In northern Botswana, the Linyanti river’s proximity to Namibia’s Caprivi Strip — a thin finger-like stretch of the country just 30 kilometers (18 miles) wide in parts — makes it an ideal target for gangs of poachers.
“Poachers can act with impunity here, because there is nothing blocking their movements,” explains Chase. “These borders are open to wildlife, and within a matter of minutes [they] can be in three different countries.”
He looks through a neat record of GPS coordinates recorded in a leather bound notebook, listing possible elephant carcasses spotted by commercial pilots flying over the area.
Their corpses rot in the dry river grass down below. One bull’s trunk has been hacked off and placed nearby — the poachers’ signature.
The killers often don’t even wait until the elephant is dead before they begin their ugly butchery.
The grotesque scene is repeated again and again across Africa’s savannahs.
“I’ve been asked if I’m optimistic or pessimistic about the future of Africa’s elephants, and on days like today, I feel that we are failing the elephants,” says Chase.
AN UNCONVENTIONAL WAR
Botswana is one of the last strongholds of savannah elephants. Along with South Africa and Zimbabwe, it accounts for more than 60% of all elephants tallied in the Great Elephant Census.
To protect the country’s wildlife from poachers, the Botswana Defense Force (BDF) has deployed an infantry battalion of specially-trained soldiers; more than 700 are stationed across 40 bases in the far north.
In an immaculate camp on the banks of the Linyanti, a lieutenant lays out the morning’s foot patrol on the detailed operations map.
The soldiers are armed with a controversial shoot-to-kill policy for poachers, but this is an unconventional war.
“There is no clearly identified enemy,” explains Brigadier Joseph Seelo. “The enemy can be everybody, an enemy could be someone we are living with on a daily basis.”
Though poachers are often foreigners, Seelo says their deadly work is supported by locals, who help coordinate the teams, bury water and food, and mark the spots with GPS tags.
And every poaching team has at least one or two shooters; BDF officers say they’re often ex-Zambian special forces, equipped with high caliber weapons.
But many poachers across Africa are less sophisticated, emptying out the entire magazine of an AK-47 to pierce an elephant’s tough hide, using poison-tipped spears, spiked traps and snares, or poisoning water holes.
In Angola, poachers even use grenades and mortars left over from the war to kill the animals.
“They will use anything that has the potential to inflict serious harm or kill an animal,” says Chase. “This is a dismal fate.”
“Who are we to sentence this animal to the verge of extinction using the most inhumane and cruel means?”
Despite the poachers’ desire to make a quick buck, elephants are actually far more valuable alive than dead.
Every elephant killed will earn a poacher just a few hundred dollars — the overwhelming majority of the tens of thousands of dollars its ivory fetches on the black market go to middlemen and organized crime gangs.
By contrast, a live elephant can earn more than a million dollars for communities involved in eco-tourism, according to a report
from The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.
FACING INCALCULABLE ODDS
Larry Patterson carefully draws 14 milligrams of Thianil into a syringe, then inserts it into a long-range dart.
Even a tiny drop of the morphine derivative can kill a human, so the antidote is always close by.
Moments after being shot with the drug-tipped dart by the semi-retired veterinarian, a bull elephant snores loudly.
“These are emblematic creatures of the African continent, they are symbols of Africa, symbols of freedom,” says Chase.
“These animals are facing incalculable odds. It’s not just poaching, it’s habitat loss, human elephant conflict, climate change. These are issues confronting us as well — they’re emblematic of the struggle for survival.”
“They are our living dinosaurs, the romance of a bygone era, and if we can’t conserve the African elephants, I’m fearful to think about the fate of rest of Africa’s wildlife.”
Chase and Patterson thread a tracking collar around the animal’s massive neck, fixing it with four bolts and a lead ballast.
We have to work quickly; the bull can’t support his six-ton weight in the sedated position for long.
Before it wakes, Chase asks us to name the elephants.
We call him Promise, for the hope — the promise, however faint — that this creature’s future can be secured.