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Wildlife Corridors Under Threat: Botswana’s WMAs

Gazelle Ecosolutions

3 min read

Picture of a zebra
Courtesy of Dr. Kelley Crews & Texas Digital Landscapes Lab

A stark contrast to most of post-colonial Sub-saharan Africa, Botswana would be one of few nations to benefit from its own natural resources, namely Diamonds and a large cattle industry serving as an economic backbone for most of the agrarian country. Post-Covid, the cattle industry is now the second largest contributor to Botswana’s GDP due to a significant drop in eco-tourism, a critical income stream for most populations in protected wildlife areas. A growing agriculture lobby and socioeconomic pressures are reversing decades of conservation efforts re-zoning once pristine ecosystems into commercial ranches.

The Kalahari, a semi-arid grassland savannah ecosystem covers most of Botswana and is home to two of the world’s largest national parks: the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) and Kalahari Transfrontier National Park (KTNP). Home to millions of animals including Wildebeest, Springbok, Kudu, Gemsbok, and endangered predators such as Lions and Cheetahs the national parks provide vast stretches of land without human activity. However, a new challenge emerges- seasonal migrations between dry and wet seasons as many species move between the Kalahari and Okavango Delta to the north in search of food and water. In order to account for regional migrations and create a wildlife buffer between national parks and human settlements the landmark 1986 Wildlife Conservation Policy would establish Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) across 22% of Botswana’s land area. The WMAs would serve as protected corridors between the CKGR and KTNP with administration being deferred to local communities entitled to apply for annual hunting quotas to support tourism activities on the land.

Limited income streams and restrictions on commercial development & agriculture within WMAs have created friction within communities seeking to convert their land use designation. Compounded by a growing agriculture lobby, the domestic political pressure has begun to take a toll on WMAs. Most recently in 2014 the government would authorize the single largest change to WMA boundaries since 1986 affecting GH10, GH11, SO2, and KW6 covering over 826,000 hectares of grassland. In the following years almost all rezoned areas would be converted into communal grazing land, ranches, and commercial developments. The expansion of private livestock has in many cases decimated otherwise untouched natural reserves notably affecting perennial grass cover and driving bush encroachment. As a result of poor grazing practices and a lack of oversight, the productivity of overgrazed pastures reduces over time resulting in long-term desertification and reduced grass cover. Beyond a reduction in utility value for ranchers, the land’s reduced capacity to naturally sequester carbon is negatively impacts carbon sinks in the region.

To contextualize the issue in a broader sense, grassland ecosystems cover roughly 40% of the Earth’s surface, account for 15% of global soil carbon and are home to nearly a third of the global population. Although illicit logging and agricultural activities in tropical rainforests pose serious ecological issues, ecosystem conversion in Africa’s savannah grasslands goes largely unnoticed posing a serious threat to livelihoods while reducing wildlife populations. A 2019 aerial survey by Dr. Derek Keeping found large reductions in wildlife densities in affected WMAs within the last 10 years. Specifically, 3,900 large browsers & grazers in addition to 50 large carnivores faced consumption and displacement in the last round of re-zoning. Generally speaking, Botswana’s WMAs are subject to change at any time due to the Wildlife Conservation and National Parks Act of 1992. With continued economic & political pressures parliament in the upcoming session is slated to propose added measures to re-zone areas in and near KD15, one of the largest WMAs in the Kgalagadi South District creating a continual loop of re-classification, private sector encroachment, and ecological degradation leaving the very communities which rely on the land at the short-end of the stick in the long run.

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