Twenty five years ago the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) was called on to execute a novel mission: to push back a surge in poaching that had reached critical levels. It was the severe drop in elephant numbers that had been so alarming, and in response the BDF conducted an anti-poaching strategy guided by the principles of a low-intensity counter-insurgency campaign.
The decision to use the BDF sprang from their then deputy commander and now current president, the Sandhurst-educated Major-General Ian Khama, a keen conservationist who had become exasperated at the ineffectiveness of the police and the Department of Wildlife in tackling the deepening crisis.
However, the involvement of the armed forces in conservation efforts was controversial given that it provided the BDF with an explicit internal security mandate; furthermore some Botswanan politicians argued that the anti-poaching move merely pandered to the privileged concerns of Westerners which they saw as perpetuating a colonialist mentality.
The BDF began its first anti-poaching operations in northern Botswana in October 1987 by deploying a specialized commando squadron to hunt down the poaching gangs who numbered up to thirty and were often skilled at bush-craft and carried heavy-calibre automatic weapons.
The BDF counter-poaching strategy used small-unit foot patrols that included skilled trackers from Botswana’s hunter-gatherer society backed up by rapid-reaction, helicopter-borne forces: within months dozens of poachers had been killed or captured, and the amount of poaching began to fall off dramatically.
The Botswanan anti-poaching effort was characterized by good organization and troops that were well-trained and by the mid-1990s the operations were expanded towards the country’s southern and western borders, with up to 10 per cent of the BDF – some 800 troops – being committed to the operation.
By 2004 the number permanently engaged on anti-poaching duties stabilized at around 300-400 personnel, and by this stage the operation had developed a successful intelligence network to track down the gangs, along with effective inter-agency cooperation involving the police and other arms of the bureaucracy. Jasper Humphreys, The Marjan Centre.