there filling out a permit for each animal detailing which animal was on which truck, moved to which pen in the feedlot on whatever day, and linked to an account containing all vaccinations, medications, disease status, everything you would ever want to know about that particular animal.  This may seem an overly intricate attention to detail, but this traceability is crucial to any food production system.  Suppose there is an outbreak of disease, thirty people in Norway get sick from eating beef.  We need to be able to go back and see where exactly in the system the problem happened so we can prevent it from happening again.  Were all of the cases from the same farm?  The cattle whose meat was eaten, were they all loaded onto the same truck and caught a disease in transit?  Maybe they were living in the same pen in the feedlot where a broken pipe has leaked water contaminated with pathogens that needs fixing.  Any link in the chain can be weak, and each sirloin eaten has its own chain that we need to be able to follow straight back to the day it was born.

The feedlots and the BMC have spent millions of Pula in the past few months to update their facilities to reach EU compliance.  New sick pens have been built for animal isolation, new color-coded rows have been implemented to coordinate ear tags with cattle placement, a universal electronic cataloguing system has been implemented for the feedlots and BMC so that everyone is working on the same page in the same way.  Mark and I have spent a large part of this past week poring through pages of EU and OIE codes and regulations to make sure that everyone is up to snuff.  All recommendations have been followed to the letter, and cattle have started moving from farms to feedlots, where they stay for a 90-day withholding period to make sure they are healthy and disease free, after which they are slaughtered and sold to Europe.  Providing, of course, that they pass EU inspection this coming September.  If they fail compliance, all has been for naught and the entire system collapses, a sort of make or break moment.  The feedlots and BMC have done all they can to improve; now it is up to the DVS to make sure all the movement permits are up to code.  This task has, thus far, proven… challenging for them, but things are moving in the right direction and the kinks in the chain are being straightened out.

Now keep in mind, this is all concerning the Lobatse feedlots.  The Francistown feedlots are now deep in the growing FMD positive zone, and cattle from that area will not be sold for anything more than local slaughter until the disease is under control.  FMD continues to spread despite policies in place to prevent infection of new herds. The culprit of this is likely a lack of regulation on movement of animals for ritual slaughters in homes, such as for weddings and funerals.  These cultural events go relatively unchecked, potentially moving FMD positive animals from one place to the next.  There is a sort of battle between old cultural tradition and forward development as a country, the one side seeming to often times hinder the other.  This is a debate for another time, though.

So the country has something like 28,000 FMD positive or FMD vaccinated cattle that cannot be exported to Europe, but are still edible.  Botswana already has plenty of beef for itself, so what do we do with it all?  Why not sell it half price to Zimbabwe, the FMD-ridden country that gave us the infection in the first place?  All of that cheap meat would not only destroy Zimbabwean farmers’ attempts to sell cattle for beef, but also give Zimbabwe the ability to sell cheap beef to countries like Malawi, which Botswana sells meat to, at prices lower than Botswana can sell its meat for while remaining economically sustainable.  Cheap FMD beef in those proportions could potentially overload southern Africa and collapse beef agriculture in the region.   Sorry, what’s that, Lassie?  Botswana government already sold 21,000 cattle to Zimbabwe and has started moving them without telling anyone?  Oh.  That will be interesting.

The Hills Are Alive

Every now and then we have a small break in the work pace.  On these rare days off, I take it upon myself to explore the hills of the farm.  The southeast district, including Lobatse and Gaborone, are a break in continuity to the general flatness that comprises the majority of Botswana.  Here we have rolling hills with beautiful rock outcroppings, appearing just as dry and desolate as the rest of Botswana’s landscape.  We are deep into the cold dry season by now, temperatures reaching freezing at night on a regular basis.  There has been no rain since my stay in Khutse in early June; in fact, weeks have gone by with literally not a single cloud in the sky.  Yesterday was an exception, ominously grey clouds in the morning breaking into clarity by evening with nary a drop spilled.  Every other day since has been bright blue above, and the plants show it.  The grass is brown, and the occasional strong winds rip the dead leaves off of the more deciduous trees.  The landscape will continue to become monotone in color during my stay, as the rains are not likely to start until September, but there is life in these hills yet.

Like all good stories, my adventure starts at the doorstep.   From here, I merely step through the gate into the bush.  At first, the land is open, used for cattle grazing and goat browsing, but it soon thickens into acacia bush.  Roads become cattle trails, cattle trails become game trails, and game trails drop off so that I find myself searching for the path of least resistance.  Going can be slow while fighting through acacia with dry thorns five centimeters in length, but the view is generally worth the battle.  Upon reaching the first peak, I was able to survey Mark’s farm from a perspective not often witnessed by the human eye.

Pushing onward, my climber’s instinct was naturally attracted to that large bare rock face seen every day as I left my room.  The ascent was steep, but well worth the climb.  The bush beneath was thick, so much so that by the end I was crawling on hands and knees through a thicket, much like Alice going through the rabbit hole to reveal the Wonderland beyond.  The rocks are a climber’s paradise, red and black in the midday sun.  Would that I had rope, gear, and partner, we would find some truly awesome routes to climb.  Being without, I was happy enough to enjoy the beauty as it was.  Every now and then an unidentified eagle would soar by at eye level, and if one is patient and quiet, the odd hyrax can be found sunning itself on a warm boulder.  Klipspringers dash off as agile as mountain goats across the rubble-strewn hillside at the sound of my approach.  Truly, these bleak, lifeless rocks contain a wealth of vitality.

My next ascent into the hills, two weeks after the above, I skipped entirely the rocks and veered off the beaten path deeper into the bush.  The excursion took me up and down, navigating the rocks and grass of peaks and valleys that are all still part of the farm territory.  As I journeyed from peak to peak, I came across a familiar noise, a sound I had not encountered for nearly three years.  At first I thought maybe it was my imagination, a strange bird chirping, maybe, but after two or three brief calls, I knew that the unmistakable hoot was not merely within my head.  Baboons!  The calls were close, but the animals remained unseen, so I moved on.  Continuing the adventure, the increasingly brown landscape allowed me to take special note of the little blotches of color that managed to survive in the face of daytime heat and nighttime frost.  Here would be a few pinks or purple flowers hiding in the shade; there an insect, body of the brightest red, zips past.  These are like the rare spattering of paint drops from a brush moving away from the palette to beautify another canvas, out of place where they lay and often overlooked.

When midday approached, I decided to climb the next peak and then head home to be back before dark.  However, I heard more baboon calls on the ridge to the east, and being exceedingly curious in nature (a trait we share with the monkeys), I veered off my southward path to investigate.  As I climbed the ridge, the burbling calls grew in frequency on either side, and I caught glimpses of animals in the grass and bush.  Reaching the top, I took a seat on a conveniently placed rock in the shade to give my quarry the chance to approach me, should they so desire.  I could have tossed out some sandwich crust to help, but feed the seagull and you get the whole flock, and baboon troops can easily number in the dozens.   So I waited, and after some hollers back and forth, I spotted rustling in a tree thirty meters off.  There sat a lone sentinel making eye contact with me the way one does across a field with an acquaintance on does not want to talk to, hoping you have not been seen but knowing the contrary and expecting an awkward encounter.  After some twenty minutes of quiet, I went in their direction.  The sentry fled, as had all the others.  These chacmas were more skittish than the baboons I knew in Kenya that walked amongst people and stole food out of hands.

At this point it was time to head home, so I angled my path to a dry riverbed that would lead me back to the farm road.  As I descended, I caught wind of a raucous mayhem echoing across the valley before me.  On the opposite hillside, easily spotted in a clearing, was the entire troop on the move, at least thirty to forty individuals clamoring through trees and over boulders.  Somehow they were managing to run and play and fight amongst themselves all at the same time.  I began, ever so slightly, to question the wisdom of attempting to near the troop.  It was a fleeting thought, I assure you.  I reached the road in peace and was then startled to find down the way my timid friends crossing in front of me.  At this point I began to wonder just who was following whom.

I do hope to continue exploring this area.  Atop some of these hills are ruins of old settlements over 200 years old, a relatively untouched bit of Botswana history.  There should also be multiple leopards in the area that I would love to find signs of if I cannot see them sunning on a rock somewhere, not to mention various animals that, if I get incredibly lucky, might be seen, such as caracal and honey badgers.  It is a relatively safe environment to relax in as well, so long as one keeps an eye out for puff adders and black mambas.  In the meantime, works goes on fairly regularly, and big things are happening with the beef industry, so I am sure to have plenty more to update with soon.


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