By Solomon Tjinyeka for INK 24
Botswana’s Ministry of Environment, Natural Resource Conservation and Tourism has defied a recommendation of the Chobe National Park management plan and invited local companies with tourism licenses to bid to build eight new lodges in the park’s riverfront area.
The management plan conducted last year by consultants recommended that ‘no new lodges’ should be built in Chobe National Park, the country’s second-largest and among its most visited, in its northwest on the border with Namibia.
Conservationists say the country’s premier protected area, that lays the golden eggs of Botswana’s tourism, is now under threat from the eight 500-bed lodges planned along the banks of the Chobe River, close to the tourist gateway town of Kasane.
In an interview with INK24, Professor of Tourism Studies at Okavango Research Institute (ORI), Joseph Mbaiwa, highlighted that the consultants submitted a management plan last year which was accepted and signed off by Botswana’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks and presented to the district authorities in 2021.
Mbaiwa added that the management plan said ‘no new lodges in Chobe National Park,’ and emphasized the need to protect the park from new developments so that it could support tourism development in the surrounding forest reserves and Wildlife Management Areas.
“The plan emphasized that ‘you don’t kill the goose that lays golden eggs’,” Mbaiwa stressed. The Professor stated that research conducted by ORI also suggested that no further development should occur, as the Chobe River Front is over-traded, and that further congestion could compromise visitation. It also stated that the move would damage business in Kasane, the closest town, which thrives on tourism visits to the National Park.
“We need to diversify tourism offerings away from the river,”’ Mbaiwa implored.
He stressed that he is not sure of the government’s motive to award the sites, other than talking about citizen empowerment.
“My advice is that we should not undertake a potential environmentally damaging activity in the name of citizen empowerment, as we will be committing an offense where tourism kills tourism.
“Killing the goose that lays the golden eggs and our future generations will never forgive us for the environmental disaster we may have caused,” Mbaiwa warned.
Botswana Guides Association (BOGA) also warned against environmental catastrophe likely to be committed should the government go ahead with its decision to build the lodges at the Chobe River Front.
The Chairman of BOGA, Kenson Kgaga, expressed shock at the proposed lodges’ sites at the National Park, saying the government’s motives are unclear. Kgaga stated that the association has written a letter to the chairman of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Environment to intervene in the matter.
He stated that Chobe River Front is already congested and cannot cater for over 500 beds. Kgaga highlighted that the park is a center of attraction for game viewing due to its scenic beauty and animal population which attracts tourists from around the world to Botswana.
He added that the demarcated area for the lodges is a small section of the park that is used by all tour operators and private individuals, hence environment sustainability is compromised.
BOGA fears that the country’s second largest park, which has the greatest concentration of game on the African continent, amongst them being elephants, is under threat and its unique biodiversity is likely to be compromised due to the looming construction of lodges.
Kgaga said that once lodges have been built Serondela area will be congested, denying other tour operators such as mobile safaris access to Chobe River Front for game drives and boat cruises.
He stressed that the proposed tourism sites contradict the Chobe National Park decongestion strategy, which has been operational for a long time due to congestion at the riverfront.
Kgaga said that although some members of the association might be interested in bidding for the proposed tourism sites, the association does not support the government’s decision. They have recommended that the proposed sites should be relocated up to dry areas about 1.5 kilometers towards the tarmacked road, as this will allow the riverfront area to be used for game viewing, boat cruising and other activities by all tour operators.
A statement from the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resource Conservation and Tourism issued recently states that the allocation of the sites forms part of the proposed projects within the Chobe National Park Management Plan 2021 to 2026, which are meant to increase the socio-economic benefits that the park offers to Batswana.
It further states that a total of 220 registered participants attended the site visit and that tender evaluation is still ongoing and expected to be finalized by June 2022.
The Ministry assured the public that measures will be taken to maintain the integrity of the ecological system of the park whilst ensuring great citizen empowerment and economic benefit through local participation in the tourism industry.
‘This will allow Botswana’s people to benefit from their natural resources and diversify economic benefit with the ultimate goal of improving their livelihood through tourism,’ reads the statement.
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 organization Space for Giants, it aims to expand the reach of conservation and environmental journalism in Africa, and bring more African voices into the international conservation debate. Read the original story here.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.