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Conservationists raise concerns over proposal for new lodges in Chobe National Park

The Independent logo The Independent 14/04/2022 Thobo Motlhoka
a large gray elephant standing on a lush green forest: The elephants, weighing over 25 tonnes in total, will be flown from Kent to Kenya - Getty Images © Getty The elephants, weighing over 25 tonnes in total, will be flown from Kent to Kenya - Getty Images

The decision to give the green light to 11 new safari camps inside Botswana’s Chobe National Park has raised concerns about whether or not personal interests have prevailed over environmental concerns.

It has also raised more questions about the government’s commitment to wildlife conservation.

In 2018, under Botswana’s previous administration, the Department of Environmental Affairs turned down a proposal to set up an elephant orphan sanctuary in the Chobe National Park, on account of environmental consideration. It was also under the same administration that the government turned down a request by Botswana’s telecommunications regulator to erect a communications tower, citing environmental concerns.

Now conservationists and locals benefiting from the park’s tourist activities are up in arms over the proposed developments that will likely have devastating effects on the region’s diverse ecosystem.

Chobe National Park, in Botswana’s far north, is considered one of the best wildlife parks in the region, because of its biodiversity which has remained largely untouched.

It has become a true wildlife paradise that has mesmerized tourists from across the globe. It is extremely lush because of the many waterways and the main Chobe River which flows through the park and attracts countless animal species.

Perched on the border between Botswana and Namibia, the Park is accessible by boat and driving safaris from dawn until dusk, providing excellent photographic experiences.

Rampant poaching on the Namibian side has turned Chobe into a safe haven for wildlife.

Movement within the park is strictly prohibited after 6pm. That is however about to change following the decision by the government to publish an ‘Expression of Interest’ calling for safari companies to bid for the sites.

“The development of the proposed magnitude will put untold pressure on the environment and biodiversity of our national jewel that is Chobe National Park. It will also have dire socio-economic impacts on existing businesses, and individuals, already battling a growing market discontent of the over-crowded Chobe experience,” reads a petition by a concerned pressure group.

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“The proposal not only has potential to irrevocably downgrade an already stressed tourism product, but could permanently tarnish the country’s hard-earned conservation reputation, which would quickly ripple beyond Chobe to the Okavango and beyond.”

The petition says any action or development that threatens the existence of the Park must be subject to a thorough and independent Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) by a qualified entity with no ties to any concerned parties.

However, speaking in Parliament this week, the Minister of Wildlife and Tourism, Philda Kereng, said the Ministry was allocating sites without requiring EIAs with the aim to fast-track initiatives geared towards allocation of land in Botswana, and ultimately ensuring that Botswana’s people have access to land.

This statement was in response to area Member of Parliament, Dumelang Saleshando, who questioned the motive behind the government’s decision. The petition says the decision comes in spite of the USAID-funded 2020 Chobe National Park Management Plan Review, which concluded that there should be no more lodges in the Park.

The Minister did not dispute this fact, stating, “The government developed the Management Plan with support from USAID.In March 2021, the USAID-funded consultants submitted the technical document to the Department of Wildlife and National Parks. Following this, my

Ministry, through the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, consulted further within the Government and revised the technical document to align it with the policy direction provided by the current Government.”

The petitioners say wildlife corridors will be impinged and human-wildlife conflict will increase, necessitating mitigation efforts like erecting fences.

“Wildlife behavior will be negatively affected, leading to increases in dangerous encounters. The loss of up to 8km (5 miles) of wildlife-viewing roads (fenced off lodge sites), and a further 8km of interrupted wildlife corridors, in a park with an already limited road network, will further degrade the tourists’ wildlife experience that is already under severe crowding pressure.”

The impact of increasing an already high traffic volume by what is estimated to be a minimum of 50 game viewing vehicles, will likely have devastating effects to the quality of the tourist experience and will change wildlife behavior and distribution, the Petitioners say.

“It is our opinion that no amount of mitigating measures can be undertaken to offset the disastrous impact that one riverfront lodge would have on the Park.”

The Petitioners say as the sites are bounded by the main road to the south, and annually flooded plains to the north, expansion can only occur laterally east and west, consuming more river frontage and exacerbating the degradation of the ecosystem.

They also question the process by which the public was made aware of the proposed development saying it was anything but transparent.

“The proposal was ‘flashed’ up on the government website and quickly removed,” the Petitioners wrote. “The rushed time frame offered on that brief public notification to participate in the Expression of Interest was unrealistic and provides ample speculation to the legality and inclusiveness of the process. It begs the question, had select participants already been established or offered the chance to tender before the all-too-brief public notice was made?”,

This article is reproduced here as part of the African Conservation Journalism Programme, funded in Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe by USAID’s VukaNow: Activity. Implemented by the international conservation organisation Space for Giants, it aims to expand the reach of conservation and environmental journalism in Africa, and bring more African voices into the international. Read the original story here.

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