A flock of white-faced whistling ducks flew over us as we stopped at what would be our home for the next eight days. A magical spot on the western edge of Botswana’s Okavango Delta, we were situated with an inspiring view of the Thaoge River, deep in the heart of a village called Habu.
With our partner Botswana Predator Conservation Trust, our role here was to train 16 individuals who would be known as the Habu Community Scouts. Through this unique community-based conservation program, these men and women, having completed a rigorous selection process, will lead by example as the first community-led game scouts within the western delta region.
About 45 minutes from our temporary home in the bush, each morning’s drive to the Habu Elephant Development Trust, where training was held for the week, was filled with excitement. Gazing at countless numbers of elephants, impalas, kudu, and zebras along the way was a true reminder of how important the 16 trainees will be for Habu. With the community’s main goal at heart—benefitting from ecotourism through protecting wildlife—training was off to a flying start!
The first few days of training were intense. Xia Stevens put the scouts through their paces as she coached them on using the Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART) technology that they’ll use to collect data on local wildlife and its threats during patrols. The scouts were extremely receptive and it was quickly apparent that we were looking at 16 individuals with rare enthusiasm and drive. Sooner than expected, the dedicated men and women and were out in the field undergoing practical examples handed down by Xia.
With SMART devices in hand, the anti-poaching training began. The Habu Community Scouts are unique because their anti-poaching and wildlife monitoring directive does not have the mandate to apprehend transgressors. That means, for example, if one of the scouts comes across a community member setting snares or selling bushmeat, they won’t be arresting them.
Instead, the Habu unit will adopt what’s termed as a “softer” approach. The scouts’ first objective is to win over the trust of the community, one person at a time, and explain why the wider benefits of protecting the area’s wildlife are much greater than hunting for personal needs. They’re trained to approach transgressors and discuss that what they’re doing is counterproductive to what the majority of the community envisions as Habu’s end goal—ecotourism. Simultaneously, as the eyes and ears on the ground, the Habu Community Scouts will also monitor and record wildlife activities and information to identify repeat offenders who obstruct the village’s conservation and economic objectives.
As a cattle-dependent community, Habu is home to people with amazing knowledge of the bush who are comfortable living amongst wildlife, from impalas and zebras to leopards and lions. There’s no question that the Habu Community Scouts, coming from an array of backgrounds including known poachers within the village and accomplished cattle herders, collectively possess a knowledge and skillset that will put wrongdoers on edge. These 16 men and women have identified an important niche for their skills, and are realizing that by representing their village in uniform, there is in fact hope for Habu and its wildlife.
Heading back to our little piece of Habu paradise on our final night of training, Xia and I reflected proudly on the past week and getting to know the devoted people pledging to serve. Without a doubt, the Habu Community Scouts have the drive, ability, and now the tools to be the difference they want to see in their village.
As the dust slowly settled and the setting sun began to make way for the moon, I watched in awe as a massive herd of elephants wandered down for a well-deserved drink only meters from our camp. The constant roar of a lion colored the darkness of this last night, just a stone’s throw away, reminding the community and ourselves who the true guardian of Habu is.