Tourism body slams Botswana government over decision to build eight luxury lodges in wilderness area. By Oarabile Mosikare in Gaborone.

A staggering 120 billion barrels of black gold are claimed to lie untapped beneath the semi-desert wilderness that straddles the Namibia-Botswana frontier. It’s been heralded as a get-out-of-poverty-quick card for these small, underdeveloped nations. But as exploration licenses begin to be issued, questions are being raised over how much oil really lies under the southern African sands, and what impact trying to find it could have on the wildlife, the half-a-billion safari industry and local farming communities alike. By Britt Collins.

As Botswana's former leader Ian Khama announces plans to sue the state over corruption and terrorism claims, NewsAfrica Magazine asks what lies behind President Masisi’s feud with his predecessor.

At the official opening of the 38th Ordinary Summit of SADC Heads of State and Government in Windhoek in 2018, newly installed Botswana president Mokgweetsi Masisi paid a glowing tribute to his predecessor Ian Khama.

Khama had ruled the diamond-rich country – feted as a rare bastion of peace, political stability and good governance in Africa – since 2008, handing over the reins to his deputy president and political protégé towards the end of his second five-year term.

Addressing the SADC summit for the first time as head of state, Masisi expressed his gratitude to Khama, ‘for his selfless contribution towards the SADC agenda during his tenure as the President of the Republic of Botswana for the last 10 years, particularly, as the Chair of SADC.’

But back home in Gaborone, storm clouds were gathering between Masisi and his former Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) ally – who filed a $.2 million defamation claim against the state in October.

The former president was accused by Masisi’s government of corruption, money laundering and planning to commit acts of terrorism.

It’s said he conspired with South African businesswoman and ambassador to the Pan African Parliament Bridgette Motsepe to siphon more than $10 billion from the country’s coffers.

The government alleged that the pair achieved this with the assistance of former spy Wilhemina Maswabi, codenamed Butterfly.

Maswabi, who is said to have been romantically linked to the country’s former spy chief Isaac Kgosi, was arrested and charged last year for her role in the apparent theft of $10 billion, which the state says has been stashed in foreign accounts, including several South African banks.

However, the South African Reserve Bank has denied knowledge of any transaction being transferred to the country from Botswana, either by Motsepe or anyone else involved.

While Botswana’s Reserve Bank has similarly denied any knowledge of such a large amount of money leaving Botswana, something which is only allowed to happen with their approval.

The case against the former spy is still pending in the Botswana High Court. However, a report by UK-based law firm Omnia Strategy cleared Khama and Motsepe of the allegations.

Omnia, which is led by renowned barrister Cherie Blair – wife of former UK prime minister Tony Blair – said in the report released in August that the allegations against Khama and Bridgette Motsepe were a fabrication.

The investigation by Blair was conducted at the request of Motsepe, who owns the Mmakau Mining firm in South Africa, and is sister to South Africa’s First Lady, Tshepo Ramaphosa.

It concluded: ‘There is not a shred of evidence to support the State’s allegations about Special Unit Accounts and financial impropriety by President Khama, Ambassador Motsepe, Isaac Kgosi, or Butterfly herself.’

Among the accusations against Khama is that he and Motsepe were planning to use the funds to finance acts of terror in the southern African nation, known for years as a bastion of democratic stability and peace.

Some of the jaw-dropping details were revealed in an affidavit by Jako Hubona, the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crimes’ key investigator, opposing Maswabi’s bail.

According to Hubona, who was publicly ‘disowned’ by the unit shortly before we went to print, Khama and the spy chief Kgosi instructed that three ‘special unit accounts’ were opened with the Bank of Botswana for the $10 billion allegedly siphoned of the state.

Hubona said Maswabi was found to have more than $390 million in her nine global personal accounts.

He then went on to implicate Ambassador Motsepe saying she held the purse strings to some of the alleged stolen money.

Hubona said Motsepe and Maswabi were co-signatories for South African bank accounts that were holding some of the stolen money.

Motsepe has admitted to being a long-time friend of Khama.

She has previously been accused of meddling in the leadership race of the ruling BDP party, which has run the country since independence in the 1960s.

The businesswoman was also reportedly financing a campaign for Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, who was endorsed by Khama and running against Masisi for the BDP party presidential position ahead of last year’s general election.

But the report by Blair pours cold water over these allegations.

‘Tellingly, we have unraveled the inconsistencies, errors and fabrications within a matter of weeks, some within days, and there was no magic to our efforts,’ Blair stated.

‘Clearly, any remotely competent or properly motivated prosecutor should have quickly seen such flimsy evidence for what it was, and it should never have been put before the court. Had these allegations been properly investigated, those responsible would have realised that this was a case which any reasonable and fair-minded prosecutor would have abandoned for lack of credible evidence.’

The report concluded that it was ‘possible’ that the author of the affidavit had included intentional ‘inconsistencies’ to ‘frustrate a proper analysis of the allegations.’

Yet although the investigation by Blair clears Khama, Ambassador Motsepe and the others implicated by the state, the incident has overshadowed the former president’s reputation as a stickler for discipline and a crusader against corruption.

Fighting back, Khama questioned his former deputy’s attack on him, which he dubbed ‘foolishness, victimisation and political intolerance’.

President Masisi may have been hand-picked by Khama as his successor, but the new president’s approach has been anything but one of a continuity. In one of the first major shocks of his presidency, Masisi rocked Botswana’s political establishment and tourism sector – which accounts for 12 per cent of GDP – by scrapping the country’s complete hunting ban on elephants.

The new president also announced that he intended to sell Botswana’s stockpiled ivory – a move that caused a huge global surge in elephant poaching when it was last done in 2008.

Masisi’s about turn in policy didn’t end with the elephant issue, which was very close to his predecessor’s heart (Khama consistently lobbied against any global relaxation of ivory sales and famously told poachers they would be sent home in body bags if caught).

He also struck right at the heart of the Khama family dynasty. He demoted Khama’s brother Tshekedi from his position as minister of tourism and dumped him in the relatively low rank of youth and sport minister.

Tshekedi had been tipped as Masisi’s possible future deputy.

And, in a highly symbolic move, Masisi replaced Khama’s former intelligence chief Isaac Kgosi, with Peter Magosi, who had been fired by Khama.

The schism between the two Botswanan presidents, meanwhile, led to Khama withdrawing his support for his successor in last year’s elections. He subsequently left the party – founded by his father, Botswana’s first president Sir Seretse Khama – and formed the opposition Botswana Patriotic Front.

But while the Khama-Masisi fallout may herald the start of a more dog-eat-dog political era in a country once revered for its peaceful democracy.

The jury's out on how the incident will affect relations with the country’s main tradition partner and ally South Africa, given 14 of its banks, not to mention the president’s own sister-in-law, have been thrown on the bonfire during Masisi’s squabble with his mentor.

The deaths of around 350 elephants in Botswana’s swampy Okavango Delta region remain a mystery almost six months after large groups of the giant mammals started being found dead with their ivory still intact.

On September 21, scientists reported to the public that cyanobacterial neurotoxic – a water-based toxin also known as blue-green algae – was the cause of deaths, with the delay in diagnosis being blamed on the Covid-19 outbreak and subsequent lockdown hampering the investigation.

But it is not clear why the algae has suddenly become a problem in the delta.

Before September 21, suspicions were raised that the giant mammals were being deliberately poisoned in a country that has raised concern about its growing population of elephants and the increasing problem of human-wildlife conflict.

Botswana is home to the world’s largest elephant population, with around 130,000 individuals.

Under President Mokgweetsi Masisi, Botswana lifted the five-year trophy hunting ban introduced by former president Ian Khama, and auctioned off hunting packages in order to control the alleged over-population of elephants. (The hunting season coincided with the mysterious deaths of elephants in the Okavango Delta.)

After elephant carcasses were spotted dotting the floodplains, a decision was taken following a ‘high level meeting’ by several ministries to dispatch a multi-disciplinary team comprising veterinary epidemiologists, pathologists and a biologist to the affected area.

Samples were sent to laboratories in Canada, the US, South Africa and Zimbabwe, and a lot of theories were eliminated, including deliberate poisoning and the presence of anthrax in the soil.

Principal veterinary officer from the department of wildlife and national parks Dr Mmadi Reuben said they established that scavengers like vultures and hyenas who had possibly been feasting on carcasses later showed ‘clear signs of neurological symptoms’.  

While cyanobacterial neurotoxic has been found to be the killer toxin, Reuben said there were still other questions remaining to be answered including: why only elephants were affected and why only those in specific areas.

Climate change has been cited by scientists as one of the possible causes for the algae growth.

Heat is a key driver in the growth of cyanobacterial blooms, and water temperatures in southern Africa are rising at twice the global average.

Almost 10 per cent of Africa’s economy relies on the tourism industry, which was shuttered by Covid-19 restrictions. But, as travel editor and TV tourism expert Jill Starley-Grainger reports, for the millions employed by the safari industry, there is confidence that the good times – and the tourists – will return. 

In a typical year, thousands of tourists visit Africa to spot lions, zebras and elephants – and to lounge on the continent’s white-sand beaches.

It’s a vitally important industry that employs 25 million people directly or indirectly, including a large number in well-paying jobs, such as rangers and guides.

But Africa’s safari industry has been particularly badly hit by the coronavirus restrictions, with the impact devastating businesses, communities and conservation efforts alike.

Africa as a whole has suffered a 57 per cent loss in international arrivals, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, and safari business are particularly reliant on an international clientele, most of whom have been unable to travel to Africa since March.

This has led to a significant reduction in customers and the temporary – and potentially permanent – closure of many companies reliant on safari tourism.

A recent survey by found that safari tour operators have seen bookings decrease by three quarters or more over the last four months, compared to the same time last year.

And many have received no customers or bookings at all.

The human cost:

Travel operator Aardvark Safaris, which works with lodges throughout Africa, has seen the devastating human impact of this sudden loss of tourists.

‘We support over 1,000 camps and lodges throughout sub-Saharan Africa,’ said co-owner Alice Gully.

‘And they are all looking at a year with limited or no income. Not only does this affect jobs, but it affects the dependants on these employees.

In Kenya, for example, seven million people are employed in tourism - a third of the country’s workforce - and they each have approximately seven dependants.’

In Botswana, Desert & Delta Safaris managed to maintain all of its staff, albeit on reduced incomes, said Andrew Flat, Desert & Delta Safaris’ marketing manager.

‘High-value, low-volume destinations like Botswana have faced incalculable losses. Botswana is roughly the size of France, but with a population of just over two million people, and around 40 per cent of the country consists of protected parks and reserves.’

With so few visitors to such a vast region, even a small dip in numbers can have devastating consequences for communities.

Some safari businesses have managed to fare a little better, such as Go Places Africa DMC.

It arranges safaris in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Ethiopia, and has managed to maintain all staff.

'Management and directors took salary cuts to make sure that we were able to pay our staff without any cuts as they rely on their salaries for their livelihood, and some of them are the main bread earners in their families. We also set up internet services for our staff in their homes to ensure regular communication virtually with them as well as with our clients.’

In South Africa, meanwhile, hotels across the country have had virtually no income since March.

Royal Malewane was effectively closed for five months with zero revenue,’ said Ross Bowers, marketing manager of the luxury lodge in South Africa’s Greater Kruger National Park.

'The pandemic has been devastating for our industry, for our staff and for their many dependents. Government support for the industry has been extremely limited, but we fought hard to keep everyone employed.

He added: ‘Since we reopened, we have had very limited local business. We need international visitors to return as soon as possible. Recovery for the safari industry will be extremely slow, but we are optimistic that safaris, nature and wildlife will be highly sought after post-Covid experiences.’

Conservation crisis:

The economic impact of the lockdowns is significant for conservation, too, with some reporting an increase in poaching activity.

‘With no game drives, there are fewer eyes on the ground to watch out for poachers,’ said Gully of Aardvark Safaris.

This is a real concern throughout the industry, added Luke Bailes, founder and executive chairman of Singita, which has 15 luxury eco-lodges in Rwanda, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

‘If ecotourism stops funding the conservation work of non-profit conservation partners, the likelihood of illegal hunting and poaching increases,’ explained the Anglo-Kenyan businessman, whose family have been involved in the Kenyan safari industry since the 1920s.

'Laid-off workers could turn to poaching to make ends meet, and if anti-poaching efforts are not maintained, traffickers have easier access to the animals and will simply stockpile until they can transport to their end markets.’

Some governments have taken heed of the impact on their wildlife and landscapes, and have put plans in place to try to increase protection in some areas.

In South Africa, the government, conservation organisations and local communities recently announced a plan to create protection areas to safeguard rhinos from poachers.

But the funds available for this are limited, and until international visitors return in significant numbers, it’s likely that both the landscapes and the animals that conservation projects help will suffer.

Future bookings:

While some African countries have recently started allowing international visitors, more openings are planned in the coming months.

This has helped a little for 2020, but since much of Europe and North America – the two major markets for Africa’s wildlife experiences – are still in various forms of lockdown, most safari businesses are pinning their hopes on 2021.

Roar Africa, a luxury specialist operating in 13 countries in southern and eastern Africa, has seen a massive profit hit this year, but does have some bookings for next year.

‘We had over 300 trips booked for 2020, and have had to move 80 per cent of them,’ said Deborah Calmeyer, Roar Africa’s CEO and founder.

‘With the recent reopening of Kenya and Rwanda, we have seen more enquiries for travel to these destinations, but we have a long way to go to get to pre-Covid levels of tourism.’

‘We have seen a marked increase in enquiries since restrictions began to lift,’ noted Toby Pheasant, founder of Bonamy Travel, which operates in 15 countries in Africa.

‘There has been an increase of 320 per cent [in enquiries]. But while we would normally expect to convert between 60 and 70 per cent of these, [the number that result in sales] is significantly lower than we would expect, at around 10 per cent.’

It seems many customers are dreaming and planning, but still worried about the pandemic and travel restrictions, so less inclined to make a booking.

But some of the people who missed out on their 2020 safari trip are securing bookings early for next year.

African Bush Camps, which runs 15 luxury camps in Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe, has recently seen a noticeable increase in reservations, particularly for 2021, said its CEO and founder, Beks Ndlovu.

‘Bookings were up 400 per cent in mid-August for 2021 in comparison to 2019 bookings.’

This increase is no doubt helped by the company’s new policy of a 100 per cent refundable deposit – a clever strategy to ensure guests know they won’t be out of pocket if the crisis affects their travel plans.

South African tour operator Unearth Experience has seen a similar trend in forward bookings for its safari trips, which it arranges to destinations throughout Africa.

‘The majority of our clientele impacted by Covid-19 restrictions have opted to postpone their travel plans versus cancelling their trips.

This has allowed us to have a strong forward book for 2021,’ said Rory James Loader, managing director.

Nobody knows how the pandemic will play out, but many safari businesses are doing their best to prepare, and there are hope that many will be able to adapt to ensure the future of the industry.

‘Africa is tough, its people and wildlife are resilient,’ opined Flatt of Desert & Delta Safaris.

‘The silver lining is that we are still here, ready and waiting to welcome guests back to our lodges, and ready to prove that, post-pandemic, nothing beats the social distancing a Botswana safari offers.’