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'We Are Also a Species': Botswana's Bushmen Are Fighting Conservationists for Tribal Rights

Ahead of a major international summit on the illegal wildlife trade, the Bushmen and their British lawyer say their ancient way of life is facing extinction.

by Ruth MacLean
Feb 27 2015, 7:25pm

Botswana is the best African country when it comes to protecting wildlife. For conservationists, that's elementary.

Around 40 per cent of its land is designated either as game reserves or wildlife management areas. Last year the president, the well-known conservationist Ian Khama, issued a complete ban on hunting, but it had already been heavily regulated for years.

Botswana is most famous for its many herds of elephant — it is home to at least a third of Africa's elephants, and with 200,000 head, has more than any other country. In March, the country plays host to the world's most important conference on wildlife crime, where one of the major issues will be ivory poaching.

But this is not a problem for Botswana, where poaching rates are the lowest in the continent. A military task force which deals ruthlessly with poachers is often credited with this.

"God will judge a poacher; it is up to us to arrange the meeting," Tshekedi Khama, minister of environmental affairs and the president's little brother, said in 2013.

However, the ancient race of Bushmen, the oldest inhabitants of southern Africa, have a bone to pick with the conservation organizations that are often the authors of these accolades.

There is a dark underside to Khama's inflexible conservation policy, and that concerns their livelihood.

In the tradition of their ancestors, Bushmen still hunt to feed their families. The hunting ban applies to them too, however, and if they are caught hunting, they can be imprisoned.

Over the past two decades they have been stopped from hunting and punished for it with beatings and in some cases torture. Thrown off their land inside the Central Kalahari Game Reserve several times, they have been forced to live in cramped resettlement camps.

"If people care about species — we are also a species," Jumanda Gakelebone, a Bushman from the Kalahari, told VICE News on the fringes of a wildlife crime meeting in South Africa on Thursday. "You can't just allow us to be extinct.

"We should be known and respected as hunters and gatherers. We have stayed in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) for many years with the wild animals, and we're still there. If you say we can't hunt, you say 'Don't eat'."

 Jumanda Gakelebone in Johannesburg. Images by Ruth MacLean

He pointed out that the ban on hunting does not extend to some luxury lodges, where rich tourists can pay thousands to shoot game.

"We are the hunters, so for any ban on hunting, we should be consulted. A lot of us are going to be imprisoned. There is torture in the CKGR. There are arrests in the CKGR. People are living in fear."

Bushmen now have to hunt in secret, and cook at night, he said.

Botswana is not unique in violating tribal people's rights in the name of conservation, according to Gordon Bennett, a British barrister who travels the world trying to restore these rights.

He pointed to Cameroon, where the Baka pygmies have been attacked with machetes and forced from their ancestral lands by eco-guards who were, he said, effectively funded by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

British lawyer Gordon Bennett. 

"Their way of life has been taken from them without their consent — without any discussion — and they see no way forward," Bennett told VICE News. "Taken from them by eco-guards, wildlife scouts, and paramilitary personnel who have little or no sympathy for tribal ways."

The WWF has since created a commission of inquiry into the abuses, along with Survival International, the rights group Bennett often works with. This has yielded nothing for the Baka yet, though, he said; it is taking "a long time to get off the ground."

Other conservation organizations also come under fire from Survival International and Bennett, particularly those under the umbrella of United for Wildlife, which Britain's Prince William is president of.

"It's a movement supported by their father, the future King of England, supposedly, and one of [its] principle planks... is increased onuses on wildlife law enforcement. Poachers, they say, have become highly organized, they have sophisticated weaponry, they are prepared to go to almost any lengths to achieve their aims, which are entirely based, it is said, on money.

"The reaction has been that conservationists themselves must use weapons.

"Increased militarization is counter-productive because it alienates the local communities on whom conservation ought to depend. If local people are going to be demonized as poachers whether they are poachers or not, then understandably they might just as well become poachers."

United for Wildlife is one of the lead players in the Botswana wildlife crime summit next month.

Bennett, however, will not be able to attend: he was banned from Botswana after winning a series of landmark cases for the Bushmen, which gave them back the right to live in the CKGR.

Neither will members of Survival International: the entire organization has also been banned from the country.

Survival is monitoring the Bushmen's situation from outside the country, and a spokeswoman made the point that if Botswana is serious about fighting poaching, it needs to get the Bushmen on side.

"Tribal people are generally the best conservationists. They've managed their land sustainably for many generations," Rebecca Spooner said. "Forcibly removing tribal peoples are a violation of human rights and should be opposed by conservationists. The world can no longer afford a conservation model which ignores tribal peoples."

As for the Bushmen, although they want to hunt animals as their forefathers did, they have an interest in stopping poachers too, and have offered their assistance.

"Please protect us. We can help to protect [against] poaching," Gakelebone said.

Follow Ruth MacLean on Twitter: @RuthMaclean