Rhino in Botswana: an interview with Map Ives


shutterstock_426073126Map Ives, National Rhino Coordinator for the government of Botswana and environmental director for Wilderness Safaris, sits down with Stuart Butler to discuss the reintroduction of rhino into northern Botswana

Tell me a little about the history of rhino in Botswana?
There have been several fluctuations in the population over the past hundred years or so. The earliest records of rhino in the region are from around 1850 when David Livingstone was exploring the area, with reports of several tens of thousands of black and white rhino. By 1872 the earliest colonial hunters were proclaiming that they were already much harder to find and, by around the 1890s, unrestricted trophy hunting had led to the near-extinction of the white rhino. This downward trend continued with time, except for the period during the two World Wars when rhino numbers picked up again and during the period around 1960 to 1980 when there was a reintroduction programme. Numbers then began to crash again as a result of poaching.

How did the rhino reintroduction programme come about?
The idea was originally conjured up by Wilderness Safaris around the start of the new millennium. The company looked at the ecosystems in Botswana in which they were involved and concluded that they were incomplete without rhino. The team involved realised that their reintroduction was too big a project for them to attempt alone and so they managed to persuade the Botswanan government to get involved via a joint venture.

And how many rhino have so far been released?
I am reluctant to give exact figures for security reasons; however, we certainly have a decent founding population. It’s not a large amount of animals, however it is large enough that the rhinos can find each other and that we can ensure a reasonable genetic diversity. We’ve got both black and white rhino, although more white.

Where and how do you get hold of live rhino?
Well, it is quite complicated. While we get most of our rhino from South Africa, some of the them come from Zimbabwe, which has been very successful in breeding rhino on private conservancies. In order to acquire them, it is necessary to put in a diplomatic request that goes through the environmental ministries and foreign affairs departments of both nations. Once individuals have been found, the South Africans send a delegation to Botswana to inspect our facilities and ensure that they are suitable. The inspection includes a checking of the habitat, the security and the monitoring services. If they are happy, the delegation will then recommend to the South African government that a number of rhino are provided.

How is it all financed? Do you pay for a rhino?
No, the rhinos themselves are considered a gift, however we do pay for the transport, vets, helicopters, soldiers and security involved in acquiring them. Reintroducing these animals is a very complicated, time-consuming and expensive operation. One of the benefits of the high-end tourism that Wilderness Safaris is involved in is that I am able to give talks at high-end tourist camps when I need to raise finance. This provides the opportunity to be introduced to wealthy clients, who in turn put me in touch with people involved in affluent foundations that can provide finances to cover the acquisition costs. Essentially, Wilderness is a conservation company that is involved in tourism on the side. Projects such as this are only possible if you participate in high-end tourism. Unfortunately, if you are involved in mass tourism only and are charging medium dollar, you simply won’t have the money to carry out any form of conservation. We regularly receive donations of around US$10,000 from clients and foundations, and that does not happen with any other level of tourism. It is due to generosity such as this that northern Botswana will be one of the most important range states for rhino in Africa by 2025.

And once the rhino are here, how do you protect them from poachers?
For the moment we haven’t had many problems with poachers. There is a large number of soldiers and military helicopter patrols in the area. In addition, I have a network of informers and I wouldn’t be surprised if the government didn’t have one also. Their job is to keep their ears to the ground and to contact me as soon as they hear that anything may be about to happen. It is a matter of mitigation rather than prevention though, as no matter what we do there will be some poaching. So far at least one rhino has been killed; however, the intelligence services caught those involved within 24 hours.

Lastly, what does northern Botswana mean to you?
Northern Botswana is the most beautiful place on Earth and that’s the reason I’ve been here so long. When I first saw the delta about 35 years ago, I thought, “This is it, I’m not going any further.” They’ll have to bury me in the clay here, and I just hope I can leave this place in a better way than it was when I arrived. That’s one of the reasons I’m involved in the programme for the reintroduction of rhino here. What we have is like an Ark, we’re bringing those rhino and other animals to safety, we are bringing them to higher ground.

Stuart Butler travelled to Botswana with SMOKESILVER TRAVEL, a UK-based African tour operator that focuses on small group and individual travel experiences


Map Ives

Map Ives