No sign of an elephant in all of two minutes, a tourist teased a guide at Botswana’s Chobe National Park, home to tens of thousands of elephants. A minute later, their vehicle passed a row of shrubs and elephants loomed ahead.
Such joking wouldn’t be possible in many other parts of Africa, where ivory poaching — illegally killing elephants for their ivory tusks — is on the rise. Poachers killed more than 20,000 elephants in 2013, conservationists say. The tusks are usually sold to make valuable artwork and jewelry.
Botswana is a rare bright spot, with estimates of its elephant population as high as 200,000. The southern African country’s stable government and small human population make it an elephant haven, though pressure on habitats and conflict with humans are growing concerns.
“Peace and conservation success go hand in hand,” said Rudi van Aarde, a South African conservationist.
In all of Africa, there are about 420,000 to 650,000 elephants, according to some estimates.
Elephants roam widely outside conservation areas in Botswana, which has just 2 million people; in contrast, Kenya, where poaching is a problem, has almost as much territory as Botswana with about 35,000 elephants and 45 million people.
Elephants benefit from Botswana’s ban on trophy hunting on state land.
Botswana says its elephant population is growing at 5 percent a year. Officials have put up fences to keep elephants away from villages and used chili peppers to protect crops from these “intelligent creatures,” said Cyril Taolo, of the country’s wildlife and national parks department.
“Elephants being elephants, they quickly find their way around some of these things,” Taolo said.
Botswana’s president said in December that his government had deployed all its security forces to help guard against poachers.
But some poachers sneak across borders. In June, a Zambian poacher was killed in a gunfight with rangers in Chobe park in northern Botswana.
About 50 elephants have been poached annually in recent years in Botswana, according to Taolo.
Poaching numbers are far higher elsewhere in Africa. Poachers killed about 70 elephants in two months at Garamba National Park in Congo, the park director said in June.
In Chobe park, elephants by the dozens recently looked for food close to the river. Outside the park, a herd of elephants leisurely crossed a road near a town, seemingly not bothered by passing cars.
Elephants Without Borders, a Botswana-based group, is leading what it says is the biggest continent-wide, aerial count of elephants since the 1970s. The goal is to use the data to better organize conservation efforts across Africa, said Mike Chase, the group’s director.
Taolo said Botswana recognizes that elephants are a global heritage and need international support: “Protecting those elephants comes at a real cost.”